They say that sometimes the best gift is one we give ourselves. As cooks, we know that a gift of food is even better when it can be shared with others. And it’s better still when it involves flipping crepes, filling pastries and roasting duck, tasks that might sound like chores to some people, but which fill us with a quiet joy (and the house with wonderful smells).
So with this Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday, why not give yourself an early present and cook a nice dinner for some people you care about?
It doesn’t have to be anything major, just a quiet meal for four good friends, a moment of calm in the midst of the hectic holiday season. For one evening you can forget all the school pageants, office parties and open houses. Just sit back, enjoy the blinking lights and carols and eat good food.
You know, something like roast duck with turnips, the bird’s skin crisp with a hint of spices and orange, preceded by crunchy little pastries stuffed with a rich salad of Dungeness crab and radishes, and followed by a dessert of silken crepes filled with a fragrant grapefruit cream. Add some oysters to the first course and serve watercress salad and cheeses so you can linger over the red wine before dessert and you’re all set.
It’ll be fun -- and not just the eating part, but the cooking part as well.
Given time and the right frame of mind, there’s something about the shopping, the chopping, the alternating moments of hurry and calm that is intensely enjoyable, even relaxing. And given the normal pace of life in this pre-holiday run-up, those are things that seem mighty welcome.
You can do the whole meal in only a couple of hours -- not counting the roasting of the duck, which actually takes only a few minutes of active attention. And you can either do all the work at once or split it up so you can putter at your pleasure. Wrap some presents; flip some crepes. Hang some stockings; bake some pastry shells. You get the picture.
Here’s how I’d do it: Salt the duck and set it aside several days in advance. The day before the dinner, bake the pastries. Christmas Eve morning, prepare the crepe batter and the filling. A little later, take half an hour to make the crab salad and clean and blanch the turnips. That leaves you with about an hour more of work to finish the meal.
And what a meal.
Roast duck is a dish that seems made for such intimate dinners. First, because it’s delicious -- skin that is browned and crisp to the point of crackling, and meat that is moist, rich and faintly gamy.
But almost as important, the dish is perfect because it’s inconvenient to serve roast duck for a group that’s any bigger than four. There’s just not much meat on a duck -- particularly when compared to a plump little chicken or a great big turkey. And what meat is there is spread pretty sparsely over a large frame; a duck is too big to roast two at a time in anything but a restaurant setting.
So much the better, though -- because so few people serve a whole roast duck anymore, that just makes it all the more memorable when you do.
Crisp, moist, perfect
Still, there are a few things to keep in mind when roasting a duck. The current fashion is to serve medium-rare duck breast, but forget about that when you’re roasting a whole bird. The leg is full of sinew that must be cooked to at least medium to become tender. The laws of physics dictate that serving a medium-rare leg and a medium breast from the same bird at the same time is a physical impossibility.
So just forget about fashion and cook your duck to medium or even medium-well. That’s no sacrifice. Because a duck’s breast is “dark meat,” it tastes wonderful way beyond the point at which a turkey or chicken would have dried to sawdust. During my testing, one duck got away from me and cooked to 185 degrees, but the breast meat was still moist (though the area around the knee was a little dried out).
The other problem a lot of cooks have with duck is that it’s pretty fatty. Unlike most poultry, which have been bred to be lean, ducks still have a fairly thick layer of fat just beneath the skin (and after a long walk in the wetlands last week in a brisk breeze, I can certainly understand why).
That fat is one of the reasons the skin gets so crisp and the meat stays so moist, but it can also be a hurdle if you’ve never roasted a duck. A badly prepared duck can be pretty greasy.
Cooks have come up with all sorts of tricks to render the fat. Some advocate steaming the bird first, then roasting it to crisp the skin. Some recommend high-heat roasting: In “Simply French,” Joel Robuchon calls for a 425-degree oven.
To my mind, both of these have significant drawbacks. The first is cumbersome, involving transferring a hot bird from one pan to another -- and that’s even if you somehow are able to find a steamer big enough to hold a whole duck.
High-heat roasting does work well, but it also smokes and spatters like the dickens. Use it only if you have a restaurant-quality exhaust fan (and a restaurant-quality galley slave to scrub the roasting pan afterward).
Instead, I prefer roasting duck at a low temperature for a long time, then turning up the heat at the finish to crisp the skin.
This is the same way I roast a pork shoulder, which also has a good amount of fat beneath the skin. Prick holes in the skin at the base of the breasts and thighs before cooking to allow the rendered fat to escape.
There will be plenty of this -- I roasted three ducks last week and wound up with almost two cups. Draw this off repeatedly during roasting so it doesn’t scorch and you’ll have a really lovely cooking fat, perfect for frying potatoes.
A bulb baster works well, but it’s a lot easier to remove the duck and the roasting rack from the pan and simply pour the fat off. Be sure to leave the browned bits behind in the pan; you’ll want them to flavor the roasted turnips.
Duck with turnips is a classic French combination, though it’s traditionally prepared as a braise, not a roast. No matter, the flavors and textures work perfectly: The rich, meaty duck and the creamy, slightly bitter turnips are made for each other, especially after the turnips have browned and glazed in the duck fat.
To play up the combination, I rubbed the duck with a mixture of spices and orange zest ground to a powder. This is a flavored spin on the Judy Rodgers-inspired pre-salting that worked so well with turkey when I experimented with it for Thanksgiving. If anything, it works even better this way: The salt really does carry hints of the flavor all the way through the meat.
What to drink? Burgundy or Pinot Noir complement it wonderfully, but to my mind, the spicing and orange peel perfume speak equally well to a Syrah.
Before the duck, and after
Because it would be unthinkable in my house to have any winter celebration without Dungeness crab, I’d start the menu with crab puffs. They’re simple to make -- nothing more than classic choux pastry stuffed with a salad of crabmeat and sliced radishes and bound with a little mayonnaise.
“Simply made?” I hear you ask, “With homemade cream puff dough?” To be honest, I’d forgotten just how easy these are to make, and even how much fun.
The dough comes together in a few quick minutes: Melt butter and water, beat in flour, then beat in the eggs.The only tricky part is making sure to dry the dough thoroughly in the pan before adding the eggs -- that’s what makes the dough light and the puffs hollow.
And there’s something about watching them rise that is purely magical. From a squat little dumpling, the dough swells and puffs in the oven so magnificently that it looks as though it’s ready to float off the cookie sheet.
You can make these pastries a day in advance. Just store them uncovered on the cooling rack at room temperature so they’ll stay crisp.
On a separate platter, serve oysters. I get mine mail-order from Taylor Shellfish (www.taylorshellfish.com; four dozen assorted are $48 plus shipping). I get my crab from the live tanks in Chinese and Southeast Asian markets.
Serve the first course with -- what else? -- sparkling wine or Champagne.
Follow the duck with a salad -- toss peppery watercress with a vinaigrette spiked with some of the hot duck fat -- after all that rich, a little crisp and tart will be welcome. Serve it with an assortment of cheeses, which will let you enjoy the red wine a little longer.
Finish the meal with a luxurious plate of eggy crepes filled with a rich combination of cream cheese, sour cream and whipping cream scented with grapefruit zest. Garnish with honey-sweetened grapefruit segments. It’s like a heavenly grown-up version of a blintz.
Make both the crepe batter and the filling in the same blender. Do the batter first, strain it into a jar to rest, rinse the blender and then make the filling. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
In fact, you can prepare all three elements in advance -- cook the crepes, blend the filling and marinate the grapefruit segments -- and then assemble the dessert in minutes just before serving.
If you want to serve a wine with this dessert, you might as well get all Niles-and-Frasier-ish and pour a sweet, nutty Oloroso sherry.
After that, serve some coffee and send everyone on their way. There will be more presents in the morning, but none better than this one.