When I found out that I made it to the second round of Project Food Blog, I rushed to see what the second challenge was. Titled “The Classics,” the second challenge asks bloggers to tackle a classic dish, but it has to be something outside your normal comfort zone. I feel pretty comfortable with most cuisines, especially if I have someone else’s recipes to fall back on, but one that I have a hard time with is traditional Chinese.
For this challenge, I chose a dish I’ve never eaten and never attempted before–Zhangcha or tea-smoked duck. In addition to being part of a cuisine that I’m not comfortable with, I’m cooking with an ingredient that I’ve only used once or twice before–duck. Duck has beautiful, richly flavorful meat, and it offers up a large amount of one of the best cooking fats available. You can’t just roast it like a chicken, though. Almost all the meat in a duck is dark meat (including the breast) because unlike chickens, ducks actually use most of their muscles. With all the fat and all-over dark meat, it takes a little extra care to cook duck properly.
At some point I made an impulse purchase at the farmers’ market of a local, pasture-raised duck. I had no specific plans with it (since I don’t cook duck), so it sat in my freezer for… well… longer than it should have. I pulled it out for this challenge and saw that unlike typical farm-raised birds fed plenty of grains, this bird was relatively lean. I cut off all the usual pieces, reserving the extra skin and fatty bits for the rendering pot. The wings and the rest of the bones went to making a simple duck stock. Since I was just going to use the breasts for this dish, the legs and thighs were rubbed with spices and are, as I type this, on their way to succulent confit deliciousness.
In preparing for the smoking, I rubbed the duck breasts with salt and ground Szechuan peppercorns. I wanted to let the duck breast’s flavor come through, so I didn’t add some of the additions I saw in other online recipes like garlic, or Shiaoxing wine. The various recipes I found differed on the initial preparation of the duck, whether it was steamed, dipped in boiling water, or rendered in a hot pan. Since I was just going for a couple of pieces instead of a whole duck, I opted to score the skin and render off most of the fat.
After letting the fat render out and seeing the skin brown, it already looked delicious, but we must continue to the smoking. I don’t have a wok, so I lined a pot with heavy-duty foil and mixed lapsang souchong (a campfire-smoky black tea), pu-er (an earthy, aged tea), raw rice, and brown sugar. This tea mixture went at the bottom, covered by a steamer basket. The duck went in, skin side up, and I covered the pot. Over medium-high heat, I let it heat up until I saw wisps of smoke coming out. The aromas in the kitchen at this point were mouth-watering. After 10 minutes of cooking, I turned the heat off to let the duck continue to absorb some of the smoky flavor still remaining inside.
I wanted to serve it very simply, so I stir-fried some rice noodles in some of the rendered duck fat with garlic and a sprinkle of Szechuan peppercorns. A tiny drizzle of sesame oil added a nutty element to the noodles. Biting into the duck, the flavor was more delicate than I expected, but you could taste the tea, the peppercorns, and a hint of smoky sweetness. The meat was tender and moist, the skin could have been rendered a bit more, or perhaps would be better if I crisped it up after the smoking.
This is a technique that I’d like to use again. With the foil in place, cleanup of the smoking equipment is easy. Perhaps I could tea-smoke some pork cheeks, strips of marinated beef, or maybe chicken thighs? Trying different types of smoking materials would be interesting too. I’m still waiting for the confit to be finished–the smell from the oven is amazing. Even if I don’t buy duck again soon, I have a couple quarts of duck stock and more than 8 ounces of duck fat just waiting to be used in the best home-fries ever.
If you’d like to help me out, voting for this round starts Monday morning (6AM PDT 9/27). Click my Project Food Blog widget on the right, or, once the voting starts, you can probably click this link to get to the voting page.