Goodness, did I cook a lot of whole animals this past week. First it was the glorious goat spit for The Greenhorns. Then Tuesday was the Hapa Kitchen‘s third dinner, “Paris of the East,” featuring a fusion of French and Chinese cuisines — and lots of duck, duck, and more duck (no goose). We dressed the dining room with Chinese lanterns, flowers and curling garlic scapes, put on some Django Rhinehart and the soundtrack to In the Mood For Love, wrote menus on the backs of Chinese poster art prints from the 1930s (of girls in high-collar chipao dresses), poured five different wines from Wolffer Estate, sourced vegetables from nearby Sang Lee Farms, and cooked nine six and a half-pound ducks from D’Artagnan. It’s taken me a bit of time getting myself out of this “mood.” To be perfectly honest, I could stay there for a while.
But recipe-sharing is in order! And I can’t wait to share the secrets to some of our favorite courses of the evening. Duck might not be the everyday, household fowl, but it’s a decadent, and oh-so distinct treat for special occasions. Duck breast? Delicious, and simple as steak to prepare. This was our main course of the night, and it was finished with a Shaoxing rice wine reduction from the pan juices that we called “drunken” butter sauce. Other French/Chinese offerings were made with the plentiful parts of the duck not so delicate as the breast meat. We ordered whole ducks, which is an economical move as long as you don’t mind breaking them down — these birds came with everything intact: head, feet, organs, beak, and some little stubs of feathers that were meticulously tweezed from the skin. And we didn’t let a piece go to waste. Most of it went into making several gallons of savory duck stock. Splashes of it was used here and there, in the chilled cucumber soup with ravioli and wine sauce. Pulled leg, back and neck meat was confited in rendered fat, and flavored with Chinese five-spice to stuff inside puff pastry turnovers. Duck skin was cut into squares and fried up for cracklins to sprinkle on the salad. The liver made a fine mousse to top rice crackers, with just a hint of sesame oil. And the choicest hunks of leg meat were saved for these duck buns, one of the pre-dinner passed appetizers.
the seared duck breast entree
five-spice duck confit-stuffed puff pastry turnovers
There is so much to do when you have a whole duck! Just the fat alone is worth its weight in gold to many chefs — and trust me, one duck will produce plenty of it. Makes me wonder why whole duck roasts or duck skin chicharron haven’t become more popular in this pork belly and fatty meats in general-obsessed city. In any case, let’s get back to the meat of the duck, because that’s what was in these buns. Their appearance just might remind you of the famous pork buns from a certain NYC restaurant quite popular for their eclectic Asian menu (and love of fat). But I’ll leave its name a mystery. As with most Hapa Kitchen menu inspirations, the idea of making a duck version of it woke me up in the middle of the night. It was later refined with additional toppings, Franco-fied with Dijon mayonnaise, and given a test-run with the gang one Friday night. We couldn’t get enough of them.
stuffing the buns
So, if you ever find yourself with bits of duck meat to spare (and I sincerely hope you do sometime), these buns are an easy way to make a party snack that you and your guests can really sink your teeth into. The steamed bun that we served these on are pretty crucial to the end result. They’re not difficult to make on your own, but even simpler, pick up a pack of these buns (or bao) in the refrigerator aisle of an Asian grocery store, or fresh from a Chinese bakery, and steam them for a couple minutes to fluff them up before serving. Like the restaurant of its inspiration, we used folded round buns that you can stuff things inside, and on the package they’re typically called “sandwich buns.” Comes in all sorts of sizes.
Much less crucial is your choice of toppings. Since we had such beautiful cucumbers from Sang Lee, we finely sliced them for quick pickles with rice vinegar, salt and sugar. Some pickled daikon radish could work just great, and instead of scallions (or in addition), a few sprigs of fresh cilantro, why not? It’ll be everything it’s quacked up to be.
Dijon Duck Buns with Pickled Cucumber and Scallions
about 1 cup braised duck meat (such as after cooking a butchered duck carcass into stock)
6 Chinese steamed “sandwich” buns (or if you can’t find this shape, halve and cut slits into regular Chinese steamed buns)
1 tablespoon Hoisin sauce
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
pinch of sugar
1 scallion, finely chopped
for the cucumber quick pickles:
1 small thin-skinned cucumber, sliced finely
equal parts of rice vinegar and water to cover
about 1 teaspoon each Kosher salt and sugar
Marinate the pickles in the rice vinegar, water, salt and sugar solution and chill while you prepare the rest.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the mayonnaise, Dijon, mustard powder and sugar in a small bowl and set aside. Pull the duck meat into pieces no bigger than a thumb. Toss in the Hoisin sauce and spread on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake until just crisped around the edges, about 8 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a steamer (or improvise one with a pot of water and something that will hold the buns above the water covered) and steam the buns for about 4 minutes.
Assemble the buns by spreading the Dijon mayonnaise on the inside. Place equal portions of the duck meat inside, and top with the pickled cucumber and scallions.
(for 6 buns)
6 Chinese steamed buns (at $1.39/pack of 10): $0.83
1 cup braised duck meat (at $26.99/whole Pekin duck from D’Artagnan): $3.50(?)
1 cucumber: $0.50
1 scallion: $0.25
1/4 cup mayonnaise: $0.25
1 tablespoon Hoisin sauce: $0.35
1 teaspoon each mustard, mustard powder, salt, sugar: $0.40
rice vinegar for the pickles: $0.25
Seven brownie points: You can make a really nice proportion of meat to vegetables to starch with this bun, and it’ll still taste great. By really nice, that is, a minimal amount of meat, and a somewhat even amount of refreshing vegetables. Pickling them is obviously not as healthy as keeping them fresh, but with quick pickles, they’re just basically seasoned a bit. Duck meat is by no means lean, but since you’ve already braised it here until tender, much of the fat has been rendered out. However, it’s replaced with a hefty portion of mayonnaise in the sandwich.
This was a local and sustainable food-focused meal, so everything but the seasoning and condiments were such. We also went with a Long Island theme for this menu, which is where Sang Lee and Wolffer Estate are located, and is where the Pekin duck breed originates. D’Artagnan is a reliable source for humanely raised ducks, and a longtime supporter of small farms. As for the Asian market-bought buns, they’re basically flour and water, and came from an NYC Chinese bakery.