Happy Year of the Rooster!
One of China’s signature feast dishes is roast duck. Just about any deli in a Chinese supermarket or your friendly neighborhood Chinatown will have the Cantonese version hanging in the window. They’re usually pretty cheap (about $20) and delicious, too, and so I rarely make my own.
What this means when it comes to a New Year’s feast is that roast duck should definitely be on the menu. Serve the meaty parts of the duck as is (heat it at 275°F／135°C for around 15 minutes to crisp up the skin and render most of the fat), with a bit of plum sauce that the deli might throw in for free. Be sure and save that duck fat to stir-fry some shredded napa cabbage until it’s soft and tender, and season it with a touch of soy sauce — this is very much in keeping with the Chinese food maxim of waste absolutely nothing, and such sensible frugality in the kitchen is believed to ensure plenty during the coming year.
I like to cut off and reserve the back, neck, and as many scrawny bits and bones as possible and then turn them into a truly delicious and easy soup to serve at the end of dinner. This is a downright luscious dish you can pull together in a matter of minutes if you do a little bit of prep work a day or two ahead of time: Prepare the stock, cut up the radishes and garnishes, and soak the cellophane noodles. That’s it.
We used to have a big bowl of hot duck soup in Taipei whenever we went out for a Peking duck dinner. It didn’t matter if it was in a dining palace or a little mom ‘n pop hole in the wall on Chung Hwa Road, because in China, when you order a roast duck, you expect a full feast out of the bird. We’d of course first have the crisp skin followed by the breast and leg meat sliced for us at the table by the waiter, and these would be wrapped in thin crêpes with a dab of sweet wheat paste and shredded green onions.
A buttery custard of duck egg yolks would usually appear, too, and maybe some braised odd bits, like tongues or hearts, as well as vegetables braised in duck fat to round out the meal. The last course was always a steaming vat of duck soup, and my favorites would have cubes of sweet Chinese radishes and pickled mustard greens swimming inside among the cellophane noodles.
Over the years, I’ve gone one better on the original, as I’ve found that cutting the radishes into thin strips makes this soup exceptionally silky. They mingle sensuously with the cellophane noodles, and the radishes somehow turn out super sweet this way. Store-bought chicken stock and rice wine add oomph to the broth, and I like to toss in a bit of garlicky “winter vegetable” — a type of chopped pickled napa cabbage from my mother-in-law’s hometown of Tianjin — to add serious depth. Cilantro and a handful of reserved shredded duck are all that is needed to punctuate the top. Toe warming and delectable, this is Chinese culinary prudence at its most inspired. (First published in Food52)
|The lovely seasonings|
Roast duck soup with radishes
Kăoyā luóbo tang 烤鴨蘿蔔湯
Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish, or twice that much as a side
¼ cup (60 ml) toasted sesame oil
¼ cup (15 g) finely sliced fresh ginger
4 green onions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
Bones, scraps, and scrawny bits from 1 roasted duck
½ cup (120 ml) Taiwan Mijiu rice wine or sake
1 quart (1L) unsalted chicken stock (preferably free range and organic)
4 quarts (4L) boiling water, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped “winter vegetable” (dongcai) or Chinese mustard pickles (suancai)
1 medium (1 pound or 450 g) Asian radish of some kind (Chinese luobo, Korean mooli, or Japanese daikon)
2 small skeins cellophane noodles (fensi), about 1.3 ounces (37 g) each
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large handful shredded roast duck, optional but delicious
1 large handful coarsely chopped cilantro
1. Start this a day or two before you plan to serve it. Place a large (2 gallon/8L) stockpot over medium heat and add the sesame oil, ginger, and green onions. Gently fry the ginger and green onions until they turn into thin brown tangles. Raise the heat to medium high, add the duck, and slowly fry it, too, to render the fat and release the flavors. Turn the heat under the pot to high and pour in the rice wine. When it comes to a boil, add the chicken stock, boiling water, and sugar. Bring the uncovered pot back to a full boil and then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. After an hour or so, remove the pot from the heat and let it come to room temperature. Strain the stock into a clean pan and skim off the fat before refrigerating.
2. A day or two before you plan to serve the soup, you can also prep the pickles and radish: Rinse the pickles in a coarse sieve under tap water to remove most of the saltiness; the winter vegetable especially needs attention to ensure that there is no sand hiding in there. The winter vegetable is already chopped, but the mustard pickles should be cut crosswise into thin (⅛-inch) slices. To prepare the radish, peel off the skin and any tough webbing under the surface and then cut it into ⅛-inch julienne. Refrigerate the pickles and radish in closed plastic bags.
3. About 20 minutes before serving, place the cellophane noodles in a large work bowl and cover with cool tap water to soften them. When they are silky, use kitchen shears to cut across the soft skeins in the water to form 3- to 4-inch lengths. Drain the noodles in a strainer.
4. Bring the strained stock to a full boil and add the radish, as well as the black pepper. Taste the soup and add as much of the winter vegetable or mustard pickles as you like, as saltiness will vary due to the duck’s preparation; you can also add more boiling water if your soup turns out to be on the salty side. Cook this uncovered over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the radishes are tender and sweet, but not mushy. Add the cellophane noodles and simmer for no more than another 5 minutes, as you want them only barely cooked through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with the optional duck meat and cilantro sprinkled on top.