Sunday, June 22, 2008

Duck, Duck ... Goose.

When I was twelve years old, some rare and fortuitous circumstance brought me to dinner at the St. Paul Grill, a steakhouse with dark wood, white linen tablecloths, and a carousel of Minnesota politicians rotating through the bar. I was buzzing with self-importance and the certainty that these scenes would feature prominently in my adult life.

In this refined setting, I ordered the chicken pot pie.

For a girl coming from a proto-Pollan, couscous kind of family, this was exotic fair.

So it should come as little as surprise that meatloaf made infrequent appearances in my childhood. It inspires zero nostalgia in me, unlike roast chicken, which made its glorious debut in my life when my dad and I moved in with Shelley, the woman who would become my adopted mother, or German apple pancake, spongy, eggy, and big enough to feed at least six, which my dad sometimes makes on wintry Sunday mornings.

It wasn't just the children of once-long-haired radicals who grew up without meatloaf on their plate. There's no equivalent in Latino, Indian, and Arabic cultures, to name but a few. But to my surprise, there is one in Chinese culture -- or, at least, Chinese-American culture. Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood (1997) offers a recipe for Steamed Pork Loaf with Salted Duck Eggs.

"This dish is well known to many of my fellow Chinese-Americans," Hom writes, "It should become a favorite of all Americans, hyphenated or not."

I made a special trip to Manhattan expressly for salted duck eggs, which, Hom promised, would be hard, rich with briny flavor, and would "add much to the already zestful blend of robust pork and spices." In Chinatown, I asked a few Chinese people where I might find a suitable grocery store. They were very nice but had no idea what I was talking about. It was a pleasantly disorienting experience, speaking my native tongue in my native land and feeling so foreign. I was saved by an Anglo British man pushing a stroller with a beautiful child of indeterminate, mixed race, who overheard my query and said, "Just up the street. I used to live in Bejing and I miss those eggs."

I'd like to know what brand he misses so much, because the kind I purchased were the sort of thing that could cause nightmares, never nostalgia.

For all Hom's declarations of the meatloaf's "exciting seasonings," I thought the recipe looked a little bland (it is a meatloaf after all), so I mixed turkey with pork and really revved up the spices, adding garlic, ginger, and spicy sesame oil. I replaced canned water chestnuts with fresh, which filled me with immense guilt but saved a great deal of time.

When it came time to add the duck egg yolks to the top (the whites were discarded), I unwrapped one of the eggs from it's red candy-like wrapping and gave it a tentative crack against the counter. The white was that sallow gray shade common to hard-boiled chicken eggs that have been cooked too long. I gave it a sniff. Smelled fine, like nothing much. I gave it a nibble. Salty. Very salty.

I peeled away the white ... and there was the yolk. I felt queasy. It was mealy, moist, dark gray, and frankly, disgusting-looking. The package showed a preternaturally yellow yolks that shone like small suns. I was unnerved.

A quick Internet search assured me that so long as there was no foul smell, the eggs would be fine. I proceeded, slicing the gooey yolks in half and pressing them into the top of meatloaf.

I set up an impromptu steamer by bringing a couple inches of water to a simmer in my roaster pan on the stove, and gently floating the loaf pan in the bath (Hom uses a wok and a rack.) In less than half and hour, I fished out the loaf pan, turned the meatloaf onto a serving platter, and arranged stir-fried boy choy, celery, and asparagus around it.

The egg yolks were now an innocuous, pale Easter egg yellow. But my roommate, Jane, and I could not forget the undead look they had when they were straight out of the shell. We bravely, gingerly tried a bite while my friend Liz, who wasn't there for the preparations, innocently dug right in. Though she didn't share our vivid visuals and the accompanying negative predispositions, she didn't like them either. They were still mealy and had no flavor to add but intense salt. I scraped them off the whole loaf, so my guests wouldn't have to.

The meatloaf itself was wonderful. Well-seasoned, a lovely, dense texture, and even better the next day, cold and warmed-over.

And now I have three salted duck eggs staring at ominuously from the top shelf of the fridge. You've seen the photo. Admit it: you'd be scared, too.

Chinese-Style Meatloaf

1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground turkey
4 8-ounce cans water chestnuts (or 1 1/2 pound fresh water chestnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons Mirin (sweet rice cooking wine)
3 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons spicy Asian sesame oil
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 salted duck eggs (optional)

In a food processor, mix the pork, turkey, and water chesnuts until they are nearly smooth. Scrape the mixture into a large stainless-steel bowl and add the scallions, then soy sauce and rice win. Add the salt, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and pepper. With your hands, mix well, then turn the meat into a greased loaf pan. Crack open the duck eggs, discard the whites, and cut the yolks in half. Arrange the yolks on the top of the loaf, pressing the yolks into the meat mixture.

In a large roasting pan, preferably with a flat rack in the bottom, bring about 2 inches of water to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and carefully place the loaf pan on the rack or in the bottom of the pan. Cover the roasting pan and let it simmer and steam for 25 minutes, or until the loaf is done.

Serves 4.


Cytoworld said...

You should have bought the "not" cooked salted duck eggs, the cooked salted duck eggs are usually just eaten as a condiment with rice.

manacheck said...

It looks like the salty duck eggs you got, when they were made, the egg shells did not get poked with a needle. When you boil the eggs, if there is no small hole in the shell, it will make the yolk turn greyish/green, just like chicken eggs do. While it's safe to eat it looks gross and the texture is different, too. It's very unfortunate that you got a bad batch. I would try a different brand the next time, or better yet, make your own. All you do is make a highly salty water in a non-reactive container (like plastic or glass) and put the eggs in to brine for a period of time, then boil them for about 10 minutes. If you google salty duck egg recipies, there are some good ideas on the best way to make them and also to keep them from "rising" to the top of the salty water while they brine. I think the best way to get "started" with trying to eat salty duck eggs is boiled in some plain white rice. Because they are so salty and different from most American cuisine it takes some time to develop an interest in them. Kind of like how you might not like onions when you're a kid. It grows on you surprisingly fast, though.

Nora Leah Sherman said...

Wow! Thanks for the feedback.

I will certainly give salted duck eggs another go, maybe even make 'em some time.

And manachek: how did you know I hated onions as a kid?? And now think they are an absolute essential in everything (especially green onions...I literally eat them every day.)