Peking Challenge.

It’s difficult to write about a disappointment, especially when it has so much build-up. I made Peking duck, and I made my long-desired scallion pancakes. And when it comes down to it, next time I’m likely to leave the Chinese cooking to the Chinese. Except that it wasn’t a complete loss. The side dishes, the company, the experience and the pictures from my Chinese New Year feast were delightful. And so it goes.

The feast was on the second day of our first big snowstorm, which gave me plenty of time to prepare. Time, it turns out, is an essential ingredient to making Peking duck. My recipe (found on required my duck—complete with beak, eyes and feet—to hang in a cool drafty place for ten hours. That duck and I spend a lot of time together.

Many of those hours were spent pondering the health hazards of non-refrigerated duck. But each time I started to worry, I remembered a meal in Tanzania: Mama fed us a chicken that had been sitting in a bucket on the back porch for an entire day prior to finding its place on our table. We didn’t die.

The rest of my menu came from Mark Bittman, and involved large amounts of hoisin, lard and scallions. Bittman’s recipes are simple and straightforward, and had his book, The Best Recipes in the World, included a Peking duck recipe, I would have happily used it. Perhaps it’s a sign that this recipe was missing; too complicated for the novice. Chinese recipes require several sauces, but the good part is that most of the sauces are the same for each recipe. So after that initial trip to the Asian grocer, you’re likely to have most of what you need.

My confusion about pork buns continues. Not one to read all the way through a recipe before attempting it, I’d assumed that Bittman’s Char Siu Bao (Steamed Barbecued Pork Buns) were similar to the ones I’d had at Ippudo and seen on I was halfway through the recipe when I realized I was making something less like a sandwich and more like a dumpling. Either way, I’m glad I read enough to realize that I had to make the pork – tender and lovely but not as lovely as pork belly – a day in advance.

It was quite fun, though a little misleading, to make the dough for both the scallion pancakes and the pork buns. The first few steps make both seem so simple: make the dough and set aside for a specified amount of time. I was soon to find out that Chinese side dishes take a significant amount of hands-on work. It blows my mind that starters at Chinese restaurants are so inexpensive. If I were in charge, a dumpling would cost $5 a piece.

It wasn’t just the duck that was a let-down in this meal. The scallion pancakes were also far from what I wanted them to be. This tough, chewy little pancake is a staple in China. Perhaps if I’d paid more attention to Bittman’s adjectives, I would have searched for a recipe more to my liking. I wanted thin and tangy. What I got was more like a thick scallion-flavored bread.

See those little balls? There were two in each pancake. A bit excessive for my taste.

Perhaps next time (did I just decide that there would be a next time?) I’ll alter the recipe to use just one ball. Thinner pancakes – and more to boot!

Two of my favorite parts of the dinner were the side dishes: snow peas with ginger and greens with oyster sauce. Both were super easy to assemble, and were pretty low maintenance.

Assembling and steaming the pork buns required several hands, partially because I didn’t have the correct tools. I steamed them through a metal colander placed over a pan of boiling water. This process meant that only three or four buns at a time could be made. In the future, I will consider purchasing a bamboo steamer.

I will also make smaller portions. The buns, while delicious, were a bit too big to fit into even my expert mouth.

The duck. Sigh. It was not crispy. It was not Peking-ey. It was blah. Perhaps we spent too much time together. Perhaps staring at its sad body twisting in my window for ten hours made it seem less delicious. But other guests agreed; it just didn’t make the cut. And while I don’t want to be close-minded, I think that this dish will go at the bottom of my “try again” pile. Unless, of course, I have an assistant far more knowledgeable than I in all things Peking. Which wouldn’t take much. Now accepting applications.

Peking Duck

Serves 4-6
Prep time: 10 hours, 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

One 5 to 6 pound duck (Usually available frozen at regular and Asian grocers)
8 cups water
1 slice ginger
1 scallion, cut into halves
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
Scallions for garnish

1. Clean duck. Wipe dry and tie string around neck. Hang duck in cool, windy place 4 hours.

2. Fill large wok with water. Bring to boil. Add ginger, scallion, honey, vinegar, and sherry. Bring to boil. Pour in dissolved cornstarch. Stir constantly. Place duck in large strainer above larger bowl. Scoop boiling mixture all over duck for about 10 minutes.

3. Hang duck again in cool, windy place for 6 hours until thoroughly dry.

4. Place duck breast side up on a greased rack in oven preheated to 350 degrees. Set a pan filled with 2 inches of water in bottom of oven. (This is for drippings). Roast 30 minutes. Turn duck and roast 30 minutes more. Turn breast side up again. Roast 10 minutes more. Use sharp knife to cut off crispy skin. Serve meat and skin immediately on a prewarmed dish.

Barbecued Pork (for Buns)
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

1 1/2 pounds boneless pork loin
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

1. Cut the pork lengthwise into 1-inch by 2-inch strips. Pierce the meat all over with the point of a knife. Combine the remaining ingredients and pour over the meat in a shallow baking dish. Cover and refrigerate for at least  hours and up to a day.

2. When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Transfer the meat to a rack in a roasting pan and bake for 45 minutes, turning and basting occasionally. Cool and marinade in sauce for buns.

Char Siu Bo (Steamed Barbecued Pork Buns)
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

Makes 18 buns

3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 cups cake or pastry flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough
1 tablespoon lard, butter or oil
1 tablespoon neutral oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
white pepper, to taste
1/2 lb. pork (recipe above)

1. Stir together 2 tablespoons of the sugar, yeast, baking powder and 1 cup of warm water in a measuring cup and let the mixture sit until frothy, about 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, combine the flour and lard in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal. with the machine running, slowly add the yeast mixture through the feed tube. Process for about 30 seconds, adding more water, a little at a time if necessary, until the mixture forms a ball and is slightly sticky to the touch. If it is dry, add another tablespoon or two of water and process for another 10 seconds. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for about 5 minutes. You don’t want the dough to tear easily when you tug on it, but it need not be perfectly smooth.

3. Use the oil to grease a large bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, place it in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

4. Meanwhile, make the filling. Stir together the cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl; set aside. Combine the remaining tablespoon of sugar with the soy sauce, oyster sauce, honey and 3/4 cup of water in a small saucepan and set over high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, just until the sugar dissolves. Immediate transfer the sauce to a bowl and cool for a few minutes.

5. When the sauce has cooled, stir in the remaining ingredients and the cornstarch slurry. Let the pork marinate in the sauce at room temperature until you’re ready to make the dumplings.

6. Cut eighteen 2-inch squares of parchment paper and set aside. Deflate the dough, transfer to a lightly floured work surface, knead for a minute, and roll it into a long snake. Cut the snake crosswise into 18 equal pieces. Lightly flour your work surface and your rolling pin and cover the dough you’re not using with a piece of plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Flatten one of the 18 pieces into a 2-inch disk with the palm of your hand, then use the rolling pin to shape it into a thin round, about 4 inches in diameter, dusting with flour as necessary.

7. Mound about 1 scant tablespoon of the filling into the center of the disc. Bring the edges of the round up over the top of the filling and press them together to make a pouch. Twist the “neck” of the pouch together, then pinch the dought together in a few places to seal the top shut. Put one of the squares of parchment on the bottom of the bun, then set it aside on a plate, covered with a sheet of plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Let the finished buns sit for 10 minutes before you steam them.

8. Put at least an inch of water in a large steamer, cover and bring to a steady simmer. Put the buns in the steamer, at least 1/2 inch apart, and steam until cooked through, about 12 minutes. Do not overcrowd; work in batches if necessary. Let them cool briefly and serve warm.

Scallion Pancakes
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

Makes 8 servings

2 cups flour, plus a little more for rolling the dough
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup boiling water, or as needed
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil, or as needed
1 cup finely chopped scallions
coarse salt, to taste

1. Place the flour and salt in a food processor; turn on the machine and add the water through the feed tube until the dough forms a ball.

2. Knead by hand for about 1 minute, until the dough is smooth. Place it in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for about 1 hour (or up to day, refrigerated).

3. On a lightly floured surface, pinch and roll the dough into 2-inch balls, then flatten the balls into disks. Lightly brush one of the disks with sesame oil and sprinkle a few scallions on top. Place another disk on top of that one and use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a 5-inch-long oval. Lightly brush one side of the oval with sesame oil, sprinkle a few scallions on top, and fold the oval in half. Roll into a circle about 1/4 inch thick, adding flour as necessary. Repeat with the remaining dough; you’ll probably make about 6 pancakes with this amount of dough.

4. Generously coat a large, deep skillet with the lard or oil and turn the heat to medium-low. When the lard has melted, place one of the pancakes in the skillet. Cook until browned lightly, 3 to 5 minutes, then turn and brown the other side. Repeat with the remaining dough, then sprinkle with coarse salt, cut and serve warm.

Snow Peas with Ginger
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

Serves 4

1 tablespoon neutral oil
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger, or more to taste
2 cups snow peas
1 tablespoon soy sauce
salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Put the oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over high heat. A minute later, add the ginger and peas and stir and toss occassionally, until they are lightly browned and their green color is vivid, about 2 minutes.

2. Add the soy sauce and transfer to a platter. Add the sesame oil to the same pan and heat for about 10 seconds. Pour over the snow peas, season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Chinese Greens with Oyster Sauce

from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

1 1/2 pounds greens
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup oyster sauce

1. Separate the leaves and stems of the greens; cut the stems into 2-inch lengths.

2. Put the oil in a large skillet and turn the heat to high. Add the leaves of the greens and toss until they wilt, about 3 minutes; put on a platter. Add the stems and garlic and 1/4 cup of water. Toss until the stems are crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove them and put on top of the greens. Top with oyster sauce and serve.

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8 thoughts on “Peking Challenge.

  1. baseballboy says:

    /chases people around with the duck’s severed eye

  2. bethia says:

    Let me know when you want to go for some Chinese – I have a couple of restaurants I want to try. Maybe we can find some crispy duck.

  3. Angela says:

    I love Steamed Barbecued Pork Buns, but for some reason just never thought to make them myself. Sounds easy enough…. I think I’m definitely going to try this recipe out.

  4. Maya says:

    I just pulled a Chinese cookbook off of my shelf; it has a recipe for roast duck that sounds similar to your Peking, but calls for 3 hours of drying time instead of 10 and uses more seasonings. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

  5. Amanda says:

    Um “other guests agreed” As a guest I would like to say : I do not agree! I will state for the record that it was delicious! No, the skin was not crispy, but the pancakes were exactly as I expected scallion pancakes to be, and the duck tasted delicious. and the pork buns…OH the pork buns! Amazing! :)

  6. Amy says:

    Yup, lots o’ oil required for the scallion pancakes- And you are right about makin them super thin. I found out flour is a funny thing to work with. Peking duck, I’ll leave that to the pros- you’re brave!

  7. mike w. says:

    I would like a pancake please. Also, how much was your duck?

  8. Jill says:

    @Mike I think that it was between $12 and $15 at Crestview Market. More traditional markets will have duck sans appendages, but will charge more.

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