Last week I panic-bought a duck. Two people were approaching me from either end of the meat aisle in a pincer movement. Neither was observing social distancing etiquette, so I grabbed the first bird I could and ran. It wasn’t until I got to the checkout that I realised my chicken wasn’t a chicken. Good to know that while stocks of flour and eggs are dwindling, supermarkets still have a variety of poultry options. Unlike the time I bought horse meat instead of steak in a French supermarket, this mix-up was a pleasant surprise. Like thinking you’re going on a date with James Franco and Dave turning up. It inspired me to recreate one of the foods I’ve been missing most in lockdown – crispy duck with pancakes.
I was full of blind enthusiasm and #DTD (down to duck), but the cooking process turned out to be quite daunting. In professional kitchens, the duck is deep-fried whole in a giant wok. Given the number of house fires caused by deep-frying turkeys in the US, this felt like a bad idea. I didn’t want deep-fried duck to be my hamartia, not least because of the awkward explanation at the burn ward. I thought Peking duck might be a simpler option but I was wrong. One “home recipe” called for an electric bicycle pump and a wood-fired oven. In the end I settled on Cantonese roast duck. It seemed relatively straightforward apart from some minor surgery which involved sewing up the bird’s cavity. I’d pictured myself performing operations before, mostly as part of an extended Grey’s Anatomy fantasy where I seduce Patrick Dempsey, so I felt prepared.
As I began the four-day process I wondered if I should’ve taken up a simpler lockdown hobby like knitting. I rubbed the duck inside and out with salt, five spice and sugar and left it overnight. The next day I made a soy and hoisin sauce marinade which hit my MSG-spot! I was ready to spread it on toast but I didn’t think it would go with seeded wholemeal. I poured the sauce inside the duck then tried to seal it up with a skewer. Ten minutes and several cocktail sticks later it was ready for blanching.
Briefly scalding the duck then refreshing it in ice water helps to tighten up the skin. I considered giving myself a DIY facelift with this method but visions of the burn ward loomed again. The traditional way to blanch the duck is by suspending it over a pot and ladling on hot water. I didn’t have anything to hang my bird from so I looked for ways to improvise. One recipe suggested propping it up on a wine bottle which gave me an image of a knock-off Surrealist readymade. In the end I just dunked it in boiling water and hoped for the best.
After blanching again in soy and honey, I let the duck air-dry in the fridge for two days. The smell coming off it was so intoxicating that I forgot about salmonella and almost bit into a wing. When the roasting day arrived I said my goodbyes and popped ducky in the oven. The end result was hoisinfully good. I wish I could say that doing all the work myself made the pancakes taste even better but I’d be lying. Once China Town reopens I’m never attempting it again, but if you’re still #DTD after reading this then the full recipe is here.