“So much imagination and hard thinking go into the making of every dish that one may well say I serve up along with it my whole mind and heart.” (The Last Chinese Chef, Nicole Mones)
The Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day are a few days apart this year. My love is Chinese, born in Taiwan. He’s a food critic and writer, so cooking for him isn’t an easy task. When I want to show my love most, it’s with a chef’s knife, a saucepan and pot. It’s in every touch of my fingers to fresh herbs, spices and produce. Love is given by mincing, chopping, stirring. A pinch of this, a dash of that.
Though I’ve managed to please my sweetheart’s palate on countless occasions, my kitchen skills were validated by an even more formidable judge— his mother.
His mother is an even tougher critic than he— she owned a Chinese restaurant and worked as the head chef. Her right hand is twisted at her thumb from the constant use of the cleaver. She spent every day in a hot kitchen creating an entire buffet line of dishes. When she wasn’t cooking for the restaurant, she was cooking for her four children. As my love is her first born son, I thought carefully about what to make for his parents upon our first meeting. Especially for his mother. It had to be something humble yet comforting, and something subtle that would exhibit my appreciation for them without being elaborate. I decided to prepare a duck dish rather than chicken, though my experience was limited in both birds as I’ve been a lifelong vegetarian. Duck, fatty and rich, would be good for the winter weather, braised in a savory broth of citrusy orange, spicy ginger, and aromatic lemongrass. My clay pot gave it earth, containing the juices and flavor. I prepared it and allowed three days for the dish to “marry” in the vessel.
The kitchen gods and goddesses were on my team the afternoon his mother took the clay pot from the refrigerator.
“Let it sit out to room temperature and then heat it slowly on low flame,” I suggested calmly. What if it didn’t taste good? Reluctant. Anxious. I had no idea what my duck braise would taste like since I had not tried it before she arrived. His mother glanced sideways at me with wary circumspect, carrying the clay pot between her two hands. She set it down gingerly upon the stove burner.
“I’m making rice.”
This was the answer. And from that point on, there was nothing I could do about it. The clay pot was out of my hands. No tasting spoon to check if the flavors mingled well, no adding more orange or ginger to awaken the broth. She had complete dominion of the kitchen. I was just a line cook. A potential daughter-in-law? Not yet. She would be the judge of my cooking, then decide. Her hands held my favorite clay pot, and inside of it, a duck stew that I prepared but knew little of its outcome.
I could only hope.
“Tell your mom that it needs to sit out on the counter a few hours before she heats the pot?” I whispered nervously in my boyfriend’s ear. I took in a slow inhale. Relax, I told myself. In a way, I was glad that I wouldn’t be there while they ate the duck. It would be too nerve wracking, explaining that I’m not eating it since I’m a vegetarian. I only made the dish for them. Too much pressure upon his parents for their approval.
A few hours later, the fragrance of steamed rice filled the kitchen along with the pungent gingery aroma of the duck braise. I left for work just as the three of them sat down to eat at the dining table.
When I came home that evening, his father was waiting. His father, stern and stoic, not one to smile easily or compliment, loved my cooking. He enjoyed it so much he could not stop grinning at me. “Thank you, thank you,” he beamed. The rarity of this old man smiling like a child was paradoxical as his grown children knew his temper, his strict hand and the unflinching scowl of his usual face.
“Dad wants to take us all out for dinner tonight,” my boyfriend said. “He loved your cooking so much.” His eyes were watery as he gazed into me with affection. “Honey, it was really amazing.” That last phrase made me feel warm inside. “The flavors were balanced perfectly, the flesh of the duck was juicy and succulent. They loved it. My dad couldn’t stop talking about it. He ate four servings.”
His mom came out from the bedroom, her hair coiffed and jacket on. She looked at me directly rather than askance, acknowledgement in her gaze. We were being treated to dinner because my cooking impressed and inspired his father. His mom assessed my face with newfound respect and said, “She’s a real chef.”
“Chinese mothers show their love not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab.” — Amy Tan
The praise lavishly bestowed upon me after making the duck braise for my love and his parents set the tone for our future as a couple: mom and dad heartily approved. All I wanted was one thing— to win their hearts through their stomachs. I wanted to show my respect and to express my love for their son through my cooking. Even though my hands were not used to handling duck, somehow I managed to do it with finesse. In my usual habit, regretfully, I did not write the recipe down. Most of the time I create something by improvisation. No measuring cups or spoons. Do we measure love?
This famous dish that won their hearts? Duck braised in orange, ginger & lemongrass broth served over rice.
After much searching and rummaging for my kitchen notes, I found this special recipe:
Braised Duck with Orange, Ginger & Lemongrass
½ roasted duck (can be store-bought from Chinese BBQ or prepared in advance at home)
2 large whole duck legs (trimmed of excess fat, rubbed with five spice, sea salt and pepper)
2 oranges, seedless, sliced thin, half quarters (skin, pith and fruit)
½ red onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, caramelized (you can do this in advance in pot for flavor)
2 leeks, rinsed, halved and chopped
4 inch piece ginger, halved lengthwise and smashed
1 lemongrass stalk, cut into 6 inch pieces, bulb smashed (gently pound with back of wooden spoon or tenderizer)
1 handful cilantro stems
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons mirin
1 quart chicken broth
½ bunch (1/2 cup) Asian chives (or scallions), minced (garnish)
½ bunch cilantro leaves (garnish)
(Prepare the clay pot by caramelizing the garlic cloves in a little sesame oil first, giving the inside a wonderful garlic aroma)
1. Place a dutch oven or wide pot large enough to hold the duck legs in a single layer over medium high heat. Season the duck legs generously with five spice, salt and pepper. Brown the duck legs until crispy, about 10-15 minutes. Allow the skin to crisp to the color of brown sugar.
2. Spoon and pour off the rendered duck fat, turn legs over (using tongs). Continue to brown the other sides, about 5-10 minutes.
3. Add leeks, 1/2 red onion and sauté for about 15 minutes until soft and caramelized.
4. Dash in about 3 tablespoons mirin. Turn down heat to medium low, continue to sauté.
5. Add in the orange slices, garlic cloves, ginger, lemongrass and cilantro stems (save cilantro leaves for garnish). Drizzle in some sesame oil, about 1 tablespoon. Let the fragrance permeate everything in the pot, about 3 minutes, giving it all a stir.
6. Add broth and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and braise the duck legs until very tender, about 1 hour.
(You can also bake in oven at 300F, but I prefer to temper the heat and season the braise upon the stove.)
7. Grate more ginger root to build the flavor and enhance the essences.
8. Place the duck legs back in pot, arranging the legs, nestling in slices of orange and grating a little more ginger into the pot. Braise for about an hour.
9. Once the pot smells amazing, add the 1/2 roast duck and nestle the duck around the legs.
(Spoon the rendered fat into a dish to save for later use in cooking other dishes.)
10. Chop fresh chives (or scallions), about 1/2 cup. Add some to the pot and cover, turn off flame.
11. Let the pot sit on stove for a few hours.
IMPORTANT: Make 3 days ahead to allow the flavors to marry and infuse the duck with all the flavor essences. This makes the duck incredibly juicy as well.
Save more orange slices and ginger to season the pot later when heating up to serve.
Always heat this slowly. I use a clay pot for the magic it infuses into the dish. Refrigerate in pot. Do not heat the clay pot directly when removing from refrigerator— the clay will crack! Let the pot come to room temperature before heating on stove.
When ready to serve, add a little more ginger and orange. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves and chives.
Serve with love over rice.