'Duck man' revives lost recipe
TODAY'S HERO is Charles Leong of Palo Alto, Calif., hereafter known as "the duck man," which is a compliment even if it doesn't sound like one.
Leong figured out how to make Mandarin Pressed Duck through dogged research, creative thought and "a little bit of labor."
When he shared the news of his success with a sister-in-law in Honolulu, he learned there'd been a plea in this space for just that recipe. So he sent me his formula, complete with photographs. Small world, isn't it?
It was Lisa Tam who had asked for the recipe: "I have been searching forever for the recipe for Crispy Almond Duck with Sweet and Sour Sauce. ... It's pressed duck that's made into little squares rolled in flour and fried crispy and served with red sweet and sour sauce and sprinkled with almonds."
Different name, but that's exactly the dish Leong developed.
Leong is not from Hawaii (although his wife is a Roosevelt High grad). He remembers eating the dish as a kid growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown. "It was plentiful at that time," he said. "It's very difficult to find now; in fact, almost impossible."
NOW, this dish does not fall into the category of 30-minute meals. You have to marinate a whole duck, then steam it, then debone it, then press it flat, then add a coating, then fry it, then cut it up and coat it in sauce. Oh, yeah, and you have to make the sauce.
It's not particularly hard, Leong says, just time-consuming. Start practicing now and you could be ready for prime time by Chinese New Year (Feb. 18).
Leong, a retired engineer who loves cooking, found a few recipes, but none that took him all the way through the process. "The technique and the method is really what one has to develop, such as deboning the duck and flattening the duck. That is not covered in any of the cookbooks."
So he made up his own way. He figured out that deboning is easy if you do it after the duck is steamed. "All you have to do is push the meat aside a little bit and wiggle the bones and it comes out." Then you reshape the meat into a duck-like shape.
His flattening method is to place the duck between two cutting boards and press down lightly.
The dish turned out the first time he tried it, Leong says. The only hang-up was that when he started frying the duck, the first few pieces were a bit dark. "But it turns out once you put the sauce and the nuts on top, you can't see the color."
And he thinks he has it right: As a child he was often sent out to pick up the family's orders. "At one of the places they would always send me to the kitchen and I'd see the cooks making the almond duck. I saw the end product. It looks the same."
Leong credits "Eight Immortal Flavors" by Johnny Kan (1982) as the basis of this recipe. (By coincidence, Kan's book is co-authored by a Charles Leong, but our Leong says it isn't him, nor is it any relation of his.)
One note: Many recipes for pressed duck call for water chestnut powder as the coating. You'd have to go to a Chinatown grocery to seek that out. Leong says cornstarch works just fine.
Mandarin Pressed Duck
4-1/2 pound whole duck
1 cup cornstarch
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup chopped almonds or peanuts
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
» Sweet and Sour Sauce:
1 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 cup sugar
5 drops hot sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in water
Combine marinade ingredients and pour over duck. Marinate 1 hour.
Fill a wok with water and bring to a simmer. Place a rack above simmering water and place duck on rack. Cover and steam 2-1/2 hours. (If you don't have a wok, use a large pot or skillet that can accommodate a rack and can be covered.)
Remove duck and let cool, then debone: Cut off head, neck and feet and set aside for another use (such as soup). Place duck, breast-side down, on a cutting board. Make a cut along the backbone. Push the meat aside and lift the backbone and rib cage out. Wiggle the thigh and wing bones out.
Place duck on a large cutting board, breast-side down. Take a second board and cover duck completely. Gently press down until meat is uniformly compressed, about 3/4 inches thick.
Prepare wok again for steaming.
Sprinkle duck generously on both sides with cornstarch. Gently return duck to steamer rack. Cover and steam 30 minutes.
Heat oil in a pot or wok for deep-frying.
Cut duck into quarters. Deep-fry until golden brown. Remove from oil; let drain. Cut into 1-1/2 inch pieces.
To prepare sauce: Bring ingredients to a simmer and stir to dissolve sugar. Stir in cornstarch mixture to thicken. Brush sauce over duck pieces. Sprinkle with nuts. Serves eight.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 1,000 calories, 85 g total fat, 25 g saturated fat, 120 mg cholesterol, greater than 1,500 mg sodium, 37 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 19 g sugar, 23 g protein.
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