Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Peking Duck Meatballs

Time is relative. Because Einstein said so and because I need it to be. See, we are two weeks into the Year of the Rabbit, but I have not had a chance to welcome it properly. On the Lunar New Day (LND) I usually make a special dish to mark the occasion -- a good luck soup, a triple umami stir fry – something happy, auspicious, and playful. But life's been somewhat unkind and LND had to yield. (BTW, our Christmas tree is still up. And it will probaby stay up until March or April. Once we decorate it with spring flowers it will be quite a rave.) 

Putting things on a back burner is easy. The difficult part it to be in peace with doing so, something I have yet to master. Photos I do not get to take, stories I do not get to write, algorithms I do not get to run assume a permanent habitat in my head and refuse to let go. These Peking duck meatballs have been particularly obstinate, and to shush them up, I have decided that the Year of the Rabbit arrives tonight.

Why meatballs one may ask? 

It's been universally understood that meatballs are among the best things that happened to humanity. (They can be meatless too, and the statement still holds.) Meatballs must be immutably encoded in our DNA, because every culture independently arrived at the same concept. Ćufte, köfte, boulettes, polpette, klopse, almôndegas, albóndigas, wanzi, bakso, tsukune -- I do not know of a country that does not have a meatball dish in their cookbook. Every time I eat a meatball, regardless of its nationality or citizenship, it warms me up with the idea that we are all in this together. That once upon a time, we all came home from a long day of playing outdoors and there was a plate of meatballs waiting. And while we were gulping it, reaching out for the second or third helping, our moms stood close by, smiling.

That’s the thing that gets me with meatballs.

Meatballs have no boundaries. They are our shared history and the history we’ll make together. When I feel like cooking something new, something that incorporates the bits and pieces of where I was born, places I’ve been to, where I now live, where I hope to go next, I turn to meatballs. This Peeking duck variant sums it all up. There is a bit of my mother’s ćufte, a recipe she inherited from her mother. “Never, never with an egg, because it will make them dense,” she would say. “You want them to be fluffy, like a cotton candy”. Check. A plate of Duck à l'Orange I had on a trip to Paris; I was 20 and took a bus from Belgrade so that I could save for a dinner in a “proper” French restaurant. Check. The night I left my office at Bell Labs, drove to a small Chinese joint nearby and ordered a takeout; I was 29, had just immigrated to the States from Serbia, and had never been to a takeout -- I struggled for a good 15 minutes until I figured out what to do. Check. The first Peking duck Dr. V and I ordered from the Peking Duck Palace upon moving to the City and the countless ones that followed. Check. A scarab-colored sunset over the Manhattan Bridge. I can watch it for hours, except that it's only a minute or two before it disappears into the darkness. Check. All the shopping excursions Miss Pain and I made to Chinatown, looking for good luck amulets. Check. A dinner at Buddakan when it first opened. Immersed in the craze of 2006 Meatpacking District, it was the talk of the town and impossible to get in. I bought a new red silk dress for the occasion; I still wear it, which is good given how much I shelled out for it. 

Oh my, how far I have traveled. We all have. And to celebrate our journeys, it’s perfectly OK to bend the traditions a little and blur the boundaries set by the calendars. So, Happy New Year friends. I'll be wearing my red dress tonight. 

Peeking Duck Meatballs

for the meatballs:

breast and dark meat from 5 – 6 lb Long Island duck (about 22 oz duck meat in total)
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup minced scallions
1 large garlic clove
3 - 4 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, crushed in a mortar
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon freshly chopped oregano
freshly ground black pepper
freshly ground white pepper

for the 1st sauce:

1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup fresh orange juice (from one to two oranges)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 cup white wine (Pinot Gris or off dry Riesling work well)
1/2 cup of chicken or vegetable broth 
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
a couple of slices of orange zest, about a tablespoon or so (remove the zest with a knife or vegetable peeler and avoid the white layer underneath it because it is bitter)
a pinch of salt

for the 2nd sauce:

1 cup Hoisin sauce

Preheat the oven to 365F. 

Grind the duck meat coarsely or chop by hand (it should have the consistency of sausage meat).

In a small sauté pan set over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic, Szechuan peppercorns, coriander, cumin, and five spice powder and cook for a minute or two, until garlic and spices become fragrant. Add the scallions and sweat until the scallion begins to soften. Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool. 

In a large mixing bowl combine the milk, breadcrumbs, oregano, and the scallion mixture, and set aside. 

Combine the breadcrumb mixture with the duck meat. Season with salt and a generous dose of black and pepper. Mix with your hands. Leave the mixture in the fridge for about an hour (or in the freezer for about 20 minutes) to firm up.

Lightly oil a baking sheet. Roll the meat mixture in your hands into golf-ball sized meatballs and place on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15-20 minutes. (Do not over bake, as the meatballs will become dry.)  

While the meatballs are in the oven begin to make the sauce. Place the sugar in a small, dry saucepan over moderate heat, until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally with a fork, until sugar melts into a deep golden caramel. Add the orange juice, vinegar, and salt. Be careful, as the mixture will bubble vigorously. Continue to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel is dissolved. Remove syrup from the heat.

Remove the meatballs from the oven. Pour the wine and broth (or water) into the pan to deglaze. Pour the pan juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a small saucepan. You should have about 2/3 cup of liquid.

In a small bowl, stir together butter and flour to form a beurre manié. Use your fingers or a fork to form a smooth paste. Divide the paste into several small balls. Over medium-low heat bring the pan juices to a simmer and slowly add beurre manié, one ball at time, while whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Add the orange syrup and zest and continue to simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and with a fork or tweezers, take the orange peel slices out. (Keep the sauce warm until ready to serve.)

Serve the meatballs with the orange sauce and Hoisin sauce on the side.

Serves 4 - 6


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