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Getting my ducks in a row

(post, John Dryzga)

While I wish I could say that everything went just ducky yesterday, the lesson left me in a fowl mood.  Ok, OK, I promise not to punish you with any more puns for a while.  I do have to say that Saturday's class kicked my butt.  This is the first class where I really needed a partner to get everything done.

Chef Nic gave us a quick overview of ducks and duck cooking. He then launched into his demo of sauteed duck breasts and braised duck legs a l'orange.  Once again, Chef made dismantling a duck look deceptively  easy.  When I took my boing knife to the duck, reality raised its ugly head.  I removed the first leg without a problem.  The second leg looked like I used a rusty weed whacker to remove it.  I had the opposite problem removing the breast.  The first half put up quite a struggle, while the second one sliced off perfectly.  The duck breast halves and legs needed to be trimmed off all the excess fat,  In addition, the carcass needed to be chopped up for use in the braising liquid.  While I was trimming up the legs and breasts one of the kitchen assistants came over to help me.  He set off hacking up the duck carcass with a gusto that was a little unsettling.  It did save me some time and I was grateful for the assistance.  The clock was moving and there was a lot of cooking to do. 

For the braise, we had to then brown the duck bones and skin of the duck legs.  The bones needed to be very brown to extract the maximum flavor.  To perform this feat, you got a pan nuclear hot then chucked in the carcass bits.  With eight groups doing this, the kitchen was filled with smoke even with  the ventilation going full blast.  On the other burner I had the duck legs browning in a bit of duck fat.  For the first time, butter actually had to take a back seat to another lipid.  I barely got the duck legs in the oven to braise when Chef Nic called us for the next demo.  I was already falling seriously behind in making the other components of the dish.

Chef showed us how to make a gastrique, an important element in the a l'orange sauce.  A gastrique is basically a sweet and sour element made with a caramelized sweet element.  For this dish, we had to caramelize sugar  then add white wine vinegar.  This mixture was then reduced to the right consistency and color.  We had orange zest to julienne and blanch.  Another orange had to be cut into supremes.    If the difficulty factor of todays class wasn't high enough yet, we had to start the second dish before we finished the first.  Chef called us to the front and the second dish demo began.

The second dish for today was butterflied chicken with sauce diable.  A chicken is butterflied, grilled, then finished in the oven.  Once the chicken is cooked through, a coating of Dijon mustard is painted on, a crust of bread crumbs mixed with fat is added, then the chicken is returned to the oven to crisp the crust.  I had to seriously multitask here!  I removed the braised duck legs from the oven, strained the cooking liquid through a fine chinois(of course) and was that was reduced.  I was caramelizing sugar on the other burner.  This is something that requires ones full attention.  Caramel to black is a short fast path!  Plus, one has to be very careful with the culinary napalm know as caramel. There is nothing  worse than a caramel burn.  As soon as the sugar achieved the proper color, I added the vinegar and started to reduce the gastrique.  I then launched into the task of  butterflying the chicken.  So, for those of you keeping score, I was reducing the cooking liquids with one hand, reducing the gastrique on the other and was butterflying a chicken with the third.  While taking the backbone out of the chicken, I nearly burned the gastrique.  If that happened, I probably would have just packed up my knives and left.  It was a little bitter, but it was still usable.  I really dodged a bullet there.  As all this was going on, Chef Nic is in the background telling us "Your chickens must be in the oven by 1:15!".  Nothing like a little more stress.

I then had to get my chicken on the grill pronto.  I plop it down only to have a fellow student tell me, "Uh John, you want to grill it on the skin side".  I quickly flipped the bird and continued.  I barely beat the buzzer getting the chicken in the oven.  I could finally concentrate on finishing dish one.  I got the duck breasts in a saute pan and finished up the a l'orange sauce.  Even with the slightly burned gastrique, the sauce tasted pretty good.  Chef then called us up to demo the finishing of the chicken dish.  I cheated and kept on eye on my duck breasts while he was doing the demo.  I had no choice but to cook through the demo if I was going to be able to present anything to chef today.

I finally plated my duck.  I used the leg I didn't butcher and the breast half I didn't hack.  I fanned out the orange supremes across the top of the plate and poured some sauce across the bottom.  Chef gave me a surprised "John, you actually finished!" when I handed him the plate.  He really liked how the duck was cooked and he even liked the sauce, even if it was a little sweet.  I put some extra orange juice in it to hide the slight burnt taste of the gatrique.  I guess it worked.

I then had to go into total crunch mode to finish the chicken.  The same student that pointed out my chicken flipping error, caught my sauce diable reduction right before it burst into flames.  I finished the sauce while crusting the chicken and returning it to the oven.  I got the chicken out of the oven and the garnishes prepped when we had to stop cooking.  Another class was coming into the kitchen and we had to clean up.  This was the first dish that I did not finish.  I felt a little bad, but I was too jacked up on adrenaline to really care.  We all started to break down our stations and getting things cleaned up. The kitchen assistants jumped in and leant everyone a hand.  This pair of assistants were awesome.

Back in my civilian clothes and walking down Broadway I was facing a dilemma.  I was heading uptown to meet my friend L for dinner and was wondering what I was going to do with all this leftover food.  In less than a block I ran into a homeless man.  I asked him if he would like some food, he said "Sure".  I handed him too packets, "This one is chicken and this one is duck.  I hope you like it."   I truly hope he did.