Chinese New Year is a time for family feasting and banqueting. For many of us, it will be the final festive feast in a winter season of gluttony, before we renew our gym memberships and get our bodies bikini-fit for summer!
There is a rich and incredible history of food symbolism at this time of year, as dishes take on exotic, but meaningful, names that include “wealth”, “gold”, “good health” and “long life”. Traditional foods eaten at this time usually include poultry, whole fish, dumplings (savoury and sweet, in soup or not), fresh fruit and all manner of candied fruits and sweets. I have chosen roast duck for “fertility” with wild rice stuffing (rice being one of the Twelve Sovereign Treasures, or ancient Chinese symbols of sovereignty) and traditional braised mushrooms and broccoli for “longevity”. Kumquat honey is easily found in supermarkets year-round but is particularly symbolic at this time of year for “good fortune” or “gold”.
Roasted Duck in Five Spice and Kumquat Honey with Wild Rice Stuffing
This dish is a showstopper and guaranteed to draw a few gasps at the table. You’ll need a full 24 hours of preparation to dry and marinate the duck beforehand to ensure a nice crispy, delicious skin. The Chinese air-dried sausages (lap cheung) are ubiquitous at this time of the year, and can be found in dry goods shops and good supermarkets. They add a rich sweetness to the stuffing. There are two kinds: the dark pink ones or the black ones (which are liver sausages). Either one works well, though I prefer the pink ones for taste.
• 1 large duck
• 1 star anise
For the marinade:
• 3 Tbsp light soya sauce
• 3 Tbsp honey
• 2 Tbsp kumquat honey
• 3 Tbsp rice vinegar (or 2 Tbsp mirin
and 1 Tbsp apple cider)
• 2 Tbsp toasted pure sesame oil
• 1 heaped tsp five-spice powder
For the wild rice stuffing:
• 2 cups mixed wild rice
• Enough chicken or vegetable stock (optional) or water for cooking the rice (approx 4 cups)
• 2 dried lap cheung (Chinese dried sausage) of your choice
• 10 dried Chinese shiitake mushrooms, soaked overnight
• Oil for frying
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 4 slices ginger, finely chopped
• 100g pine nuts
• ½ an onion, finely chopped
• 2 celery stalks, very finely diced
24 hours before mealtime:
• Wash and clean the duck. If it has the internal organs inside, remove and clean these and set aside to use them in the wild rice stuffing. Pluck out any feather quills you can see.
• Place the duck in your clean sink and boil a kettle of water. Pour the water over the duck, scalding it on all sides. The skin will shrink immediately, making it look tight and taut. (If only it were so simple for us!)
• Place the duck on a large rack over a baking tray.
• Carefully score the skin with a sharp knife. You just want to cut through the first layer and expose the fat, not the meat.
• Mix the marinade ingredients and brush over the duck, and then place the duck in the refrigerator overnight, making sure to baste and turn the duck every now and again.
• Wash and cook the rice together with the Chinese sausage in double amounts of liquid (stock or water, or half and half) in a rice cooker, or a large pot. Leave to cool, and refrigerate overnight to make sure it is as dry as possible.
On the day of the meal:
• Brush more marinade over the duck. Put the star anise inside the duck cavity and place it in a hot oven at 190°C, breast-side down. Cook for 1 hour, then turn and baste again.
• Meanwhile, prepare the ingredients for the rice. Remove stalks from the Chinese mushroom and finely chop and squeeze any water out.
• Take the Chinese sausage out of the rice (which has been cooling in the fridge), and chop into very small cubes. If you have saved the giblets from the duck, wash them carefully by blanching them for a minute or two, then chop finely.
• Heat a large wok and add a little oil. Add the garlic, ginger and pine nuts. The pine nuts will toast quickly, so add the Chinese sausage and giblets, and fry quickly. Toss well, then add the mushrooms. Fry for a minute or two before adding the onions and celery, and tossing well for another minute or so.
• Add the rice, breaking up the clumps with your hands or a wooden spatula as you stir-fry, and mix well until the rice is cooked again (Listen: when it stops sizzling and crackling, that means the water has evaporated from the rice and it is cooked). Set aside.
• After an hour of roasting, remove the duck from the oven and stuff the cavity with a few tablespoons of the rice stuffing and seal the cavity with sharp toothpicks.*
• Turn the duck breast-side up and return to the oven. Depending on the size of your bird, roast for another 30-45 minutes, but keep an eye on it at this point. The skin will be very dark brown or black, which is caused by the sugars in the honey and the five-spice powder.
• Check the duck breast every 10-15 minutes from this point. It should be pink, not brown! When it is done, take it out and leave it to rest on the rack for 15-20 minutes before carving.
• Remove the rice from the cavity and mix with the rest of the wild rice, and put the stuffing into an oven-proof dish and leave to warm up in the oven.
* Stuffing the duck with the wild rice stuffing is optional. To be safe, if you do stuff the duck, remove the stuffing after the duck has been cooked, mix it well with the rest of the stuffing, and take care to reheat it properly to ensure that all the duck juices are fully cooked.
Note: If you have a lot of oil from the duck, don’t throw it away. Instead, put it in a clean jam jar and save it for roasting potatoes or vegetables. Keep any juices and marinade and make them into a delicious gravy with a little white wine. Keep the carcass to make stock with some celery, carrots, onions and a splash of apple cider vinegar.
Braised Chinese Mushrooms with Lettuce and Broccoli
• 15 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked overnight
• 4 Tbsp premium light soya sauce
• 2 Tbsp oyster sauce
• 1 tsp minced garlic
• 1-2 slices of ginger
• 1 thumb-sized piece of rock sugar (found in Chinese supermarkets)
• ½ to 1 cup water, mixed half and half with mushroom juice
• 1 tsp of vegetable oil
• 1 small head of lettuce, stripped into leaves and washed
• 1 head of broccoli, broken into florets and washed
• Toasted sesame oil, to taste
• Soak the mushrooms. After soaking, do not throw away the mushroom juice. Keep aside, though be careful not to use right down to the dregs. Carefully cut the stems off the mushrooms but keep the cap whole.
• Put all the other ingredients (except lettuce and broccoli) in a deep saucepan and add the mushrooms. Bring to the boil, and boil on a medium heat for 5 minutes. Lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes, until the sauce has reduced considerably.
• Blanch the lettuce and broccoli: Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the vegetable oil to the water to bring a nice gloss to the veg. First add the lettuce leaves and cook for a minute or two – no longer, as you want to keep it crunchy. Remove from the saucepan and drain, before putting on a serving plate. Boil the broccoli the same way, for just a minute or two. They should still be a little crunchy and bright green. Remove, drain and place on the outside of the serving dish. Drizzle toasted sesame oil on top, to taste.
• Add the mushrooms on top of the lettuce. As the sauce is very rich, there is no need to pour it over the dish – the mushrooms will have absorbed a lot of flavour. The sauce can be reused in cooking stir-fries or meat dishes.