Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Roast duck a l’orange with Le Birlou and Cointreau accompanied by mixed greens and saffron rice

Coming in at a very close second to pork, duck is my favourite type of meat.  It is rich in flavour with just the right amount of gameness.  Like pork (and unlike chicken), duck meat is covered by a layer of fat, which helps them float on water while they swim (or more accurately, paddle over water like a boat).   

What this means of course, is that you can get the benefit of nice crispy skin.   Contrary to popular belief, things at their crispiest are not things at their fattiest.  In the case of crisp skin, the crispiness results from the fat being rendered and cooked out of the skin.  If the fat was still there, the skin would be slimy and unpleasant to eat.   

A further benefit of crispy skin is the duck fat that is cooked out of the skin can be collected and saved for other purposes.  The classic use is to make roast potatoes coated in duck fat.  It not only makes them really crisp but with a pinch of salt, adds amazing flavour.  You can keep duck fat in an airtight container in the freezer for months.

A classical favourite when it comes to duck is the traditional French dish of duck a l’orange.  The essence of this dish is to contrast the rich flavour of a rare crispy-skinned duck breast against the sweetness and slight acidity of an orange sauce.   It is very simple conceptually, but quite difficult to execute well.   I am always reminded of an episode of Heston’s Feasts, where Heston Blumenthal re-invents duck a l’orange in the manner of Willy Wonka.

I too have tried to be creative with this dish, but my changes are much more subtle (and primitive):
  1. I roasted a whole duck instead of using duck breasts.
  2. I combined Navel oranges with mandarins to add a slight Asian twist to the sauce.
  3. I added Le Birlou and Cointreau to the sauce to add the flavours of chestnut and apple to the sauce.  I made sure to add the liqueurs in later on and not boil all of the alcohol out of them.  The alcohol adds a further dimension to this dish.  
  4. I originally planned to accompany the dish with roasted chestnuts as well, but ran out of time to do it properly.  I believe that this would work well with the dish.
I used a number of key techniques in making this duck (some of which are unorthodox).  In particular:

The duck trussed and scored.
  1. I scored the duck skin before placing in the oven, which allows the fat to drip out as it is rendering.  An alternative to this is poke holes in the skin with a skewer. 
  2. I roasted the duck very slowly in an oven at around 120°C for over 3 hours, turning over every half an hour.  This was to make sure that the duck meat would be moist and not overcooked.  The turning was to ensure even crisping of the skin.
  3. To efficiently glaze the duck, I filled a Vermouth spray (very small atomizer, like a perfume bottle) with equal parts of Cointreau and Le Birlou and sprayed that over the skin.  This adds the flavours of the liqueur very evenly while minimising waste.  Also, by spraying such small amounts at a time, the duck skin is kept dry which also assists crisping.
  4. To crisp the skin further while resting the duck, I heated peanut oil in one saucepan and poured the heated oil over the duck skin sitting on a wire rack over a heavy frying pan one ladle at a time.   When I poured all of the oil over the duck, I temporarily removed the duck and poured the oil from the frying pan back into the sauce pan.  When the oil was hot enough again, I repeated this process.  I did this until the skin was very crisp.
A close up of the crispy duck leg.
I then matched this dish with saffron rice and mixed greens lightly cooked in butter to provide a subtle contrast to the powerful flavours of the main.  

With the saffron rice, I finely chopped a big pinch of saffron and soaked it in hot water.  In parallel, I gently fried some finely chopped spring onions (white part only) in oil for a few minutes to release the flavours and infuse the oil.  I then added jasmine rice and fried that in the oil to toast the rice.  Finally, I added cold water and the saffron water and cooked the rice using the absorption method (that is, combining water to rice in a 1.5:1 ratio, bringing it to a boil, and then covered on the lowest heat setting until the liquid is absorbed).

Saffron rice - simple, unassuming yet sophisticated.
With the greens, I used a combination of green beans, fennel and baby bok choy.  I blanched each of them first to get the beans and bok choy at their greenest and to cook the aniseed flavour out of the fennel.  I then set them aside until the last few minutes, when I gently reheated them in a frying pan in melted butter.  The greens were lightly seasoned with fleur de sel (fine French sea salt -- literally, flower of the sea).

A fresh combination of fennel, baby bok choy and green beans.
In the end, I think the main dish and accompaniments came together very well.  I wish I had time to roast the chestnuts properly, because I think that would have completed the dish, but this was certainly good enough to stand alone.

I will endeavour to write recipes for these dishes at some stage, but I hope this has sparked your interest and given you some ideas.

My duck a l'orange with Le Birlou and Cointreau served with saffron rice and mixed greens.

Close up of the duck on a plate.
The duck dish as plated.


  1. WOW! Looks great YC. Yumm...


  2. Yu-chiao, this looks amazing. I'm seriously interested in giving this a try at home.


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