North Fork Chef: Pekin duck, a long-ago Chinese import

Steamed and roasted Long Island duck.
JOHN ROSS PHOTO | Steamed and roasted Long Island duck.

The term “Long Island Duck” is famous throughout the world and still seen on many restaurant menus. And indeed, by the late 1960s Long Island was producing up to six million ducks annually. Eastport became the center of duck processing and distribution because of the proximity of the railroad and farmlands to good drainage and easy access to water.

As the population moved eastward, duck production declined. Today, the Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, owned by the Corwin family, is the only duck farm left on the North Fork. They, however, remain very active, breeding, hatching, growing and processing all of their ducks right here on the North Fork. Crescent Duck Farm produces about 5 percent of the commercial ducks in the United States. The quality of these ducks ranks among the best in the world and they are purchased by the most discriminating chefs and restaurants.

The breed of duck used on Long Island is the Pekin duck, with its characteristic white feathers and orange feet. The first Pekin ducks came from China on a clipper ship in 1873. One drake and three females survived the voyage from Beijing to Long Island Sound. The ducks readily took to the sandy soil and tidal ponds of eastern Long Island and multiplied to create a booming industry and a name that would live on for many years.

The breed, Pekin duck, should not be confused with the famous duck dish, Peking duck. In the Peking (or Beijing) duck recipe the crisp skin is separated from the roasted duck and served with Mandarin pancakes, scallion brushes and hoisin sauce. The duck meat is served on a separate plate. Peking duck is famous in China and served throughout the world in Chinese restaurants. The authentic recipe, which requires inflating the duck with air and hanging it to dry in a cool breeze, is a little too labor-intensive for most home cooks, but here are some recipes that capture some of the flavors and style of that famous dish:

Steamed and Roasted
Long Island Duck

Remove the giblets and fat from the body cavity of a 6-pound duck and trim the skin around the neck area. Cut off the tail and trim the wing tips. Rinse under cold water, dry and prick the skin with a sharp fork. Make a spice rub by combining 1 tablespoon Chinese five spice powder with 2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons coarse salt. Stir in 1 teaspoon soy sauce to make a slurry and rub it over the duck and in the cavity. Place in the cavity half of an unpeeled onion, half of an unpeeled orange, 1 tablespoon sliced ginger and 1 tablespoon sliced garlic. Tie the legs and wings against the body with a piece of string. Place the duck in a V-shaped poultry rack and set it in a roasting pan. Place the pan in a 400-degree oven and pour boiling water in the bottom so that it comes up the sides one inch. Cover tightly with foil and steam in the oven for 1 hour.
While duck is cooking, combine 1/2 cup honey, 1/4 cup soy sauce and 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar in a saucepan. Reduce by half and set aside.
After 1 hour remove the duck, still in its rack, and set on a sheet pan. Pour the water from the roasting pan and place the duck back in it. Brush the duck with the reduced glaze and return, uncovered, to the oven to roast for another 1 hour at 400 degrees. Baste with the glaze every 15 minutes. When the joints wiggle easily the duck is fully cooked. Remove and let rest before serving. It should be a deep mahogany brown and very flavorful. It does not need a sauce, but would go well with long-grain wild rice or a barley pilaf.
Serves 4.

Twice-Cooked Duck Legs
with Mandarin Pancakes

Trim excess fat from 4 duck legs (about 2 pounds). Cut each leg in half through the joint to make a thigh and a drumstick. You will have 8 pieces of about equal size. Rub the duck pieces with 1 tablespoon Chinese five spice powder and place them in a soup pot. Add cold water to just about cover, along with 1 cup soy sauce, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 tablespoon sliced ginger, 1 tablespoon sliced garlic, the peel from one orange and 6 black peppercorns. Slowly bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes. Remove from the cooking liquid, pat dry and cool.
For the Mandarin pancakes, place 2 cups flour in a bowl and quickly stir in 1 cup boiling water to form a dough. Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 3 minutes. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Divide the dough in half and form into two balls. Roll these out into quarter-inch-thick pieces and, using a rocks glass, cut them into 3-inch rounds. Brush the rounds with sesame oil on one side and place them, oil side in, together with another round to form a pancake. Sprinkle with a little flour and roll out these rounds to a diameter of 6 inches. Set aside and cover with a damp towel.
At service time heat about 2 cups canola oil in a shallow pan to 375 degrees. Deep-fry the duck pieces until dark and crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels and keep warm.
Heat a heavy sauté pan to medium and cook the pancakes until lightly browned on each side, about 3 minutes each. When cool enough to handle, peel them apart and serve on a plate. Cut the meat and skin off of the duck pieces with a sharp knife and cut into thin julienne pieces or slivers. Serve these in a bowl.
On a separate plate serve one bunch of scallions that have been cut in half crosswise and then cut into thin strips. Serve a dish of hoisin sauce on the side to spread on a pancake; add duck and scallion slivers and roll it up to eat as you would with a Peking duck.

Marinated Duck Breast
Trim excess fat from 4 duck breasts with the skin on and score the skin with a sharp knife in a crisscross pattern. Make a marinade by combining 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup hoisin sauce, 1/4 cup honey, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon grated ginger, 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Place the breasts in the marinade and refrigerate for 2 hours.
At service time, heat a heavy sauté pan to high and cook the duck breasts skin side down until brown. Turn the duck, reduce the heat and cook for another 5 minutes or until medium rare (130 degrees). Remove and keep warm.
Pour off all fat from the pan and make a sauce by adding the marinade, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon hoisin and 1/4 cup white wine. Dissolve 1 tablespoon cornstarch in cold water and stir into the sauce. Bring to a boil, taste for seasoning and strain into a serving bowl. Slice the duck breasts and serve over brown rice or noodles.
Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].