I was trying to bring some order to my cookbooks, which are shelved, two deep, in one of two great big, white wooden bookcases which I bought with an unexpected and sweet little cash bequest from my Uncle Ted. Apart from the Uncle Ted Memorial Bookcases, my book situation, not only as to cookbooks, is dire. Someday I will have floor-to-ceiling bookcases in a giant diningroom/library. Until I hit the lottery, I am resigned to moving piles of books around to clear surfaces for day to day life. When I attempt to select a few to give away or sell, I invariably wind up sitting on the floor, reading some gem I forgot I had.
I was engaged in this noodling activity, when I came upon The French Chef. the cookbook which Julia Child wrote in conjunction with her first set of PBS programs. I had watched most of these on tv in my parents' bedroom. Although I eventually acquired the two volume Mastering the Art, this was the first Julia Child cookbook I owned. I bought it, with its midcentury modern design of rotating whisks, used at the college bookstore.
I used to read it, for entertainment, when I was in school, and imagine having a kitchen like hers, with all the right tools hanging neatly arranged on pegboard. (This imagined event has not yet taken place.)
So it happened that I remembered that once my husband Bill, who died in 1987, but who then was about to be twenty-six, asked if he could have duck a l'orange for his birthday dinner. I said, like a loon, "Sure, I can do that." And I did, too. But boy, was I a sweaty wreck by the time I landed it on the table. It was the most complicated thing I had made, to that point. Although I had pre- shopped for all the ingredients, I hadn't actually read through the recipe before the morning of the birthday party.
And I haven't made it since, not being one, on the whole, for elaborate french restaurant style cooking. But man, it was good. Crisp, crackling skin, and rich juicy meat, nicely cut by the tang of the sour/sweet orange sauce. So I've been looking for an occasion, a small but festive dinner, where I can make it again. I wanted to see if it's still good, or a sort of cliche, and if I would handle things better, after some experience. My brother's birthday dinner seemed a possibility, but I decided to make it for friends I and D. With three people eating, I could do one duck, while the birthday dinner would need at least two. I figured if the whole thing was not too insane, I'd consider repeating it, with two ducks, for the September birthday. I would not be making this now at all, if I did not have air conditioning to pit against the stove.
First, I had a look at the recipe, to see what I needed from the shops, and if there was anything I could do ahead. I already had the port, and some homemade beef stock in the fridge. I needed the duck, plenty of valencia oranges, and some orange liquor. My duck choice was but one, a frozen long island duck from the Giant Eagle. (I am not in an economic category which allows consideration of airfreighting my choice of special duck from New York. Indeed, the mere fact that I know this can be done causes me to question my sanity.)
It is too bad that there were no fresh ducks to be had, for taste reasons and also because the giblets and neck would be unavailable, welded together icily inside the bird, until the duck was nearly completely defrosted. I bought the duck, and put it in the freezer. Rather than invest in a whole bottle of orange liquor, I picked up an airplane drink sized minature at the liquor store.
Checking the recipe, it looked to me that the sauce, with the exception of last minute finishing with cooking juices and butter, could easily be made ahead, and would probably freeze reasonably well. I'd have preferred to do it all fresh. The problem was that the recipe for the sauce called for the wing tips and giblets from the (frozen) bird. I therefore decided to make the sauce ahead the weekend before, and put it, almost done, in the freezer, because I will be working until 2:30 pm on thursday , the day we have the duck.
The weekend was much too soon for the duck to be totally defrosted. This business with the frozen trapped giblets has led me to find fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving over the years. I wish they would give you the giblets and neck in a little sack outside a frozen bird. Duck broth has a pretty distinctive (and very nice) taste, and it would have been definitely preferable to have the duck giblets for the sauce. I decided to compromise on this aspect. I figured I have the tools to wrest the wing tips from the frozen bird, and I would use these, and a turkey wing for the broth for the sauce. I can save some duck broth for next time, when I make soup from the duck bones and frozen giblets next weekend.
So this is what I did, to make the sauce ahead:
I browned the turkey and duck wings, a chopped carrot and a half an onion, in a heavy bottomed saucepan and two tbsps. light olive oil. I then added a cup of beef stock, and water to cover, plus a bay leaf, a sprig of parsley, and two sage leaves. I brought it to a boil, turned it down and simmered it about 2 hours , until the liquid was reduced to 2 cups, and looked rich and brown. I discarded the solids, and strained the liquid.
While the broth was cooking, I used my zester to make a fine julienne of all of the orange part of the skin of 4 valencia oranges. I actually bought 8 oranges rather than four, because of doing this in advance. I felt the orange fruit, once semi-denuded, would dry out fast. So I had this denuded fruit promptly in a salad, and will use fresh oranges on Thurday for the the duck garnish. The julienned zests were blanched for 10 minutes, then drained and dried.
In a medium saucepan, I combined a quarter cup of sugar, with 3 tablespoons of sherry vinegar , brought this to a boil, and cooked it down until it looked caramelly. I turned off the gas, and whisked in the broth, half at a time. To this I added 2 tbsps of arrowroot, mixed with 2 tbsps of port. Heat back on, I added 2/3 of my orange peel , and cooked the sauce until it had thickend a bit, and was transparent. After adding salt and pepper to taste, I cooled the sauce, and put it in a freezer bag, and into the freezer. Likewise, the remaining 1/3 of the orange peel.
I felt fairly well set up,and made a note on my blackboard to start defrosting the duck on Tuesday. In the absence of any actual suspense, this story is nonetheless, to be continued............