Duck is a dish that has been regarded with a certain . . . reserve in my family as long as I can remember. When I was a child my father and mother used to recall in tones of shocked delight the rather stuffy dinner party given by neighbors at which my father was asked to carve the duck.
As the diners waited expectantly in their places at the candle-lighted, lace-covered table, he applied knife to bird. Applied knife, he always maintained, to some little-known muscle near the joint between leg and thigh. Whatever it was the knife struck, the duck took flight as if Resurrection Day had come and sailed across the room, coming to rest on the floor in the corner. A heavy silence fell upon the company. At length my father retrieved the duck, dusted it delicately with his napkin, restored it to the platter and without comment proceeded to carved and serve it.
The telling and retelling of that tale is as close as duck ever got to the dinner tables of my childhood, and I don't believe I even tasted the fowl until my college days.
In any event it was in a certain spirit of high adventure that I greeted the news from my wife, in the first months of our marriage, that she planned to serve roast duck at a cozy dinner a quatre we were to have with another couple before going to the theater. The duck arrived at the table rich of aroma, deep golden of mien, but alas when I sliced into it with the carving knife, the poor thing . . . bled. Hastily we returned the entree to the oven for 10 more minutes of tanning, but when the bird returned, it still was only slightly more cooked than steak tartare. We dined on carrots, potatoes and selected morsels of duck skin.
My wife made one other essay at duck cookery in those early years. Her effort coincided with a night that a series of unanticipated calamities kept me at my office until nearly 11 p.m. When I finally tottered hungrily into the house, my wife was in bed and the duck was muttering quietly in its few remaining juices in a slow oven. I sampled the leather-clad carass, supped inelegantly then on a peanut butter, onion and mayonnaise sandwich. For the next several weeks only the most cautious conversation was possible concerning the evening of the failed culinary surprise. Ultimately time healed, as it has a way of doing, but duck did not return to our dining table.
From time to time, however, I ordered it in restaurants, and one day while reading a Chinese cookbook I impulsively decided to attempt the preparation of that noblest of Chinese dishes, Peking duck. The events that follow had their origin in the cook book I was reading that day, Chinese Gastronomy, by Hsiang Ju Lin and Tuifeng Lin, the wife and daughter of the Chinese writer and philosopher Lin Yutang; but I must accept responsibility for the alterations of the Lins' recipe, intended and accidental, that make the dish possibley, inferior, but my own.
Some music buffs, I am told, love nothing better of a crisp fall evening than to curl up in a cozy armchair with the score of, say, Berlioz' "Harold in Italy" and listen through the ear of the imagination to the orchestral interplay of the strings, horns, woodwinds and percussion. I prefer to work with the tongue of the imagination, tasting the culinary possibilities of this recipe or that without actually approaching saucepan or stove. I have spent many a happy hour with cookbook in hand, fantasizing.
That being the case, it was with a certain sense of amazement that I found myself reaching into a frozen food case at my local grocery and actually plucking out a rockhard frozen duck.
The die was cast, and I studied the Lins' recipe with care while the duck slowly thawed under cold running water.
Essential to Peking duck is that the skin of the roasted fowl fall away from the flesh when carved. Some methodologies call for the raw duck to be inflated with a bicycle pump so that the skin balloons away from the flesh beneath. Happily, the Lins offered a less macabre scheme -- gin.
Step 1: When the duck is thawed, dry it thoroughly and rub two teaspoons of salt into the cavity. Place the duck in a shallow bowl and pour over it a half-cup of gin. Let the duck bathe for four hours, turning it occasionally.
So I dried the duck as directed and served it and me hookers of gin. After consuming my own cocktail, I left the house to run an errand. When I returned an hour later the duck had vanished, and my wife, who had been upstairs earlier, had left the house. I looked in the refrigerator and in the cupboard. No duck.
Recalling past domestic difficulties over duck, I began to grow angry. I continued to search. Hopeless. Finally, in full fury, I snatched open the bread drawer, thinking to sop up my rage with a cup to tea and a slice of cinnamon toast.
And there was the duck, still bathing in its bowl of gin.
"Why on earth did you put the duck in the bread drawer?" I asked my wife when she came home.
"I didn't want the cat to get it," she promptly replied.
True, we had had trouble from time to time with cats making off with chicken left sitting out. But at the time of this particular misadventure we had no cat. Habits once formed are difficult to unform.
Step 2: Mix together one tablespoon of honey, one tablespoon of hot water and one tablespoon of Kikkoman soy sauce. Coat the duck with this mixture. Twist two coat-hangers into slings to suspend the duck fore and aft and hang it up to dry for at least 24 hours.
The Lins called for "a windy, cool place." I hung the duck in the basement areaway. It was crisp fall weather, cool enough, but I would have been wiser to clear a space in the basement refrigeratro and hang it from a shelf there. As it was, when I went to collect the duck the next afternoon a passing cat with a long reach had managed to demolish one drumstick.
But the skin that remained had, as promised, separated from the flesh.
Step 3: Insert a shelf in the oven as high as possible, and suspend the duck from it. Put a pan of water on the floor of the oven to catch the drippings and roast the duck at 375 degrees for an hour and a quater.
Step 4: Meantime, cut in half the 10 biscuits in a package of refrigerator biscuits and roll out 16pieces into circles about two inches in diameter, four pieces one inch larger. Brush the tops with peanut oil. Arrange the circles in four stacks on individual squares of foil whith the large circle on top and its edges tucked under the bottom circle. Steam about 12 minutes.
Step 5: Slash the ends of four green onions and trim the tops to turn the scallions into little brushes.
Step 6: When the duck is done, serve the first course: skin, cut into 1 1/2x2 1/2-inch rectangles, plus a few very thin slices of breast, acompanied by the brushes, little dishes of hoisin sauce (available at oriental groceries) that the guests may brush on to taste, and the buns on whose leaves the duck pieces are to be laid.
Step 7: Ahead of time, pour a half-cup of boiling water on four or five dried Chinese mushrooms and soak for onehalf hour.Discard the tough stems and sliver the mushrooms, two whole green onions (except the roots), 1 teaspoon peeled ginger root and two dried hot red peppers (seeds removed). Saute vegetables in two tablespoons of peanut oil in a very hot wok or skillet for two minutes, turning rapidly. Add all the remaining duck meat, carved from the carcass and slivered, and saute another minute. Add one-half pound of bean sprouts and one teaspoon of salt and saute another minute. Sprinkle generously with Chinese sesame oil and slivered green onion tops. Serve.
It's time now for an intermission, because the duck soup, the meal's traditional conclusion, is an hour and a quarter away.
Step 8: Break the wing, thigh and drumstick bones and crush the ribs and spine. Combine in a pot with a slice of ginger root, one green onion, al half-cup of vermouth, the mushroom water and enough additional water to make three cups of fluid, and simmer for 45 minutes, adding enough water to keep the amount of fluid constant. Strain out and discard the solids, skim off the fat, and add two teaspoons of soy sauce, one pound of bok choy cut into one-inch sections and one-half teaspoon of honey. Simmer for 30 minutes until the cabbage is very tender. Serve.
Neither the soup nor other courses proved "as easy as duck soup," But I can testify from experience that the recipe works and the meal is worth the effort.