Duck, or strange love (adventures with a homebrew sous-vide)

Duck or strange love (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the (flavour) bomb that’s cooking very low and slow).

I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the concept of sous-vide cooking over the last few months, but I’ve been put off by the extreme set-up costs associated with this oh-so-trendy way of cooking. Sous-vide, incidentally, means cooking under vacuum, at a low temperature for a long time. The idea is to preserve flavours and cell structure better through super-slow cooking. It’s actually a pretty simple concept, and in theory one can’t go far wrong with the ‘low n slow’ cooking style. However if you look online there are a lot of very expensive pieces of kit designed to relieve you of your hard-earned cash along the way.

That’s the thing: it’s one of the those ‘art vs. science’ techniques. I’m definitely more artistic than scientific, although I’ve watched as a more technical style of cooking has become more popular, thanks in part the Hestons and Ferrans of this media age. However I’m also a pragmatist. It was reading a review of ‘Modernist Cooking‘ that made me think, dammit, I should have a go at this malarkey. So I decided to rig up a rather Heath Robinson-esque DIY sous vide cooking kit. Take one slow cooker (rather a kitchen favourite, cost under £20 when I bought it a couple of years ago.) Add one inexpensive electronic cooking thermometer/probe from Clas Olsen (a tenner to you and I). Finish with a lot of cling-film and some zip-lock plastic bags. There were promising reports of similar setups on the net. But would it actually work?

What had started my train of thought was how to cook a pair of local wild duck breasts I’d bought from Stansfields: could I super-slow cook the flesh and top it with a crispy crackling made from the skin, to make a contrast in texture and taste that would be out of this world? I initially prevaricated between Eastern and Western cooking styles and couldn’t decide what would be more suitable, so I wandered into town to look for inspiration. The theme became firmly Asian when I found some delicious-sounding pumpkin & ginger soba noodles in the Bear Shop – another Todmorden food gem – and picked up a local leek in the market. As I walked home various concepts coalesced and I was clear how I wanted to cook everything.

Stage one was to prepare the duck breasts, separating the skin from the breast meat. I rolled the breasts in shichimi (aka nanami togarashi), the wonderful Japanese seven spice mix which I’m such a fan of. I reckoned the chilli and Szechuan pepper, combined with the citrus-y notes of orange peel and sesame seeds would pair well with the rich wild duck flesh. Then I took some sheets of nori seaweed, dampened and laid them out on the underside of the flesh, and rolled up the breast tightly. The plan was to add some savoury umami-ness, as well as a pretty visual edge to the cooked meat, but frankly this was all guesswork. I then wrapped each duck breast in several layers of clingfilm, before popping both into a ziplock bag with as much air expelled as I could manage.

I’d already had the slow cooker on for several hours, watching hawklike to see how the temperature held on the 2 settings (low or high). Low, with the lid open just a fraction, seemed to stay pretty constant at around 60°C, which seemed to be a good average heat for cooking lean meat. When I put the plump plastic parcel into the warm water it rose straight up, so I used an upside-down bowl to weight the package down, and left it to cook for 2 hours. Meanwhile I rubbed some Maldon salt into the skins after padding them dry, then cut into strips so they could later go into a hot oven to turn into duck crackling. I did this a couple of years ago with goose skin and it was addictively moreable; so much so that it never made it to the table as a pre-meal accompaniment to drinks.

As I’d roasted a chicken the previous day I reduced down the stock I’d made, then halved it. One portion to cook the soba noodles in, the other to reduce down dramatically with some tamari soy and mirin, to make a glossy unctuous sauce. I sweated the thinly sliced leek down, and softening it in some butter, tossing some black sesame seeds into the pan to add some interest to the dish. After the noodles softened and cooked in the stock I drained them and mixed them with the leek as the side dish.

By this time I was ready to unveil the purported stars of the show, nervously unwrapping the duck parcels. I was a little surprised at how much liquid was in the packages as I undid them, so I tried to capture as much of these natural juices as possible and add them to the pouring sauce for some additional richness. I later read this is common with sous vide cooking; the process coaxing moisture out of the meat while gently steaming everything to keep it seductively moist. The breasts had kept their rolled shape well, and seemed perfectly cooked, although a little pallid. I dry pan-fried them on a high heat for a couple of minutes to sear the exterior and give it a little more colour, then tentatively sliced the first one open. Wow! The meat was exceptionally tender and the shichimi and nori interior created the most delightful contrasting colour, swirling around the inner edge of the breast.

Once this was all plated, the noodles topped with a selection of the crackling strips, and a little of the sauce reduction poured over the meat, I sprinkled some ground nori flakes on top. By this time we were desperate to try the results: an inevitable by-product of cooking anything slowly – it smelt delectable. It also looked great, but the proof was always going to be in the taste. Which, I’m glad to say, was just wonderful. The shichimi gave a spicy vibrance to the rich, oh-so-tender duck meat, while the noodles were silken in their butter and leek coating, adding just the right amount of subtlety to the plate. Finally the crackling gave a salty crunch to the dish, playing off the sweet stock reduction which glistened on the perfect slices of duck.

I’ve since experimented several times since with the DIY sous vide technique: this is terribly addictive and seems like a great way of creating succulent deliciousness from all sorts of flesh. As importantly, it’s good to know one can have a go at something sophisticated with such simple kit. So if you have an underused slow cooker/crockpot, get a cook’s thermometer try a spot of sous-vide and enjoy life in the slow lane. Like me, you may just find you’ve fallen in love with it…

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