Tea + Duck, et al.

October 20, 2011

Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.
~T’ien Yiheng

With due cause…tea is a cultural icon, a ritual, even the stuff of ceremony and likely the most beloved libation on earth for centuries—sating rich and poor alike.

Tea is made from processed and cured leaves and buds harvested from various cultivars of an evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis. The plant usually grows on plantations in tropical and sub-tropical regions at varying elevations. The cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for easy access, and only the 1-2″ tops of the mature plant, known as flushes, are plucked.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis soon begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried promptly after picking. Leaf size and post-harvest processing, particularly fermentation, determines the type of tea. The word “fermentation” in tea speak refers to how much the leaves are allowed to undergo enzymatic oxidation during the drying process. The oxidation may be stopped by heat via pan frying or steaming before the leaves are completely dried.

The more ubiquitous tea types on the market are green, white, oolong and black. Green tea is withered with little oxidation and then heated to impart its unique flavor. A rather scarce commodity, white tea is made from silver fuzzed buds that are barely unfurled. It is unprocessed meaning that very little is done to the harvested leaf. Oolong is plucked and then laid out on withering racks in the sun which causes evaporation. The dried leaves are then tossed so the edges are bruised to allow partial oxidization. The leaves are fired to halt the oxidization process. Black teas are heavily oxidized and fully fermented making them deeply fragrant.

The Chinese character for tea is 茶, but pronounciations vary by region. One is , which derives from the Min Nan dialect while the other is chá, used by the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.

Tea-smoking has a long culinary history in China. Originally, it was a means of preserving food, but later was strictly used to impart scents and flavors. This dish calls for a more robust black tea, Lapsang Souchong, whose fermented leaves are pressed into bamboo baskets and hung over smoky pine fires to infuse the tea with its notorious flavor. But, feel free to substitute another black, oolong or even green variety.

TEA-SMOKED DUCK BREASTS

2 (3/4 to 1 lb each) duck breasts, whole and boned, with skin on
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
Sea salt

Marinade
2 T Chinese rice wine (preferably Shaoxing)
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 T nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
1 t sesame oil
1/2 T honey
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into strips lengthwise

Peanut oil

Smoking Mixture
1/2 C dry Lapsang Souchong tea leaves
1/4 C packed brown sugar
1/4 C packed raw sugar (turbinado)
1/2 C dry rice
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
3 star anise

Toast peppercorns in a dry small heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking occasionally, until peppercorns are just fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Allow to cool some, then coarsely grind in mortar and pestle or grinder.

Gently mix all of the tea smoking ingredients in a small bowl.

Pat the duck dry. Shallowly score the breasts in a diagonal pattern about 1/2″ apart, taking care to cut only into the fat and not into the meat. Season with the roasted, ground peppers and salt, massaging the mixture into the skin. Allow to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, whisk together the rice wine, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and honey. Add the scallions to this mixture and stir.

Place the duck either in a ziploc bag or tightly covered glass baking pan and cover with the marinade. Refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight and then transfer duck to a platter and bring to room temperature before proceeding. Discard marinade.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet or wok over medium high until nearly smoking. Sear the duck breasts on the skin side only until golden brown about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

To smoke the duck breasts, line a Dutch oven or wok by lining it with two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, leaving an overhang. Wrap the top in foil as well for easy cleaning. Spread the smoking ingredients in the bottom of the Dutch oven or wok and place a steaming rack about one inch above the smoking mixture.

Set the uncovered Dutch oven or wok over high heat and cook until wisps of smoke emit from the smoking mixture. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, on the rack. Tightly cover and smoke duck breasts, about 8 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, and additional 8 minutes for medium rare. Carefully uncover as smoke and steam will billow out. Remove breasts to a cutting board, loosely tent with foil, and let stand for 10 minutes. Carve breasts across the grain in thin diagonal slices and serve.

Pourboire: with minor variations, this same technique of (1) marinading, (2) searing or steaming and (3) smoking can be used for a whole host of fin and feather, even swine.

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