Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Joy of Cooking Peking Duck

Professors live mostly in their heads. When I am evaluating candidates for Ph.D. admission (the ‘union card’ for most university faculty positions), I give high priority to facility in abstract thinking. Stories of professorial absent mindedness (not ‘being in the moment’) abound. One of my favorites describes MIT cybernitician, Norbert Weiner (Cybernetics; The Human Use of Human Beings). A student noticed Professor walking from the Engineering Complex towards the MIT Faculty Club. Weiner stopped, paused and then looked around, puzzled. He hailed the student: “did you see which way I was walking, he asked.” The student responded with the information. “Thank you,” Weiner replied. “Then I must be going to lunch.”

Last night, for the second time in two weeks I cooked Peking Duck, accompanied a duck, mushroom and vegetable stir-fry. The process normally takes two or three days. (At an upscale Chinese restaurant you must place your order 48 hours in advance). You begin by washing the ducks carefully and then rubbing them all over – inside and out – with salt. Then you rub them all over with vodka (or equivalent Chinese liquor) and leave them to soak for 12 hours. You next prepare a mixture of water, honey and paprika (the thicker the better, I believe) and soak the ducks in it, inside and out. Next they are hung to dry under a fan, ideally for 36 to forty eight hours. This purges much of the fat that tends to make less carefully cooked duck dishes too greasy. Cooking takes about two hours, and must be monitored carefully by watching the skin color. The ducks sit above a pan of water, which fills the oven with vapor. Finally there is carving, which I do, wearing insulated rubber gloves and a razor sharp knife. The skin, now crisp, but still a bit tactile, is stripped off and served separately. The meat remains moist, rather than drying out as can happen with less careful preparations.

While the duck is cooking, there is time to carefully slice fresh ginger, mushrooms, peppers of various colors and onions so they are in readiness The stir fry must be prepared with lightening speed, just before the duck is ready to serve. I have found that organic, white flour tortillas make an easily obtainable alternative to rice flour pancakes, which can be difficult to obtain.

When one is not interrupted, Peking Duck preparation is a great way to become totally immersed “in the moment” of food preparation, for several hours. Time must be set aside. The process has its own internal logic and physicality. You can neither rush nor dream off. Aesthetic, olfactory and tactile sensations abound. When carving, done just before the meal is served, I can snack on the most succulent pieces.

It is a great way to get out of my head. And, in contrast to writing a book or article, the feedback comes quickly and is almost always enthusiastic.

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