Beef used to be a glamorous food. When you wanted to impress guests, you served steak. And when you went to a grand restaurant, you'd have your steak with a bearnaise sauce. Nowadays, though, steak is just steak. We are suspicious of its fat and cholesterol, unimpressed by its presence on the menu, and much more likely to look elsewhere for glamor.
For a while that meant shrimp or lobster, then veal, next lamb. Nowadays duck is the main dish that signals the dinner as a fancy one, something special you wouldn't be likely to have at home for a weekday family dinner.
Restaurants typically used to serve duck one of two ways: Peking style or, if it was a French restaurant, with orange sauce. And they served the entire half, bone and all. Now they are likely to offer just the boned breast, cooked raw and sliced, instead of the roasted half. Sometimes we might get the legs -- being left over from somebody else having the breast. And the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., has been known to serve the skin alone as an hors d'oeuvre, crisped in the oven and called Quackers; while the Commissary in Philadelphia once served an appetizer of the skin rolled in Chinese pancakes as in Peking Duck.
Duck is every bit as fashionable this year in France, where at six restaurants in a row I found it the most highly touted specialty. There, too, duck a l'orange has been eclipsed by a great variety of preparations. In Paris the most famous duck dish is the pressed duck at La Tour d'Argent, where each one is numbered to tally its place in the restaurant's history.
But Michel Rostang, at the restaurant named after him, also specializes in this extraordinary preparation, in which the carcass of a freshly killed and nearly raw duck is pressed in a great silver contraption to extract the blood, which is heated tableside into a sauce with the fatted liver, cooking juices, wine and pepper; the dense, dark elixir is spooned over the slices of breast. Rostang follows it with a salad of the leg meat diced and crisped, tossed with chicory and croutons.
Elsewhere in Paris, one restaurant had wild duck, another sauced it with green peppercorns and cream. As for the most inventive recipes, it was no surprise that they were at two of Europe's most extraordinary culinary temples, Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, and Lucas Carton in Paris. While I will always remember foremost Girardet's duck with dark, intense red wine sauce, which I tasted years ago, this time my duck was a confit -- cooked and preserved in its own fat -- heated until crisp and moistened with a beige sauce flavored with lemon zest. The preserving process had turned the texture nearly to butter and mellowed the flavor, and the lemon lightly cut the richness.
The most extraordinary duck, though, was Canard Apicius, devised by Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton. First the whole duck is poached, so that the meat is moist and tender. Then the breast is coated in honey seasoned with cumin, cardamom, caraway and pepper, a fragrant Middle Eastern set of flavors. In further cooking, the coating caramelizes into a dark, hard candy crunch. And the trick is to carve through that armor to create smooth breast slices, each with an aromatic candied rim.
On home ground I can recall ducks wonderful and ducks terrible, and a particularly delicious avant-garde duck I had at Under the Blue Moon in Philadelphia. It was perhaps a decade ago -- when beef hadn't yet lost its throne -- and it was as crisp as we Americans like it, as fat-free as we demand it, an American invention but savory from Chinese seasonings. Devised by chef Donald Prentis, it was one of a changing variety of duck dishes the menu calls Donald's Duck.
For this one he roasted the duck with garlic, salt and pepper, let it dry for a day -- in the outdoor air on a chilly day or in the walk-in box near the fan otherwise -- then halved and dipped it in soy sauce, vinegar, cayenne, Chinese five-spice powder and cornstarch mixed to the consistency of heavy cream. The duck was left to dry further, then deep-fried for a short time until crisp and hot. The method has evolved over the years, and the dipping sauce he serves at the table varies, these days a sweet-sour sauce. Prentis also concocts a duck with pomegranate and walnut sauce, reminiscent of the Persian braised duck dish, fesenjan.
And we have more to discover. Smoked duck Chinese style -- cooked, then smoked in a foil-lined pot over tea leaves or brown sugar. Or smoked French style, the raw boned breast seasoned and smoked on the stove over wood chips or tea and brown sugar. Not to forget Hungarian roast duck. And galantine of duck. Endless ducks. Now a fashion, but still a perennial classic.
College students have better course offerings than ever, at least in the dining halls. The University of Illinois serves grilled quail, Maine lobster, wild rice, asparagus with hollandaise and homemade mango sherbet in its once-a-week restaurant called Reservations Only. Last fall there was a clambake with 10,000 live lobsters cooked in seaweed. This semester pizza stones are being installed for state-of-the-art pizzas with topping such as duck with apples.
For those students who don't have duck pizza on their menus, parents should know about Exam Survival Kits. These food packages include everything from tea bags and trail mix to cocoa and Tootsie Pops, sent to arrive during your child's exams, costing from $16 to $30 (my son raved about the $16 Examprin package in a gallon-size aspirin-ish bottle, but I still haven't heard whether it improved his grades). There are also birthday boxes including balloons and party hats, and monthly specials (February: Perugina Baci Kisses or Neuhaus chocolates). Write Collegiate Marketing Srvices, P.O. Box 12361, Atlanta, Ga. 30355-9990. Or call (404) 873-1933.
A more personalized version of student-care package is from Handle With Care, 4801 Dover Rd., Bethesda, Md. 20816. Call 951-0367. Julie Hurt fills hers with homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies, fresh fruit and peanuts. She will include a lemon poundcake instead of the cookies, and birthday napkins if that's the occasion. All this requires is $20.50 and two weeks notice. DONALD'S DUCK (2 servings)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 garlic clove
Peanut oil for frying
FOR THE COATING:
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 1/4 cups cornstarch
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE:
1/4 cup Chinese plum sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup rich duck stock (use giblets, neck, backbone)
Hot pepper sauce to taste
Sprigs of fresh coriander to taste (optional)
Season cavity of duck with salt and pepper, and rub with garlic clove. Prick the skin to let fat drain when roasting. Roast the duck for 1 1/2 hours at 400 degrees until well done.
Let it sit in a cool airy place or refrigerator for 1/2 day to 1 day to dry. Split duck and cut out backbone; make a duck stock with the backbone, giblets (except liver) and neck, simmered with seasonings and aromatic vegetables to taste in water to cover for an hour.
To make the coating, mix the soy sauce, vinegar, cayenne, five-spice powder and cornstarch together. It should have the consistency of heavy cream. Cover the duck well with coating. Let the duck dry again -- about 3 hours outside or 1/2 day in the refrigerator.
Fill a wok 3 inches deep with peanut oil or use a deep-fryer. Deep-fry the duck, spooning the hot oil over it as it cooks so the oil touches all parts of the duck. Each duck will take about 5 minutes. Remove and drain.
To make the dipping sauce, mix plum sauce, hoisin sauce, white vinegar, balsamic vinagar, tomato paste, duck stock and hot pepper sauce. Add sprig or two of chopped coriander if desired.
Serve along with deep-fried duck.