I wasn’t familiar with David Tanis at all until he started writing the City Kitchen column in Wednesday’s Dining Section in the Times. Clearly, I’d been missing a lot. While David’s recipes have often peaked my interest, this is the first one I’ve tried. And what an introduction! This is a stir-fry with a twist. The duck used in the dish is first braised in an Asian inflected broth. Then the meat is cut up and crisped in oil before being joined in the pan by a blizzard of Asian flavors—ginger and orange, garlic, cumin, and hot peppers. The sauce and the broth from the braise bring it all together. And finally, pea shoots, a vegetable I’d never used before, are tossed into the mix where they wilt and bring an rich earthy quality to the finished dish. It’s sweet and spicy and satisfying. It’s one of those dishes that comes with a supreme sense of pride: You’ve made something that tastes so authentic and so good the very first time you’ve cooked it. So why haven’t I heard of David Tanis before?
When I read his brief bio, I sure felt that I’d been missing something. Plenty in fact. In 2008, he wrote “A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes” (Artisan Books) with a forward by his former boss Alice Waters. (He worked at Chez Panisse both upstairs and down.) The book was a huge success and the U.K.’s Guardian/Observer chose it as one the best cookbooks ever. He then followed with a second book called “Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys” (Artisan Books 2010). This one was nominated for a James Beard Award. The thing that’s David’s great draw is that he is “a passionate fan of home cooking”. There’s far more to that sentence than meets the eye. Because far from teaching how to cook restaurant food at home, he goes for the straightforward and the simple, for the small kitchen. And with this recipe he proves his point.
You can make authentic Chinese food at home. In fact, it may be better than the best of Chinese take-out mostly because that food has been sitting around for god knows how long. Food straight from your own pan is hot and freshly cooked. There’s even a word or words for it: “Wok-chi” or “Wok-hei” which, Chef Tanis tells us, means ‘breath of the wok’. It just takes organization. Keep all the elements close at hand and ready to be tossed into a large skillet or wok. By the way, I don’t own a wok in the city. There’s just no room for one. Instead I rely on two big skillets – one non-stick and one stainless steel. They work just fine. You may have to go a little out of your way to find duck legs but they do have them at Whole Foods. I got mine in Chinatown, one of my absolute favorite places to shop for food. The prices are incredible and the breadth of what’s on offer takes your breath away. As for the pea shoots, they are one of those items that I’ve passed at Trader Joe’s more times than I can count. And what a revelation! They are full of vitamin C and have a flavor that’s earthier than an early Spring pea. They bring color and texture to the duck which is finished off with a shower of slivered scallions. You can serve this on a bed of white rice. I didn't. We just enjoyed a big plate of the dish all by itself. Here’s the recipe:
Recipe for David Tanis’ Twice-Cooked Duck with Pea Shoots
4 Muscovy duck legs, about 1 pound each
(or 4 pounds smaller Peking legs) I used Peking Duck legs.
1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
4 thick slices ginger
1 large onion, halved
4 tablespoons rice wine
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon spicy black bean paste (available at Chinese grocers)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 2-inch chunk ginger, peeled and cut in fine julienne
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
8 to 10 small dried red chile peppers
1 teaspoon cumin seed
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces pea shoots, leaves and tendrils (or use baby spinach or mizuna leaves)
3 tablespoons slivered scallions.
NOTE: This recipe serves 4-6. In my case, I halved the amount of duck in the ingredient list but I made the entire sauce recipe. I find that halving the volume of sauce usually means not having enough. This was perfect for the two of us.
1. With a sharp knife, trim any excess fat from the duck legs, leaving the skin intact. Trim the skin a bit, too, if it seems quite thick. Reserve duck fat for another purpose. Season each leg generously with salt, then sprinkle with the 5-spice powder, rubbing the seasoning into the meat. Place the duck legs in a heavy-bottomed pan along with the ginger slices and onion. Cover with 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently, covered, until the meat is fairly tender when probed with a paring knife, about 45 minutes (if using Pekin duck legs, cooking time will probably be less).
Take the duck legs from the pot and let them cool. Remove the meat from the bones and chop into rough half-inch pieces. Strain and cool the cooking broth and skim any fat from surface. This step may be done up to 2 days in advance of finishing the dish.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the rice wine, soy sauce, brown sugar, orange zest, black bean paste and sesame oil. Put the julienne ginger, chopped garlic, red chile peppers and cumin seed on a small plate. Measure 1 cup of defatted duck broth. Mix the cornstarch and water in a small container. Have all these ingredients in easy reach of the stove.
3. In a wok or large cast-iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil over high heat. Add the chopped duck meat and let it sizzle, stirring well, until crisp and lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Lower heat to medium high and add the ginger, garlic, red chile peppers and cumin seed. Stirring often, cook for one minute more, taking care not to burn the garlic. Add the rice wine mixture and duck broth and bring to a brisk simmer. Stir in the cornstarch mixture; cook until lightly thickened, 30 seconds or so.
Turn off heat and add the pea shoots, mixing them into the sauce until barely wilted. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with scallions.