Purple Plum Duck

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Thought it was rabbit season? Think again. If ever there were a time to cook duck—rich, fatty, impractical—it’s now, when dropping temperatures urge us toward something that requires a nice, long vacation in the oven, something that emerges bronzed and crisp and lacquered with a delicious glaze made from jarred prunes and frozen lemonade.

Yep: That’s what Nonnie tells you to use in her recipe for purple plum duck, an Asian-ish riff on the classic duck-and-fruit-sauce combo. I have no idea where this vaguely bizarre recipe—which also features soy sauce, sweet chile, Worcestershire, and dijon mustard—came from; my Googles have all been for naught. Although I did discover something similar that seems to have its origin in a 1969 cookbook by, no joke, Mary Price and her husband, Vincent. You know: Vincent Price. Vincent “Darkness falls across the land/The midnight hour is close at hand” Price. That guy. Just the man you’d turn to for tips on how to cook all the exotic flavors of the Orient.

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I had never cooked duck before tackling this recipe, which required not only a special trip to the butcher but also a special order that had to be made two days in advance; I had also never tasted a mixture of prunes and Minute Maid, or attempted a recipe that may or may not have been inspired by vintage Hollywood’s foremost creeper. Given all that, I was, shall we say, nervous about how the recipe would turn out, especially since I’d just shelled out a cool $50 for a freshly-killed cousin of Daffy.

But you know what? The duck ended up being a full-blown success, the kind of food that tastes both celebratory and comforting—and it was also surprisingly easy to put together, after I’d managed to track down all the ingredients. Or, at least, almost all of them—but we’ll get to that in a minute.

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Purple Plum Duck

1 5-6lb duck, quartered [If you intend to cook duck, chances are you’re going to have to order it special from some kind of butcher; while you’re there, have them do this step for you. Bonus: You’ll end up with a backbone perfect for making a rich stock, if that sort of thing is your jam]
1 onion, chopped
Garlic powder [and onion powder, though Nonnie forgot to include it in her ingredient list]
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 17 oz. can purple plums [Is this a thing any store in the western hemisphere actually sells? It was certainly impossible to find a can of plums in New York City, though I suppose I could have tried harder; after striking out at two separate places, I decided to cut my losses and buy the closest thing I could find, a can of rehydrated prunes. Please forgive me, Nonnie!]
1 6 oz. can frozen lemonade [or half of a 12-ouncer, since that’s the only size I could find]
2 drops Tabasco
1/3 cup chile sauce [Nonnie doesn’t specify which kind, but I assumed she meant sweet chile, and probably Heinz at that; something like sriracha would be a great way to cut all the sugar from the plums, though]
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons dijon mustard

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Wash duck and pat dry. [No, don’t do this! My second deviation from the recipe: I patted the duck dry and then left it uncovered in the fridge overnight, so that the skin would crisp up even more in the oven. It didn’t entirely work, thanks to the wet glaze, but I do think the skin was a lot less floppy than it would’ve been if I’d skipped this step.]

Sprinkle pieces with salt, onion [that is, onion powder, not pieces of onion, as I did before reading through the recipe again and realizing that the actual onion was meant for the sauce] and garlic powder. Place on a rack, skin side up, in a shallow roasting pan. Prick skin with a fork [in an attempt to get more fat to render; that’s the trickiest part about cooking duck. A fork didn’t work for me, though—the skin was tough enough that I could only get through with a paring knife]. Roast in 350 oven for 1.5 hour.

Melt butter in skillet and sauté onion until tender. Pit plums and puree plums and juice together. Add puree to onions and blend in frozen lemonade, chile sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ginger, mustard, and Tabasco. [Warning: it’s gonna look gross. Like, this gross:]

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Simmer for 15 minutes. [Thankfully, at this point, it’ll look a lot less gross. Voila:]

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[It helps, too, to puree the sauce with an immersion blender in order to get a smoother product—which I did, though it might not’ve been a specifically Nonnie-approved direction.]

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After duck has roasted for 1.5 hours [and looks the way it does above—see that beautifully crisping skin we’re about to ruin?], remove from pan and drain fat out of pan. Return duck to rack and pan and brush with plum sauce every 10 minutes, continuing to cook until duck is tender. [I kept mine going for a good extra half hour, using other internet duck recipes as a guideline; I then kept it in a warm oven (around 200°) for… awhile, until we were ready to eat. It ended up pretty perfectly cooked.] Use remaining sauce to pass at table.

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The verdict: Would a duck smothered in a sauce made from fresh plums, lemon juice, and regular sugar taste better than one painted in a puree of those foods’ more convenient brethren? Maybe—but as was the case with Nonnie’s brisket, another celebration of repurposed processed foods, part of the charm of this sauce was how good it tasted despite what went into it. It’s a nifty bit of culinary magic, being able to transform frozen lemonade and jarred prunes—jarred prunes!—into something actively delicious; in a way, it feels more like a coup than not using convenience foods in the first place. (Plus, there’s a lot fewer lemons to juice.)

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As for the duck itself? It was moist, succulent, and altogether delicious—even if I wish there’d been a way to keep the skin more crisp. Maybe if I make this again, I’ll try not glazing it at all, instead just passing the sauce at the table in order to preserve the integrity of the skin. I’d also try seasoning it during its overnight fridge sit, since a dry brine is a great way to keep out moisture.

Mostly, though, I’m eminently pleased with my first foray into duck season. Hear that, Vincent Price?

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