Christmas is around the corner and I'm sure everyone has their menu planned, most likely what is served every year: glazed ham, roast beef, turkey or goose but I'm posting my South Indian duck recipe for consideration another year or another holiday gathering. One year I made the duck with several other Indian dishes and my guests swooned as it was something very different and delicious. How much turkey or ham can you eat during the holidays?
In Kerala, Syrian Christians celebrate Christmas with roast pepper duck and cakes filled with plump raisins, currants, and dates that have been soaking in rum for months. Although it is called a roast, the duck is not roasted whole in the oven as until very recently no one had ovens, so “roasts” are really a type of braise. In this recipe pieces of peppery marinated duck are pan-seared, then braised in coconut milk until a thick reduction clings to the meat. The duck is traditionally served with oven-roasted potatoes but for Christmas you could serve cinnamon and nutmeg laced mashed sweet potatoes and green beans with garlic and crushed peanuts for a holiday repast with an Indian accent. In India ducks are hunted when they arrive from northern climes as well as raised in flocks that can be seen waddling along the edges of rice paddies in South India. The excess fat is always removed, but in this recipe the skin is left on as it is browned until crisp first, adding appealing texture and color. Cinnamon, cloves, and pepper hold up to and enhance the dark rich flavor of duck, balanced with the sweetness of coconut milk, tang of vinegar, and heat of the chiles. If you make the duck a day ahead and refrigerate it, it is easy to remove the congealed fat from the surface before gently reheating. Since there are only eight pieces of duck you can either serve four people two pieces or eight people one and make lots of side dishes or cook two ducks and invite four more lucky guests.
One 6-pound duck, thawed if frozen
1 generous teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
The Spice Paste (Masala)
One 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
3-4 small dried red chiles, snipped in half and seeded
1 generous teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 tablespoons clear vinegar
Finishing The Duck
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 medium yellow onion (about 8-ounces), peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
1 sprig curry leaves, stripped from the twig (about 12 leaves), optional
One 15 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
PREPARING THE DUCK. Remove neck, giblets, and any pouches of orange sauce hidden in the body cavity and discard (or save for another use). Rinse the duck and using sturdy kitchen shears, trim off the overhanging flaps of fat. Place the duck on a cutting board with the breast side up, and starting at the neck cavity snip in two lengthwise, cutting through the breastbone. Snip down each side of the backbone; remove and discard it. Cut off the joined thighs and legs in one piece. Feel with your fingers for the joint connecting the thighs and drumstick and snip between it to separate the pieces, repeating with the other thigh-drumstick joint. Using a sharp knife cut the breast in half crosswise to make two pieces of breast-only meat and two pieces of breast with a wing attached. There should be 8 pieces of duck. Make several deep diagonal slashes to the bone on the breast and thickest part of the thighs and drumsticks. Sprinkle lightly with salt and smear in the slits using a rubber spatula.
MAKING THE SPICE PASTE (MASALA). Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in cinnamon pieces, peppercorns, cloves, chiles, coriander seeds and cumin. Roast the spices, shaking the pan frequently until they smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee/spice grinder and add the turmeric. Blitz, pulsing on and off several times and stopping at least once to scrape down the sides with a small spoon until fairly finely powdered, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Scrape into a small bowl and stir in the vinegar and turmeric, making a paste. Using a small spoon, work the paste under the duck skin and into the slashes, smearing on both sides of each piece. Marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature.
COOKING THE DUCK. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large wide flat-bottomed skillet (not nonstick) over high heat. When the oil is hot, add four pieces of duck, skin side down. Fry until the skin is crispy, about 5 minutes, scraping up several times with a slotted spoon. Turn pieces and fry on the other side, until well browned, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Fry the remaining pieces of duck in the same pan for about the same amount of time turning once. Place two 3 to 4-quart heavy saucepans over burners and add a tablespoon of oil to each pan. When the oil is hot, add half the onions and curry leaves to each pan and cook, stirring frequently until the onions are just starting to turn pale caramel at the edges, about 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and shake the can of coconut milk to make sure the thick and thin layers are mixed together. Pour half the coconut milk and 1 cup of water into each pot, stirring to blend. Place the two wing and breast pieces and one thigh in one pot; add the remaining parts to the other pot. Partially cover and cook, checking to stir from time to time and adding water if necessary until the coconut milk mixture is reduced to a thick sauce, coating the duck, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. As the sauce thickens the oil will separate and pool on the surface and the duck should be buttery tender. Serve heaped in a large platter.