Cookbook review: Kylie Kwong's Crispy Duck with Plum Sauce from Heart & Soul

I'm on a bit of a Australian chef kick at the moment. I've been cooking Christine Manfield, Karen Martini, Jill Dupleix and Kylie Kwong like there's no tomorrow. I've also thrown in some Neil Perry recipes to redress some of the gender bias going on here.

So with Easter upon us and four days of eating opportunities ahead of me, I decided to cook something a bit more involved and with a lot of wow factor. So what better to cook on Good Friday than a Chinese-style duck dish courtesy of Kylie Kwong?

I've been thinking about the signature dish from Kylie's restaurant Billy Kwong, Crispy Skin Duck with Plum Sauce, for ages. When we ordered it at the restaurant a few years ago, we were blown away by the flavours and literally licked the plate clean. When I drunkenly accosted Kylie after the meal and raved about the duck, she mentioned the recipe was in her book Heart and Soul. Now I love her first book, Recipes and Stories with the wonderful tofu dish I made, but Heart and Soul is a cookbook that I have struggled to warm to. I've cooked a few things out of it and they've all been pretty good, but it's not a book I return to for inspiration. Something about it puts me off for some reason. Maybe it's because the recipes seem to be a little fussy and stray too far from the modern Chinese style I prefer. Or maybe it's just the hideous lime green shirt that some stylist convinced Kylie to wear on the cover. In any case, the book has been in my collection for a while mainly because I had always promised myself that I would recreate the magnificent duck.

So with a long weekend at hand, I was finally able to cook the crispy duck and it was pretty spectacular. OK, maybe it wasn't as great as I remember from the restaurant, but it was still absolutely delicious. I had to improvise a little on ingredients and use regular plums, as blood plums were hard to come by in London. If you can't get the right plums, Kylie suggests using blood oranges or even regular oranges for an Asian riff on duck a l'orange. But whatever fruit you use, the end result should have great textures with tender meat and crispy skin. The sauce should have a wonderful balance of salty, sweet and sour flavours with some warmth from the cinnamon and star anise.

For this recipe review, I decided to do a blow-by-blow account of the cooking of the dish. A kind of pictorial hand-holding for you as you cook the recipe.  Here at The Insatiable Eater, we're not quite ready for video! So let's begin by grabbing the recipe from here (see you don't even need the book!) and start with the dry rub of Szechuan Pepper and Salt.
Mix one tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns and three tablespoons of salt in a small saucepan and fry until the peppercorns starts to sizzle or pop. You should also be able to smell the intense aroma of the roasting peppercorns.
Now grind your peppercorn mix. Either in a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. You want to achieve a nice fine powder to spread all over your duck.
Rub two tablespoons of your pepper and salt mix over your duck. Cover it and pop it in the fridge overnight for the magic to start. Keep the remaining spice mix in an airtight jar and sprinkle it over your next stir fry for a little extra flavour.
The next day, take your duck out of the fridge and pop it into a bamboo steamer. My duck was 2.2kg, not the 1.5kg that Kylie recommends, so it was a bit of a squeeze. Thankfully Gressingham ducks seem to be unusually rectangular birds, so although it was a bit tight, she got in there.
Cover the duck with the lid and steam for about an hour and a half, or a smidge longer if your duck is bigger than the recommended size. You can test by piercing between the leg and thigh to see if the juices are clear. Let the duck cool and pop it back into the fridge until you are ready to finish things off.
Start on your sauce before you begin the final step of deep frying your duck. The method for the sauce is very straightforward and the ingredients are all easy to find with a sugar syrup being the base to which you add plums, fish sauce, star anise and cinnamon.
It seems like a lot of fish sauce (two thirds of a cup), but the flavour balance is perfect. The sweetness of the plums and sugar syrup counter the salty fish sauce. Stir through the lime juice and the sauce is good to go. To channel the Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, how easy is that?!
I found the trickiest part of the dish was actually cutting the duck into halves. Maybe my butchery skills aren't up to snuff, but this duck put up a bit of a fight. As you can see though, we got there in the end. Chop the bird down the centre, breast side up and then work with each half to cut the meat away from the breast bone and carcass. You really only want the leg and wing bones still intact, which makes eating the breast meat a less hazardous affair.

The next bit is the most fun. Well it was for me because I never deep fry food at home!  Choose a pan large enough to hold the vegetable oil with plenty of room to spare. I used my wok and cut the duck portions into quarters to make this stage a bit easier and, hopefully, safer.
Coat your duck portions in plain flour and then deep fry. I found 180 degrees celsius was a good temperature for the oil. Timing wise, I gave the portions two minutes skin side down, two minutes skin side up and another minute skin side down for a total of five minutes frying time. Drain your portions on paper towel and keep them warm in a low oven.
While your duck is resting, cook some Asian greens. I used bok choy and my simple recipe is to add a teaspoon of salt and some smashed garlic cloves to a hot oiled fry pan followed by the greens after about 10 seconds. Stir fry for two minutes and then add a splash of shao hsing rice wine and fry for about 30 seconds. Add a couple tablespoons of water and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Drizzle with a little sesame oil and your greens are done.

Now let's serve. Cut your duck into bite-sized bits, preferably something you could conquer with a chopstick. Cleaver through the leg bones too, so you have Chinese style portions that you can nibble around. Arrange your carved duck on a lovely platter and spoon over the warm sauce. This is a great dish to serve family-style for everyone to dig in and help themselves. Eat with your greens and a bowl of steamed jasmine rice. I think you will be impressed with what you've achieved.

I always assumed this dish was a palaver to cook, but I hope you can see it actually doesn't take a lot of effort at all, just a bit of time and organisation. If your butchery skills are better than mine, you'll have this beautiful looking and tasting dish knocked out in no time.


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