It is week 3 on Top Chef Boston, and I have to admit, I was less than excited about their “cook with ball park food staples” challenge. Making a gourmet meal out of food found at the ballpark is something that is usually reserved for quickfire challenges, not the main elimination. As I watched the episode, I found myself not particularly drawn to any of the dishes. I was much more interested in the quickfire challenge’s use of infusing food with various types of tea. So for my challenge this week, I am going to give myself a little (a lot) of leeway. Gregory won the elimination challenge with a roast duck and a fresh herb salad (complete with peanuts- his ball park food of choice). For my personal challenge, I chose to honor both Gregory’s dish, and take on the quickfire tea challenge by smoking a duck breast with tea leaves, and creating my own herb and peanut salad.
As has been a pattern since I started my Top Chef Challenge, I ran into a problem finding the only ingredient I was really hanging my hat on this week- duck breasts. I thought for sure the local Filipino Market would carry duck, but no such luck. I eventually found myself at Whole Foods, which sure enough carries duck breasts for a tiny fortune. Reminding me why perky cashiers and and a juice bar are not worth a 30% mark up on all groceries.
I have never smoked a duck- or anything else for that matter- so I found a recipe for tea smoked duck in the China Moon cookbook by Barbara Tropp (available on Scribd.com). Barbara Tropp is apparently the “Julia Childs” of Chinese cooking; I’ve only made one other stir fry recipe out of her book so far, but they were pretty tasty noodles. Much better than takeout. I think there is a lot more Chinese cooking in my future.
The duck prep was pretty easy. My recipe called for minced ginger, scallions and Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt. I used a mix of ground peppercorns and sea salt instead. I rubbed the mixture on both sides of the duck, and then added orange zest to the skin side. I then popped those breasts skin side up in the fridge for a few hours, and waited.
Which gave me time to figure out my salad. Gregory’s salad used watercress, which was not available at the store. I had half a cabbage left over in my refrigerator from those above mentioned stir fry noodles. After paging through my Chinese cookbook, I found an idea for ginger pickled cabbage salad. Remember last week when I pickled rhubarb for my fennel salad? I still had a jar full of rhubarb pickles that were in dire need of being used up. So I shredded my cabbage, laid the cabbage ribbons flat into a flat plastic container, and covered the cabbage with rhubarb pickle juice. While my marinating juices did their thing, I enjoyed my Sunday watching football and reading quietly. You can’t beat this recipe!
Once it was time to actually put dinner together, I was pleased to see that everything came together quickly. I chopped up some basil and cilantro and mixed them into my pickled cabbage. I also added some of the pickled rhubarb and chopped up some roasted peanuts. When I make up my own salad combinations, they don’t always come out they way I think they will in my mind. This combination actually worked. Definitely a make again.
From there, my biggest challenge was to construct my wok into a smoker. The first step was to line the bottom of my wok with tinfoil and place my “smoking mixture” in the bottom. This particular smoking mixture consists of loose tea leaves, brown sugar, raw rice, orange peel, and broken up cinnamon sticks. I couldn’t find the history behind why rice, tea, and sugar are such a popular Chinese smoking method, but I did find that this is the traditional smoking method in Chinese cooking.
I couldn’t find a rack to fit perfectly into the bottom of my wok, so I found an adjustable roasting rack at the store, that was good enough. After searing the skin side of my duck, I carefully balanced my marinated breasts, skin side up over my smoking mixture.
And, as per my recipe, I turned the heat on full force until little puffs of smoke started to curl from my smoking mixture. I also took the liberty of opening every window in my house, as well as turned on the ventilation fan. As someone who has set off the smoke detector while cooking more than once, this was an important step. I’m’ sure my dogs appreciated it.
Once I had a good amount of smoke going, it was time to cover the whole thing. I don’t have a cover that fits my wok, so I had to improvise. By that I mean, cover the entire thing with a baking sheet and plug the smoking holes the best I could. It was jenky. But it worked.
My recipe called for the duck breasts to be smoked for 4 minutes, and then allowed to sit inside the smoker for another 4 minutes after turning the heat off. I tried that and the meat was totally raw. I threw them back in and smoked them for another 20, which returned much better results. After 30 minutes of smoking, I threw them in the oven at 400 degrees for another five minutes. The results were a fairly successful, medium rare duck breast.
Combined with the salad, I am pretty excited by how attractive the two look together. The combination of flavors were also complimentary. I had considered making a sauce for the duck, but in the end I’m glad I left it alone. The smoked flavor really came out, and it was nice not to mask that with anything else.
Overall, not exactly what Gregory presented on Top Chef, but….I learned how to smoke a duck. I used tea. And I even managed to sneak in the required peanuts. So I call this meal a success!