Monday, 17 March 2008

Holy smoke, duck!

I really enjoy cooking with duck. Granted it is not the most versatile of meats, certainly not as pliable or easy to match with flavours as chicken, but what it lacks in versatility it makes up for in sheer tasty indulgence. I think it is something to do with the richness of the meat, the deep purple colour and the thick layering of cream coloured fat which serves to add a mouth-watering taste as well as a delicious moisture. It isn’t a cheap meat and I doubt it is a luxury I will be able to afford for much longer but before I go crashing head first into the real world next week I felt it right to have a final dalliance with decadence.

I usually serve duck fillets with the skin on, crisped up in a hot pan and most of the fat rendered out of it, with a rich sauce made from reduced stock and wine or port and sweetened with whatever berries or fruits are suitable: blackberries, red currants and cherries have all featured with duck on more than one occasion. I’ve also made Thai duck curries and once a quite delicious Asian style broth made with stock flavoured with vanilla, made hearty and filling with the addition of noodles and a selection of seasonal vegetables. It comes highly recommended. But with my brain firing ideas at me from all sides and a desire to start really pushing the boundaries I decided to get out the trusty wok and wood chips and smoke it.

I’ve had smoked duck a number of times and always found it delicious. It might sound like a slightly strange flavour marriage but if you think about the smoky notes in a Chinese duck and pancakes dish then it should make more sense. Also, foods with a high fat content tend to smoke particularly well – oily fish (such as kippers, eel and salmon), pork (bacon, ham) and even cheese all smoke terrifically and create some of the most delicious morsels I can think of. I’ve theorised about why smoked food tastes so good before so won’t run into too much detail but my personal view is that it returns us, albeit briefly, to our deep ancestry, to an earlier time when all food eaten had the taste of the primordial fire. The same holds true for barbecues, by the way.

After scoring the fat of the duck and seasoning with a generous amount of salt and a turn of pepper I laid the duck breasts onto a roasting rack in the wok. Beneath was a sheet of foil to catch the fat and prevent it from dripping onto the wood dust and green tea in a neat foil packet nestled in the base of the wok. The whole lot was sealed with more foil to keep in the smoke and then placed onto the heat. As this is a hot smoke, the duck needs little more than half an hour on the heat and then a further half hour to rest in the residual smoke, taking on the delicate flavours and allowing the juices to settle.

I was unsure what to expect when I tore open the foil but the smell was incredible. Sweet but with a deep, outdoor bonfire finish. There was still a significant layer of fat on the duck so I seared the breasts skin down in a hot pan to render some of it out. They were cooked pink, were mouth-wateringly juicy and sliced thinly lengthways before being arranged on the plate. Served with a leek puree and leek spaghetti with a reduced port and balsamic glaze, the final dish was more of a warm salad but was wonderfully tasty and satisfying in that way that only food cooked in such a primitive way can be.

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