The great thing about being a
glutton food enthusiast is that when people travel, they bring you back all sorts of edible goodies. In the last few months, I have been the happy recipient of pure vanilla powder and about 10 different teas from Istanbul, traditional Scandinavian wooden cups and bowls from Helsinki, sweet potato and cinnamon cake from San Fransisco, another cake from Singapore, and fruit crisp from Nova Scotia to name a few. These duck breasts were one of such gifts. Apparently, over Easter, my sister was walking through a food market in Lyon and thinking of what to get me as a souvenir. Her eyes fell on a couple of plump, glistening duck breasts and she thought they were so me – yaay! So anyway, they came back to Lagos. I immediately put them in the freezer and threatened our housekeeper, ON PAIN OF DEATH not to use my beloved breastices as ‘chicken to cook stew’. I love her to bits but I knew I would see red if any mishaps befell this particular gift.
For the longest time, I planned to use the duck’s country of origin as inspiration for a meal. I was going to go all Frenchy on it, and had even bought a nice Bordeaux from Winehouse in preparation. But the more I gazed upon them, the more they resisted being paired with anything remotely like butter or cheese or potatoes or red wine or herbes de provence. I even thought of doing something with honey and oranges like I did last Christmas but they did not agree. So I left them in the freezer for a while and we carried on a silent negotiation for two months; during which time the Bordeaux which had been bought in their honour was resentfully decanted and consumed.
Then one day, I got it. The way to go was Asia. Somehow, with that idea in mind, they began to look a bit more amenable. But a question still hung in the air. Yes to Asia, but where exactly? The idea was to make something fragrant and simple that would allow the duck to shine. I felt the Thai recipes to be a bit too rich, and the Chinese ones to be a bit too deliberate for this particular adventure. It needed to be something fresh, something effortless; something exacting and haphazard all at the same time. And that is how, one evening after work, this Vietnamese Noodle Soup was born. The Vietnamese Pho, with its emphasis on good stock, fresh herbs and delicate but intricate flavours seemed the most fitting. Apart from the duck, everything else was bought in Lagos from L’epicerie, Goodies, La Pointe and my beloved vegetable sellers on Idowu Martins. Recipe and pics below 🙂
2 duck breasts
Vietnamese rice noodles (or udon or bean vermicelli – they work just as well)
3 litres of strong chicken stock (I made the stock at home but feel free to use store bought)
3 handfuls of coriander, chopped
2 handfuls of parsley, chopped
1 handful of citronelle leaves (or lemongrass)
5 birds eye chillis sliced and partially deseeded
4 sprigs of sping onions/scallions, chopped
2 – 3 limes, cut into wedges
Rice wine vinegar (or mirin)
- Get the stock going on the cooker. If you are making the stock from scratch, try to make it in advance so you can cool it, skim off the fat, and then reheat it quickly. I didn’t have a chance to make my stock ahead of time so it took about 1.5 hours to make. The stock/broth needs to be piping hot so keep it simmering away on low heat while you carry on with the rest of the prep
- Clean the duck breasts and remove any lurking feathers. Score the skin diagonally on the surface but try not to cut all the way through the fat. Season with salt and pepper.
- Now, heat a tiny bit of oil or butter in a non stick pan. When it is hot, place the duck skin side down and sear until it is brown and lightly crispy. Turn over and sear the other side. Remove from the fire and set aside on a plate to rest, covered with foil. After a few minutes, slice the duck into 1 cm slices. The duck should be cooked rare because it will cook later when you pour the hot broth over it – trust me 😉
- Cook the vietnamese noodles as directed on the pack. This is usually done by soaking them in hot water for as few minutes to loosen them up and then fishing them out – but follow the pack directions. Bean vermicelli for instance requires cold water soaking, as do glass noodles.
- Set out a bowl for each person; in my case it was four bowls
- Place a portion of noodles followed by a good amount of the fresh herbs, spring onions, and chillis in each bowl
- Over the noodles and herbs in each bowl, pour a splash of soy sauce, a splash of fish sauce, and a splash of rice wine vinegar. I do splashes because I’m not a measurey-measurey kinda cook but if you are more comfortable measuring then I’d say about a tablespoon of each sauce per bowl. Go easy on the fish sauce though, that splash should be a tiny bit smaller than the others.
- If you made your chicken stock from scratch, you will probably have a few juicy bits of chicken falling off the bone. Discard the bones, and sprinkle a few shreds of chicken over each bowl. If you are using pre-made or store bought stock, you won’t have any actual chicken but that’s okay, this bit is optional
- Very carefully, place your seared rare duck breast over the lovely noodle/veg tower you have built below. Your stage is now set!
- Just before serving, pour or laddle the boiling hot broth onto the contents of the bowl, almost filling up each bowl. The super boiling broth will finish off cooking the duck and right there before your eyes, it will turn into a gorgrous, perfectly cooked, well seasoned piece of meat. The hot broth will also release the flavour and fragrance from the herbs without over cooking them
- Squeeze a lime wedge lightly over the bowl and drop the wedge into the bowl to infuse.
- Stir the contents of the bowl lightly, and enjoy.
The heady fragrance and the powerful flavours all came together to make me feel alive. I could not stop dancing on the evening we had this for supper. If there’s one thing this dish taught me, it’s to listen to your food and feel what it is saying. I’m so glad I didn’t force the duck into being anything other than what it wanted to be because I would have had a cooking disaster, I’m sure of it. Something would have gone wrong and I would have been so upset.
What’s your favourite way to enjoy duck?