Thursday, April 14, 2016

Duck! - My death row meal

You've heard it often enough that people pick a favorite childhood dish if they had to choose their last meal on earth. A juicy steak, a generous hamburger with all the trimmings, their mother's meatloaf. I guess it all comes down to having a meal that conjures up good times and a warm environment, a dish that's been prepared with love and care. It's no wonder then that my death row meal is a duck soup with salted vegetables.

First of all, what, you may ask, is duck soup? There's roast duck, duck confit, even braised or deep fried duck, but a soup? Made with duck? Well, it's a soup made by simmering pieces of duck together with salty, pickled mustard greens, a few tomatoes thrown in for a touch of sour (some cooks add pickled plums for sourness instead), and some pieces of soft tofu as well.

I grew up on soup. There was always soup on the dinner table, usually made Chinese style with a meat bone broth. It could be lotus root or winter melon which was meant to "cool" the body system. Occasionally there would be chicken soup with Chinese medicinal herbs to "warm" the system instead. Then there were my father's favorites like oxtail soup or peppery pork intestines. Pickled mustard greens or "humchoy" (salted vegetable in Cantonese) in a soup was a staple, but my all-time favorite was and still is duck soup with the salted vegetables.

After two years halfway around the world in college, I was asked by my mother what I wanted to eat the minute I came home for summer vacation. She probably expected a street food item like Hainanese chicken rice, satay or fried noodles, but I asked for my favorite soup instead. It was something I dreamed about during freezing New York winters, or when I was nursing the flu, miserable and missing home.

While I love cooking and eating duck, I don't enjoy preparing the bird. Until today, I have no idea how to chop up poultry, whether chicken or duck. I can roast it whole but am clueless when it needs to be cut into pieces. While skinning chicken is relatively easy, it's more challenging when it comes to duck. The skin tends to stick to the meat and bones and needs patient work with a sharp knife. That's why I prefer ordering a duck form the poultry seller in the wet market. I can request for it be skinned and chopped up. I can also get the pieces of fat and skin back as well. I render out the duck fat and store it in the freezer to be used when I roast potatoes. All I have to do is deal with the bits of gore and bones and throw the duck pieces in the soup pot.

After hours of slow cooking, the duck meat falls off the bone, providing bowls of hot, comforting broth that's salty, slightly gamey and sour. Different cooks have their own take on duck soup. My friend, S, uses bones left over from duck that she's roasted, and adds a slightly more sour pickled vegetable as well as salted plum and dried tamarind pieces. The soup has a lovely smoky flavor from the roast duck as well as sourness from the salted plum and tamarind.

If you google salted vegetable duck soup, you'll get a host of recipes, with slight variations on ingredients. But whether you call it Itik Tim in Nyonya dialect, Kiam Chye Ark in Hokkien or Hum Choy Arp in Cantonese. it's one of those dishes that sounds more complicated than the actual making of it. It's just boiling up duck pieces with pickled vegetables and some other ingredients and letting time work its magic. Trust me, it's even better tastier the next day. That's what I'll tell my death row officers!

Duck Soup with Salted Vegetables

One whole duck, skinned and chopped into large pieces
A few dried oysters (optional)
 400 gm salted vegetables, cut into large pieces and soaked in water to reduce the saltiness
One 2-inch knob of ginger
4 tomatoes
2 pieces of soft tofu
spring onions and coriander for garnish
Fish or soy sauce and white pepper to taste

Add duck pieces, dried oysters and ginger to a pot of cold water.
Bring to a boil and remove scum from top.
Turn down heat and simmer for an hour.
Add  salted vegetables and continue simmering for another hour.
When duck has softened, add tomatoes and tofu.
Season to taste and serve with garnishes of spring onion and coriander.

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