A pumpkin patch has sprouted up the road from us, complete with garish orange blinking lights and light-up goblin yard decorations, so I figure it’s time I man up and accept that it’s fall. In the Bay Area, this feels a little hollow; it’s still upwards of 85 degrees during the day, and–with the exception of a few maple trees dropping leaves in the parking lot at work–there’s not too much color in any of the leaves around here. But, whatever. I made a pretty good run at the summer menu, so I’m excited to switch over to some autumn recipes. I picked this one for no reason other than it’s the first one in the Autumn menu I haven’t done yet, and my game plan loosely involves just moving straight through the book until I’m forced to accept Winter is upon us.
Here’s an overview of the anatomy of this dish.
Making all this has been pretty straightforward and fun. I started by making a brine for the duck itself. Brining is a fascinating process to me: the basic idea is that you put some meat in some salty water. Osmosis (think back to 8th grade biology) causes the water in the meat to leech outwards towards the salt, where the two bind together. This leaves sort of a vacuum inside the meat where the water once was, so the water+salt gets pulled back inside. This happens over and over as the meat ‘breathes’ the brine, carrying the salt deeper and deeper into the meat. When the meat is cooked, the salt does the double-duty of seasoning the meat from the inside, as well as locking up the water so that the meat stays moist.
Understanding that basic principle, one can add lots of other flavorings, then, that can go along for the ride with the salt during this process. In this case, our brine is made with the juice from a whole pineapple, jalepenos, lemongrass, ginger, soy sauce, cinnamon, and brown sugar. I combined everything, brought it to a boil, and let the mixture steep for several hours before straining it and refrigerating it.
There are several components that are dependent on roasted items, so I worked with those next. I roasted two bananas and a butternut squash; the butternut squash had some pats of butter set in the cavities left behind once I’d cleaned out all the seeds. I’d never tasted butternut squash before, and was skeptical seeing it when this recipe blatantly features pumpkin in the title. But dang, it tastes more pumpkiny than the pumpkinyest pumpkin in pumpkinville when it’s roasted. I’m a little pissed at myself for not playing with one of these sooner.
After a half hour, the banana was perfectly roasted. I combined one and a half roasted bananas with a healthy fistful of dried banana chips, some sugar, salt, and citric acid, and brought to a boil to make a sort of banana tea.
I let this tea steep for a few days, strained it, mixed in some lecithin, and had myself some delicious banana froth.
At the same time, I used the remainder of the roasted banana, more banana chips, cream and some agar to make a banana gel. I let this set in the fridge overnight, and the next morning pureed it in my blender to yield a pretty tasty banana pudding.
Other accessories for this dish included frying some pumpkin seeds and dusting them with a mixture of salt and mild and hot curry powders, and baking some peanuts in a glaze of sugar, salt, and cayenne. I peeled a lime, trimmed the pith from the zest, blanched briefly, then left in simple syrup to candy for a day. I also thinly-sliced some ginger and thai red and green chilies, and snipped a few blades of some micro lemongrass I’ve been growing for the past few months for this dish.
My final step was to brine a duck tenderloin for several hours before cooking it and assembling everything. I have a bad habit of relying on memory for things like specific meats at grocery stores, and I’m often wrong about it. Such was the case with this duck; I’d misremembered that Piedmont Grocery carries whole duck, and I figured the best way to get ahold of a tenderloin (which I figured would be a fairly difficult cut to find on its own) would be to just butcher my own duck myself. When I got to the shop, they didn’t carry whole ducks, but said they carried frozen breasts in the back. I asked if the breast still had the tender on it, and I got a “Yeah I’m pretty sure.”
I told them I’m specifically after a duck tender, and I know duck is expensive, so I needed to be sure. The guy I was speaking to asked someone else, and that someone else was “pretty sure” too. He said what they carry is basically a whole removed breast (both sides) from a duck, and he showed me a chicken breast that had been removed in this fashion, which still had the tenders attached. “Ok,” I relented, “hook me up.” The guy disappeared into the back and returned with an inscrutable block of meat vacuum-sealed in plastic that looked like duck breast only in color really. I had no way of telling what was inside until I got home to thaw it. I paid the $30 it cost for the chunk of meat (which I was told was one whole duck breast) and came home.
A few hours later, the meat had thawed enough for me to unwrap it.
Well shit. No tenders at all. And now I’d thawed the meat, so I had to do SOMETHING with it. I sat and seethed for a few minutes, called the butchery to bitch at them a little (they didn’t care), then decided to push forward with this. I knew a breast would be thicker and tougher than the tenderloin…there was no hiding that. But I figured maybe I could try to do something interesting with the skin. I took the skin off one of the breasts, and put the breast in my brine. Something missing from this dish is a crispy skin; I know when people think of duck breast that crispy skin is a big part of what comes to mind. So I seasoned the skin with salt and thai long pepper, and put it in a pan on low heat with a scallion, some lemongrass, and a bulb of garlic.
I let all the fat render off of the skin; this took about an hour and 15 minutes or so over very low heat. It smelled pretty nice during this time. Here’s what I ended up with:
I drained off the fat, then finely minced up the skin with a mortar and pestle, mixed in some of the fat along with some peanut oil, and added some tapioca maltodextrin. This yielded a pliable/moldable powder that was moist enough to form into shapes, and had crispy elements scattered throughout it. A tiny cube of the stuff tastes powerfully like crispy duck skin.
The final steps involves searing the brined duck breast to medium-rare (I did about 3.5 minutes per side, which seemed to turn out just about right). The ‘medium-rare’ thing freaked me out a little until I read up about this: I guess duck breast is considered a ‘red meat’ and so you sort of want to treat it like a steak rather than like a chicken breast. I cooked two more breasts medium-rare for our dinner last night and I’m still alive this morning so I guess that means it’s legit?
At any rate, it was delicious. The duck breast on its own had a lovely flavor from the brine, sort of sweet and tangy and savory. I tend to have trouble with these dishes that are ‘a little cube of meat with some stuff on it’ in that it’s difficult for me to pick them apart really well, and I can’t ever seem to get a firm recognition of the meat. It’s happened with lamb and a few other meats, all of which are cooked to mostly the same texture and are heavily-accessorized. So, this could have been steak for all I’d know if you served it to me without telling me what it was. And taking the entire bite at once, along with a swig of the warmed squash-soup-topped-with-banana-froth was quite flavorful and delicious, but ultimately just tasted like “good” to me. I couldn’t have picked it apart really, and only barely recognized that there were thai elements or bananas or pumpkins involved. It just tasted like ‘good’.
“Oh, that was a delicious bite of good!”
“The good is really tasting nice this season, don’t you think?”
“Now, is this free-range good? It certainly tastes like organic good.”
“Can I have some more good please?”
And so forth.