It all started at a pre-Christmas dinner with friends. It was our first time getting together, and we didn’t know them very well, but by the end of dinner, I found out the husband had a wine cellar—not just a good one, a great one. Like a lot of collectors he jokingly complained he had more wine than opportunities to drink it. I decided to help him out. If he’d bring the wine, I volunteered to prepare a worthy dinner.
After the New Year I called, and we set a date—the Sunday before Valentine’s. My mind immediately went into action. What to serve? Lamb? Foie Gras? Rich cheeses? I needed focus, a theme, and few days later I found it in my research on another project. As I scanned the table of contents in Jacque Pepin’s Kitchen, Cooking with Claudine (KQED 1996), his four-course Duck Party caught my attention. Using legs, thighs, and breasts to make Sautéed Duck in Vinegar Sauce, the skin for Mock Peking Duck, the liver and fat for pâté and the rest of the bird– gizzard, neck, heart, and wings—for Duck and Beans Casserole, he managed to use every bit of the duck.
I liked Pepin’s concept, but rather than use the legs, thighs and breasts in one dish, I decided to split them up. After a little more Internet trolling (and Pepin’s inspiration) I created a menu for a five-course duck dinner.
So that we could enjoy a different bottle of wine with each course without overindulging, I invited two more food-loving oenophilic couples. For the eight of us I bought two five- to six-pound ducks and butchered them in the following way for the following courses:
- Skin—Using a sharp knife at some points, tugging on the rest I removed the skin from the ducks’ back, legs and thighs. With Jacques Pepin’s recipe as a guide, I made Mock Peking Duck.
- Backs, wings, necks, and giblets, including hearts and gizzards—Roasting these parts first, I used Nigel Slater’s recipe for turning a leftover Peking duck carcass into soup as a guide for Duck Soup with Ginger and Star Anise.
- Duck livers and the small wad of fat from around the leg/thigh and tail area—With these parts I riffed off Jacque’s recipe for Duck Liver Pâté with Fig-Raisin Compote.
- Duck breasts—I removed the bones but left the skin attached to make Crispy Duck Breast with Balsamic-Cherry Sauce, Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Parsnip-Carrot Puree
- Skinned whole duck legs—Following an Epicurious recipe I confied the duck legs and then used them to make Simpler Cassoulet, a recipe already on our site.
With today’s post we’ll run Mock Peking Duck. For the next four days we’ll post a new duck recipe each day.
This duck project was significant, but the whole experience went far beyond throwing a nice dinner party. Here’s a bit of what I learned along the way.
I made a move. Until now we rarely used our lovely living room (the biggest room in the house with the only fireplace). For years I had threatened to swap the dining room and living room. This dinner finally forced me to do it, and everyone—including David who was mildly opposed—loved it.
I challenged myself. Although I’ve catered elaborate benefit dinners, I hadn’t hosted a challenging dinner like this—seven courses in all—since the late 1980’s. I was reminded that if I want to do it, I can do it. It just takes a little advance planning and work.
I rediscovered the whole bird. Over the years I had come to rely on boneless, skinless poultry. When I did buy whole birds, I’d frequently toss the neck, giblets, and often the back. This exercise gave me a reverence and appreciation for each part of the animal.
Candlelight is romantic! When I moved the dining room into the living room, I lost my chandelier. With the exception of a couple of dim corner lamps, the room was lit almost exclusively by candlelight and fire. The most used word of the evening: magical. The food and wine played a role, but I give lighting most of the credit.
I practiced. In my youth, I’d often brag about serving a never-before-tried dish to company. If it wasn’t perfect, so be it. I don’t know if it’s my age or the dinner, but I wanted to test-drive it first, and I’m glad I did. I got the chance to tweak flavors and to perfect the execution. I had confidence, and it was real.