Fragrant Crispy Duck

香酥鴨

This is the classic Szechwanese duck, a marvelously crunchy bird, redolent with the aromas of cinnamon, Szechwan brown peppercorns, and star anise. It is my favorite duck dish, one I prefer unhesitatingly to its Peking cousin. To pull some spiced skin and soft meat from the bones and envelop them in a steaming Flower Roll is truly one of the great sensual pleasures of Chinese dining.

  • The labor involved is minimal, and may be stretched leisurely over 2 or 3 days. I usually start by massaging the bird with spices a night or 2 before I plan to serve it. Only the frying need be done at the last minute and that is a 5-minute process at most.
  • This is the first duck dish I ever made. I recommend it enthusiastically to the novice cook and the passionate eater.

Ingredients

  • 3½–4½ pound duck, fresh-killed best (weight after removal of head, neck, feet, wingtips, tail and oil sacs)

For marinating the duck

  • 3 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
  • tablespoons Szechwan brown peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon five-spice powder

For steaming the duck

  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 5 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
  • 3 medium whole scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths

For deep-frying the duck

  • 1½–2 tablespoons black soy sauce
  • ¼–⅓ cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 6–7 cups corn or peanut oil

Method

Preparing and marinating the duck

Use your hands to pull away and discard the oil sacs that nest to either side of the tail and any fatty lozenges that are lodged around the neck and shoulder region. Clean the cavity and the skin of the duck thoroughly, removing blood, membranes, and quills. Cut off and discard the tail. Wash the duck under cool water and pat it carefully dry with a lint-free cloth, both inside and out. Press down on the breastbone with both palms to break the bone and flatten the duck. A flatter duck will season more evenly as it marinates and will be easier to fry.

Put the salt and peppercorns in a dry heavy skillet. (I don’t use my wok for this, as the salt would rob the pan of its much-prized patina.) Set the skillet over moderate heat and stir the mixture until the salt turns off-white, about 4–5 minutes. The peppercorns will smoke but do not let them scorch.

Scrape the hot mixture into the dry work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Grind the spices 1 full minute, or until they are coarsely ground. Or, grind the mixture in a mortar or blender. Sieve through a fine strainer to remove the peppercorn husks. Stir in the five-spice powder.

Rub ⅓ of the mixture evenly throughout the cavity of the bird. Massage the remaining ⅔ spices evenly over the outside. Really work the spices into the skin. Do not forget the wings and thighs, or the spots under them. Put the duck breast side up in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow heatproof bowl that will hold it snugly yet allow it to lie flat. Cover loosely and set aside to marinate at room temperature 6 hours or overnight. If you wish to keep the bird longer, refrigerate it to retard the marination, up to 2 days. Turn the bird once midway through marinating, to insure even seasoning.

Steaming the duck

(For detailed instructions on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Drain the bowl and the cavity of the duck then rub the wine evenly over the outside of the bird. Place the duck breast side up in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow heatproof bowl whose diameter is at least 1 inch smaller than that of your steamer. Lightly smash the ginger and scallion with the side or blunt handle of a cleaver or heavy knife to release their juices, then spread ⅔ in the cavity and ⅓ evenly over the top of the duck.

Bring as much water as your steaming vessel can hold to a gushing boil over high heat. (Remember to leave an inch free between the water and the rack that will hold the duck.) Reduce the heat to medium and put the bowl on the rack. Cover the steamer and steam the duck over medium heat for 3 hours.

Every 30–60 minutes, turn off the heat to quench the steam and use a bulb-top baster to siphon off the rendered fat and juices surrounding the duck. (The bird will render a lot of liquid in the first 30 minutes. Thereafter, it will render less and not need to be drained as often.) Wear long mitts and lift the steamer lid away from you to avoid getting burned, and reserve the liquids and fat for use in stir-frys, sauces, and soup. Check at the same time to replenish the steamer with boiling water if needed, then restore the heat to medium, cover the steamer, and continue steaming the duck.

At the end of 3 hours, turn off the heat and let the steam subside before lifting the lid. Remove the bowl, hold the duck in place with mitted hands, then tilt to drain the remaining juices from the bowl and the cavity. The bird will have rendered more than a cup of fat. Don’t worry if it looks bony or sad.

Air-drying the duck

Let the duck cool 5–10 minutes, then invert it carefully onto a flat rack just as you would a fragile cake, by putting the rack over the bowl, then inverting the bowl and lifting it off the duck. It will be extremely tender, so work carefully. Discard the ginger and scallion, using chopsticks to retrieve the pieces lodged inside the cavity. Lightly blot the skin dry with paper towels.

Put the rack on a baking sheet to catch the drippings, then put the duck in a drafty place for 2–3 hours or direct a fan on it until dry. Blot the skin and turn the duck and the rack periodically to insure even drying. The duck may be left to air-dry up to 8 hours prior to frying.

Coating and deep-frying the duck

About 15 minutes prior to serving, smooth the soy over the outside of the duck with your fingers. Dry your fingers, then dust the outside of the duck thoroughly with the flour. Blow off the excess. Have the duck, a paper towel-lined plate, some extra paper towels, a large Chinese mesh spoon, a long-handled ladle, and the lid of a wok or large pot all within easy reach of your stovetop.

Choose a wok or a large, heavy pot wide enough to accommodate the duck with 3–5 inches to spare at the sides, so you can turn it easily. Heat the pot over high heat until hot, add the oil, then heat to the upper end of the light-haze stage, 375° on a deep-fry thermometer. Pinch a bit of floured skin from the tail region and add it to the oil. If it rises to the surface within 2–3 seconds wearing a crown of white bubbles, the oil is ready. Adjust the heat so the temperature doesn’t rise.

Dip the mesh spoon into the oil to heat it through, so it will not stick to the duck. Put the duck on the spoon, breast side up, and lower it slowly into the oil at arm’s length. Hold the lid with your other hand to shield yourself from spatters. The duck should foam immediately upon contact. If it does not, remove it from the oil on the spoon and raise the heat.

Withdraw the spoon from the oil and fry the duck until it is a light, nutty brown, about 2 minutes. Use the ladle to baste the top of the bird continuously with the oil. When brown, use the mesh spoon and the ladle to brace the bird and gently turn it over. Fry the second side until brown, only about 1 minute, then remove the duck to the paper-towel drain.

Double deep-frying for crispness and color

Heat the oil to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a bit of skin rises immediately to the surface of the oil. Fry the duck a second time, for only 15 seconds on each side, until it turns a deep brown. Remove the duck to fresh paper towels to drain, then blot dry.

Once the oil cools,’ strain, bottle, and refrigerate it for future frying.

Serving the duck

Serve the duck immediately on a large heated platter of contrasting color, rimmed by the pretty Flower Rolls. Put small dip dishes of the roasted pepper-salt to either side of the platter or alongside each place setting. Do not attempt to carve or chop the duck. It would shatter. The bird is tender enough to be torn apart with chopsticks, and the communal partaking of the duck inspires a delightfully intimate feasting.

To eat the duck, take a piece of skin and meat in your chopsticks. Dip one end lightly in the seasoned salt, then enclose it in a warm fold of steamed bread.

Leftovers are good at room temperature. The brittle bones are wonderful.

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