"Marco!" “Polo!” Before becoming an annoying swimming pool pastime, Marco Polo was an Italian merchant and explorer who, as popular myth has it, brought pasta back from China in 1295. Unfortunately, pesky facts have long ago proven otherwise. But since the journey for the creation of this dish went in the opposite direction – from Italy to China – for the sake of symmetry, I’m going to pretend that Signor Polo did indeed introduce the noodle to Italy.
Duck pasta. Those two magical words immediately had my full attention. My first thought was linguine tossed with mushrooms, garlic and onions sautéed in duck fat and olive oil and topped with sliced duck breast and maybe a little fresh tarragon. (Wow, this still sounds good – I’ll have to try it soon, I think.)
Seeking further inspiration and/or refinements to my basic idea, I was distressed to find loads of goopy, gloppy, tomato-saucy dishes (I’m sure they’re all delicious, but I could just taste any distinctively ducky flavor vanishing in a sea of red). Then Marion said, “What about doing something Chinese with it?” Suddenly, my duck pasta dish took off in a whole new direction – east. Far East.
In the United States, the popularity of duck is always optimistically characterized as “growing.” It seems some home cooks are hesitant about cooking duck because of its fattiness (and yet pork ribs and ground chuck fly off supermarket shelves, go figure) or because they just don’t know how to cook it.
The Chinese, on the other hand, love duck and have done so for some 4,000 years. In fact, per capita duck consumption in some Western countries is directly linked to the size of their Chinese immigrant populations. (Not so with France, where they, too, love duck and give the Chinese a run for their money consumption-wise.)
Things turn steamy. The Chinese also know lots of ways to prepare duck. As I searched for ideas, one approach that kept turning up was steaming the duck before roasting it. Health-conscious Western cooks have been steaming vegetables like crazy lately and will even steam a piece of fish now and again, but meat, not so much. Throughout much of Asia, however, steaming meat is a common cooking technique, often as a first step before roasting, frying or grilling.
Steaming the duck leg quarters for this recipe renders some of the fat, makes the flesh moist and tender and, most important, infuses it throughout with the flavors of the aromatics used – fresh ginger, garlic, green onions, star anise, and Chinese five-spice powder. Roasting the steamed duck with a lacquer of honey, soy sauce and rice vinegar (OK, in looking for a descriptive finish here and remembering the duck, my mouth is watering – I think that covers it).
Chinese Duck Pasta with Mushrooms
This dish involves more steps than many of my recipes, but everything is easy to do, and you can cook the duck ahead if you like, to simplify things.
2 duck leg quarters, about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds (see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra
1 teaspoon sugar
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, cut into 6 slices
6 cloves garlic, 4 thinly sliced and 2 minced
2 whole star anise
2 large green onions, divided
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1-1/2 to 2 cups fresh or reconstituted mushrooms, sliced (see Kitchen Notes)
scant 1 cup chopped shallots (or yellow onions)
freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces Chinese noodles (or other ribbon pasta – see Kitchen Notes)
Prepare the duck. Trim away excess fat from duck leg quarters (reserve it to render fat over low heat in a small sauce pan for future use – don’t dare throw it away). Combine Chinese five-spice powder, 1 teaspoon of salt and sugar in a small bowl and rub all over duck. Place duck, ginger slices and the four cloves of sliced garlic into a zippered plastic bag. Marinate, chilled, for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours.
With aluminum foil, make 2 rimmed trays just large enough to each hold one duck leg and small enough to fit inside a bamboo steamer basket with room for steam to rise around it. (If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, see Kitchen Notes for an alternative steaming method.) Divide the ginger and garlic slices between the trays and add 1 star anise to each. Roughly chop the green portion of a green onion and divide it between the foil trays (thinly slice the rest of the green onion along with the other one and reserve). Arrange the duck legs on top of the aromatics, stack the steamer and place it over a sauce pan with an inch or two of water. Bring water to a boil, reduce heat to low and steam duck for 45 minutes, keeping an eye on the water level so it doesn’t all boil away.
When duck has been steaming for about 35 minutes, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Combine honey, soy sauce and rice vinegar in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil (watch it like a hawk – it will boil over in a heartbeat). Reduce heat and cook down to sauce consistency, stirring frequently, for 10 to 12 minutes. Time this so the duck is ready to go in the oven; otherwise, it will get too thick as it cools.
Arrange duck legs on a rack in a low-sided, lightly oiled roasting pan (alternatively, you can use an ovenproof grilling pan – I did, and it worked beautifully). Discard the aromatics. Brush both sides of the duck generously with the honey vinegar sauce. Roast duck skin side up for 30 minutes or so, until a quick read thermometer registers 180 degrees F in the thickest part of the thigh. Pour the rendered duck fat in the bottom of the roasting pan into a small bowl. There may be flakes of caramelized lacquer from the duck skin in it, if you’re lucky.
Transfer duck legs to a plate and let them rest until cool enough to handle. Now comes the tough part: Do not pick up the duck legs and devour them on the spot. You will seriously want to, as will anyone else who wanders into the kitchen. Instead, cut and tear the duck into bite-sized pieces, including the skin. Yes, the skin is fatty. It’s also crispy and delicious. Now you may gnaw on the leftover bones. Share, if you’re feeling generous.
Prepare the dish. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook the noodles according to package directions. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons each of reserved duck fat and canola oil in a large, high-sided skillet or sautée pan (or a wok) over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and shallots and sautée, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Drizzle in a little extra canola oil if needed while cooking – mushrooms love to soak up any kind of fat or liquid – and season with salt and pepper. Return the duck to the pan, along with remaining 2 cloves of minced garlic, and cook until duck is warmed through, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes.
Drain cooked pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water, and rinse under running hot water. Add pasta to skillet and toss to combine. Cook for a minute or so, tossing occasionally, adding a little of the pasta water if the dish is too dry. Remove from heat and stir in sliced green onions. Divide among four shallow bowls and serve.
Running down duck legs. These aren’t as easy to find as duck breasts or whole ducks, but they’re worth seeking out. As with chicken, they’re more flavorful and juicier than the breasts (which are still quite tasty in their own right). In Chicago, I found pairs of frozen duck legs at the Paulina Meat Market. Had I failed to do so, my back-up plan was to buy a whole duck, have the butcher cut it up and have two separate duck meals.
Picking mushrooms. There are plentiful options here. Fresh or dried, for starters. Chinese black mushrooms or straw mushrooms are great choices. I lucked into some fresh shiitake mushrooms that were cheaper than the dried ones I’d planned to buy. But even crimini or button mushrooms will do.
Noodles? Pasta? Here’s that whole East/West thing. We buy Number Three Chinese Noodles from Chicago’s Wah King Noodle Company, ribbon noodles that resemble slightly skinny linguine. Linguine (or ideally, the skinnier linguine fini) will also do.
No steamer? No problem. We love our bamboo steamer, but if you don’t have one, you can improvise. Place a roasting rack inside a roasting pan. Add water to the roasting pan, making sure it doesn’t reach the top of the rack. Make a rimmed tray from aluminum foil that will hold both duck legs and the aromatics. Cover the top of the roasting pan with aluminum foil to create a tight seal. Heat the roasting pan on the stovetop to bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Keep an eye on the water level, making sure the water doesn’t all boil away.
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