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Cooking with Tea: Lapsang Souchong-Smoked Duck Breasts with Soy, Star Anise and Ginger

Three teas for cooking: From the top, bold pine-smoked Lapsang Souchong; nutty tasting genmaicha, mixed with roasted rice; and earthy pu-erh, aged for up to 90 years.

Three teas for cooking: From the top, bold pine-smoked Lapsang Souchong; nutty tasting genmaicha, mixed with roasted rice; and earthy pu-erh, aged for up to 90 years.

“The best thing that ever happened to a duck,” B enthused.

This was my cue to smile mysteriously.

And to thank my acquisitive instincts for that little tin of Lapsang Souchong buried in the back of the tea “department” in our pantry.

I’ve been away, not cooking much, at least not the way I like, but reading a lot. Loved The Spice Necklace, Amy Vanderhoof’s blithe tale of a couple of years spent sailing through the Caribbean, harvesting fresh nutmeg and sampling seamoss, the “island version of Viagra.” Cooking: The Quintessential Art is altogether different, but I’ve been ravenously consuming Pierre Gagnaire’s “theoretical” recipes: I.e. “a dish [that] sets you to thinking of abstractions such as transparency, happiness and so on.”

(Hint: It’s not jello.)

But the thing that really piqued my appetite was a little piece in The Wall Street Journal about the growing craze for cooking with tea.

In “Tea’s Got a Brand New Bag” (February 19-20, 2011, p. D9), Sarah Karnasiewicz says that “growing ranks of globetrotting tea purveyors and tea sommeliers “ are showing restaurant chefs how to get creative with the leaf.

Not Lipton’s, by the way, but fine “varietals” such as green Japanese sencha (“well-balanced and bright, with a woodsy astringency”), Earl Grey (“vivid floral and citrus notes…a friend of fish”) and Indian Assam (“Malty, savory and strong…pair it with poultry.”)

Think whole leaf tea, outside the box—or kettle. At the French Culinary Institute, tea chef Melanie Franks grinds genmaicha—nutty-tasting Japanese green tea mixed with roasted and popped rice—with sea salt to season grilled vegetables and meat. Cynthia Gold, author of Culinary Tea, braises pork shoulder in a blend of aged, earthy Pu-er, molasses, star anise, brown sugar and soy, while at Blue Ginger, Ming Tsai uses dark and smoky Lapsang Souchong as a stock for rice.

Cruising through my own pantry, I realized that as with spices, there are far too many teas—more than I could possibly drink in a year or even two. Rose-scented chai, many packages of first and second-flush Indian Darjeeling, and some well-aged Pu-erh, which has, ahem, continued to age since coming to rest in my mother’s velvet-lined pewter tea box, are just a few of the many brews that confronted me.

But I truly adore Lapsang Souchong. It’s very black, strong and smoky-tasting, the kind of tea that one might drink to recover from a delicious but all too fatty meal of red-braised pork belly. In The Time of Tea, Dominique T. Pasqualini deprecates the twisted, smoke-blackened leaf, calling Lapsang Souchong “too notorious,” presumably for its exploitive, colonial origins: It ‘is said to be the result of the unfortunate action of a planter who, wanting to save his crop from an impending war, tried to accelerate the drying process with a fire made of pine branches, and who then passed off the resulting smoky taste to credulous English merchants as a specialty of his village. “

Politics aside, may I say that the tea is absolutely delicious, though probably not for everyday drinking.

I originally planned to brew some green genmaicha as a liquid for ochazuke, a satisfying Japanese dish in which tea is poured over cooked short grain white rice. But when I stumbled across Sri Owen’s recipe for duck breasts smoked over black tea in The Rice Book, I was instantly sidetracked. Owen, an Indonesian food writer who lives in the U.K., adapted the recipe from one for “Smoked Duck, Sichuan Style” in the late Yan-Kit So’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, substituting duck breasts for a whole dismembered bird.

What better opportunity to try pinewood-smoked Lapsang Souchong in place of the generic black tea in the ingredients list?

The fascinating thing about this recipe is that the duck is subjected to four kinds of “cooking.” First the breasts marinate overnight in salt. The next day they are smoked over black tea. Then the duck is steamed in a mixture of star anise and other spices, soy sauce, sesame oil and Shaohsing wine. And last, it is deep-fried in peanut oil. Yet the dish is not terribly difficult or time-consuming, as long as you start the night before you want to serve it. Most important, it is fabulous to eat.

I basically followed Owen’s recipe with a few embellishments, adding some Chinese 5-spice powder to the salt in which the breasts are marinated overnight and replacing the basic black tea with Lapsang Souchong. And since I was fresh out of Shaohsing wine, I substituted dry vermouth for the steaming. At the last moment I tossed a strip of orange zest into the mix.

The smoking part of the recipe can be quite exciting. You might want to open the kitchen door and disconnect your smoke alarm, since no matter how tightly you seal your wok, wisps of smoke—OK, billowing clouds of smoke—are likely to escape, especially when you have to remove the breasts after smoking them.

It also helps to have a wok with both a rack for steaming/smoking and a lid. But, if like me, you have only a wok—in my case a big cast iron one I lugged home from Singapore about ten years ago—you will have to improvise a lid with double layers of aluminum foil, both for lining the wok and for sealing it.

The rack presented other problems.
When I announced that I needed a one for smoking inside a covered wok, the sales assistant at the Chinese market looked at me as if I were insane. “We don’t do that,” she said. So I decamped to a nearby cooking store where I found a 12-3/4 inch round cake-cooling rack that fit neatly inside the wok . It also held the plate on which the duck breasts were steamed, though I could also have used a bamboo steamer in its place.

Where I really deviated from Owen’s recipe was the last step. Smoked duck, Sichuan style, is usually fried after it is smoked and steamed. Instead, hoping to lower the cholesterol quotient, I decided to slip the breasts under the broiler for a few minutes, just to crisp the skin.

It might not have been be authentic, but I will tell you: It was superb. The breast was tender and juicy, permeated with smoke and the licorice-taste of star anise, the skin crackling brown and succulent with just the right amount of fat. At the last minute I served the duck with a dash of fiery sriracha sauce and thinly sliced cucumber, quickly “pickled” in rice vinegar and salt—together they provided a zesty counterpoint to the richness of the meat.

The only other dish to prepare is plain short grain rice—a snap if you have a rice cooker. I’ve fallen in love with the Zojirushi which I gave B as a present last year—but that’s a subject for another day’s post.

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Lapsang Souchong-Smoked Duck Breast with Soy, Star Anise and Ginger
(adapted from The Rice Book by Sri Owen)

To serve four

Ingredients for the duck:

6 boneless duck breast fillets, skin on, 6 ounces each
1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder (see note)
¾ cup all purpose flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons Lapsang Souchong or other black tea
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 whole star anise
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, or cracked black pepper
1 2-inch strip orange zest
2 tablespoons Shaohsing wine, dry sherry or vermouth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Canola oil

Ingredients for the cucumbers:

1 medium cucumber, unpeeled
Rice vinegar
Sea salt

Other accompaniments:

Sriracha sauce
3 cups cooked short grain white rice

You will also need a wok or heavy pot, heavy duty aluminum foil, a heat proof plate, and a rack that will fit inside the wok or pot for smoking and steaming the duck breasts.

Method for the duck breasts:
1. Rinse the duck breasts and pat them dry. Mix the salt and Chinese 5-spice powder in a small dish. Sprinkle the mixture over the meat on both sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day rinse the duck breasts well, pat them dry and set them aside. Line the bottom of your wok or a heavy pot with two layers of heavy duty aluminum foil. Sprinkle the flour, brown sugar and tea evenly over the foil. Place the rack inside the wok and arrange the duck breasts, skin side up, in one layer on top of the rack. Cover the wok with a lid, if it has one, or seal it tightly with two more layers of aluminum foil.
3. Turn the heat to medium . As the tea mixture heats up, the breasts will begin to smoke. After ten minutes, turn the breasts—don’t worry if you don’t see much smoke coming from the tea mixture—and again cover tightly. Smoke for another 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and carefully remove the lid or the aluminum foil. This is where smoke will probably billow out into the kitchen—stand back! It won’t hurt to have the doors and windows open, and the smoke alarm turned off.
4. Remove the breasts to a heat-proof plate and set aside. Remove the aluminum foil with the smoldering tea mixture and let cool before discarding.
5. In a small bowl, mix the ginger, scallions, star anise, orange zest, Sichuan or cracked peppercorns, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine (or sherry or vermouth). Pour it over the duck breasts and turn to be sure the meat is coated with the mixture.
6. Add two to three cups of water to the wok or pot and place the rack inside. The water level should come to one inch below the rack. Put the heat-proof plate with the duck breasts on the rack. Turn the heat to high and bring the water just to a boil. Cover with a lid, or two layers of aluminum foil, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Steam the breasts, covered, for one hour. Do not let the water boil away—check the level every 15 minutes and add another cup if necessary. Be careful not to scald yourself when removing the lid or foil.
7. When the breasts have finished steaming, remove the aluminum foil or the lid, again being very careful not to let escaping steam scald your fingers. When the plate has cooled slightly, remove it from the wok. Pour off the liquid—as Owen observes, it is mostly duck fat—and let the breasts cool to room temperature. (If you used Sichuan peppercorns, brush them off the duck as they may have a bitter flavor.)
8. While the breasts are cooling, prepare the cucumber: Scrub the cucumber well with a plastic scrubber, warm water and soap. Rinse and dry, but do not peel. Slice the cucumber into paper-thin slices. Arrange them in a shallow dish and pour ¼ cup of rice vinegar over them. Sprinkle with a little sea salt. Turn the cucumber slices in the mixture and refrigerate.
9. Finish the duck breasts: Lightly rub the duck breasts with a few drops of canola oil and put them skin side up in a roasting pan. Turn on the oven broiler and when it is hot, place the breasts under the broiler for 4 to 5 minutes, just long enough for the skin to crisp and turn golden brown. Do not let them overcook, or the meat will dry out.
10. To serve, cut the duck breasts into thin slices. On each plate, arrange the slices from one and a half breasts in the shape of a fan. Squirt a little siracha sauce onto the plate and add a few slices of vinegary cucumber. Serve with steamed short grain rice.

Note: See the Epicentre for a recipe for 5-spice powder–ingredients vary somewhat–or buy it (without Sichuan peppercorns) from The Spice House.

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