Have you ever been really psyched to watch an old classic movie, only to be totally bewildered half-way through, trying to figure out what all of the fuss is about? (I’m talking about you, Some Like It Hot). That sort of sums up my experience of tackling the Top Chef Boston’s Week 10 Challenge of cooking a dish that honors the late, great, Julia Child. One on hand, I feel like mastering classic french dishes is some kind of test you must pass if you are going to call yourself a “serious” home cook. On the other hand, I do wonder why we are still talking about a recipe that was introduced to the American public in a cookbook published in 1961. Do french people even still make duck a’l’orange? Is this recipe worth all of the fuss? I gave it my best shot to try and find out.
Since Jacques Pepin was on this particular episode of Top Chef, and even answered the chef’s questions about his friend Julia Child, I decided to use his duck a’l’orange recipe. I immediately noticed that 1) the recipe takes 3 hours to make, and 2) there are 9 different steps to this recipe (I won’t be rewriting the entire recipe, so if you want to make this for yourself, follow the link). Since I’ve never actually eaten duck’a’l’orange- or a lot of french food in general- I was a little bit confused about why this recipe is so tedious.
Let me spare you the surprise, because I didn’t figure it out until halfway through my cooking process. You are essentially making two things. You are going to be roasting a duck, which consists of heating your oven, and placing your duck in the oven.
Jacques recommends that you turn the duck on its side every now and then to get a nice brown color all over, but honestly you could skip that part if you really wanted to. Roasting a duck is a lot like roasting a chicken- it just isn’t that complicated.
So why do people always complain about how complicated and time consuming french cooking is you might ask yourself (I asked myself)? Well, let me tell you. Because for those entire three hours you are going to be making a sauce. That is going to sit in a bowl, next to your duck, and you are going to let people spoon as much or as little sauce over their duck as they like.
Also, you are going to be asked to spend some time working on orange wedges and blanching orange zest for garnishes.
What the hell.
How does one sauce take three hours? Well, there are multiple steps. First you have to brown the wing tips off of your duck. While those wing tips are browning, you chop up onions, garlic, tomatoes, leeks, celery, carrots and thyme. And then you soften all of the veggies in the pot.
Now, confession time. You are supposed to add flour and tomato paste to the vegetables prior to adding broth and wine. I totally forgot to do this, and didn’t realize it until the very end. I’m sure this had an effect on my final sauce. Regardless, after you add the liquid, the mixture simmers for an hour.
Now comes the part that, in my opinion, could totally be skipped. The recipe calls for the zest to be removed from an orange, finely julienned, and then blanched. The process is tedious, and honestly, unnecessary. At the end, you are meant to sprinkle the zest over the final duck. In a white table cloth restaurant, this is probably a nice touch. For a meal I am serving at my house on a Wednesday night- it wasn’t really necessary.
Likewise with the orange slices. Let me tell you a true story- I have a lifetime aversion to oranges. I hate the smell of oranges, I hate being in a confined space with other people eating oranges, I hate the sticky fingers people get after eating oranges. Yes, it is a weird aversion that people give me strange looks for. But it is real, and I was proud of myself for making a recipe with the word “orange” in the title. Cutting up orange slices was one step beyond my comfort zone. I skipped it.
I did juice a bunch of oranges in my juicer, because I figured orange juice was a pretty vital ingredient.
Skip ahead an hour, and it’s time to strain all of your liquid that has been simmering on the stove. Yeah, that’s right. All of those vegetables you spent time chopping up? You won’t be eating them. They are ultimately going in the garbage.
Finally, its time to make the actual sauce! Sugar, apple cider vinegar, currant jelly, the orange juice, and my strained liquid all get boiled together. While this was happening, I had to take my duck out of the oven.
And I was so busy taking the following picture:
I actually forgot to add the Grand Marnier and the cold butter. Seriously. (Even though I spent 20 minutes earlier in the day wandering around Total Wine & More and had a full on debate with a sales lady over whether I should buy an off label orange liquor instead of Grand Marnier). So for anyone who is keeping score, I forgot to add flour, tomato paste, Grand Marnier and butter to my sauce. Did that make a difference in my final sauce? Uh…I’m sure it did.
So, in the end, I had a crispy duck, a giant bowl of sauce, and a bowl of orange zest nobody really ate. The sauce did have a nice flavor- don’t get me wrong- but it was probably thinner and less luxurious than it would have been had I actually added the ingredients to it to make it thicker/boozier/fattier. At the end of the day…it was just a bowl of sauce. That I was supposed to spoon onto my duck.
Which I did. And terrible carving skills aside, it was…alright. A solid dinner for sure. I like duck and the sauce was tasty. But given the amount of work, I was definitely underwhelmed. Which leaves the question: were my mistakes bad enough to ruin a french classic and make it mediocre, or is the french classic actually underrated?
I’m not sure. I would be curious to order this in a restaurant. I can understand the merit of putting a lot of time into making a complex sauce. But it really bugged me that it got spooned over the top like an afterthought. I really wanted the duck to be glazed in sauce. It is possible (cough, likely) that I am not meant to be a fine dining cook. I definitely learned that Julia Child’s recipes are probably not my style, and I doubt that I will be diving into The Art of French Cooking anytime soon.
But maybe I’m wrong and this is totally amazing when someone else is preparing it. I would love to hear feedback from anyone else who has experience making duck a’l’orange.