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Dinner with Friends

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As a former fine dining chef, owner of Wild Fennel Co. Dan Pearson is no ordinary farmers' market customer. Excitement runs high when he's faced with a plethora of local, seasonal and fresh produce and the creative juices flow. Here's a little story of preparing dinner for friends through the eyes of a former chef...  

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"You're familiar with a beer-can-chicken, right?" I always ask customers at my stall at Oamaru Farmers' Market. Then I hit them with "But have you heard of red wine duck?" It immediately grabs their attention and their imagination. I describe massaging our sweet cinnamon and ginger duck seasoning into the skin and sitting the whole duck on an open tin can filled with a punchy, aromatic merlot, ready to place in a smoker filled with Manuka chips. While it's cooking the wine heats up and steams the duck from inside, leaving a lasting flavour throughout the meat, while on the outside the skin crisps up perfectly with a sweet, smokey flavour. 

The look on the customers' faces is fantastic. It's as if you can see them mentally tasting and smelling each step in the recipe. The final touch is when I say "Then all you need to do is shred the whole bird down and simply serve in a little pancake with hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onion".

When I describe food like this, there's usually a demand that I cook for them. Their home, my home - either way, I'm cooking! I love these interactions with people, it's how I believe food should be. Fun, simple, accessible to anyone and bringing people together. 

Otago Farmers Market Produce

Finally I got the chance to cook this recipe on a cold and snowy Dunedin day in May, for the very friends who that took the time to shoot and pluck two ducks for me. However, it didn't quite work out that way. Once I was handed the beautiful meat parcel my chef brain took over and what followed was a feast that no one was expecting.

As a chef I get so excited by the idea of cooking with good produce that I can't sit still. Even more so when it doesn't come with the pressures of working in a restaurant. I left the world of cheffing a couple of years ago to pursue our business, and the level of freedom I have now to cook without limitations is the perfect platform for my guests to relax and enjoy the ride. As a paying customer you will always have a certain level of expectation, always looking out for those little pet hates (my personal pet hate is fridge-temperature butter with a warm cinnamon brioche scroll or even worse, the ultimate crime... fridge temperature cheese!). But when you are welcomed into someone's home to eat for free, knowing that the unwritten law is to politely eat what is put in front of you, you tend to just accept it and go with it.

So, the day begins. It's 7.30am on Saturday morning, the kids are fed and loving the fact they have seen snowfall for the first time in their lives, and it's very, very cold. I've had my first coffee and I'm raring to go. Showered and clothed in double layers, I bounce out the door, jump in the car and head to the Otago Farmers' Market to get some fresh produce to compliment the ducks. 

On the way I try to reason with myself. Set a budget, don't go over the top and get too excited, get in and out with military precision. The one major flaw in this plan though is that this is not how I operate, not just as a chef but as a human being. The romance in a farmers market is too much for me to handle. I always try and play it cool, unfazed, but underneath my mind is exploding with excitement about all the different things I could make, the absolutely endless possibilities . Fresh seasonal produce is everywhere: my favourite cheese in the world (smoked brie), freshly baked bread... My brain is debating with itself: should I poach pears or quince? Should I make my own butter for the radishes and if so, what salt should accompany them? Should I smoke, poach, pan fry or pickle my mackerel? Will my guests like pickled mackerel and if not, how can I change their minds and entice them to try it? This is my favourite way to cook: make it up as you go along. Trial and error; pure instinct based on experience.

After buying everything I need, I chat with a few market-stall holders, drink up my flat white and head on my way. I didn't spend a fortune which was a massive bonus, but I do now have to create something with all this bounty.

After tidying the kitchen I have a quick look in the cupboards for inspiration and find a jar of homemade preserved lemons from when we first moved to Dunedin. The lady next door had given me a huge bag of lemons from her tree as a lovely gesture to welcome us to the neighbourhood, and I've been itching to use them for a couple months now. So with a find like that my brain is ticking away.

As a quick side note, the only time I weigh ingredients is when we write recipes for our website. I actually find it such a restrictive way of cooking and a really big distraction. It should come from the head and the heart. Using all your senses. Taste everything you touch, question every step, question what will happen when you do something and why. Once you begin cooking this way you have to really commit to the idea, and almost trick yourself into believing it will work!

First off I make a preserved lemon chutney. It's so salty and tangy but deliciously moreish. Drain your jar of preserved lemons, discard the flesh and finely dice the zest to about 2mm square. After that finely dice an onion to equal the quantity of zest. Crush one clove of garlic and finely grate the zest of one fresh lemon. 

Gently cook the onions in a little olive oil over a low heat until they are soft without colour. Very lightly season with a little salt and then add the diced preserved lemon zest. Continue to cook slowly, with a gentle stir every once in a while. Be sure to smell the sweet smell of the lemons slowly breaking up into the soft onions. Add a pinch of fennel seed, the fresh zest, crushed garlic, about two heaped teaspoons of honey, and a very generous splash of white balsamic vinegar. Watch and smell the pan as they fuse together. Have a little taste - it should be tangy and sweet. If it's too sweet, add a little salt. If it's too salty, add some more honey (although I like mine salty). Reduce the liquid down and remove from the stove once the chutney can comfortably coat the back of a spoon. Once cooled transfer to a bowl ready for serving. 

- Chef tip: never put a lid on a chutney while it's cooling down as the condensation will drip into it and make it runny.

Next I make a honey poaching liquid for my pears. 500ml white wine and 500ml water and around 200ml honey. Submerge your pears (3 large peeled hard green Comice pears) by placing a small plate on top of them. Bring the poaching liquid to an almost simmer then turn the heat to the lowest setting and cook for about 30 minutes. Be sure to check them along the way so that they are not over cooking and breaking up. Use a small sharp knife to make an incision - if there's any resistance piercing the flesh then continue to cook until they have softened. Dip a spoon in and have a taste too, and be sure to smell all the way through cooking. 

Then I make a quick salt - flaky sea salt, touch of cinnamon, black pepper, clove, cocoa nib, caraway seed. 

After that, shake a medium sized bottle of cream with a sterile marble in it until it churns to a butter. Drain, and place the fresh butter in a cute ceramic bowl with a little pinch of the salt. 

- Chef tip: keep the milk that has separated from the fat and use it to poach a lovely piece of white fish for breakfast. 

Next I make a vinaigrette100ml chardonnay vinegar, 200ml grape seed oil, 1 tsp of dijon mustard, 1 tsp of honey, pinch of salt, 1 eighth of a clove of garlic. Whisk furiously until emulsified. Transfer to another ceramic bowl.

Wash and drain radishes. Toast, chop and mix a handful of pistachio nuts, pumpkin seeds and a little dried apricot.

Next I take the cheese (in this case Evansdale smoked brie and a blue brie) out of the fridge to come up to room temperature gently. Make sure they are not wrapped in cling film as they will sweat. Gently wrap in baking paper to prevent any exposed cheese from drying out and forming a skin.

Mackerel

Gut, fillet, debone and skin a large jack mackerel. Wash under a cold tap. Pat dry and keep in the fridge until later.

Wash wild ducks and pluck any leftover feathers. Blow torch the skin just to rid it of any small stray hairs. Stuff with garlic and fresh rosemary, then massage with our Wild Fennel Co. duck seasoning all over. Place in the fridge until later.

Ducks

Peel the baby orange beetroot, purple and yellow carrots. Cut into quarters and roll in a large bowl with crushed garlic, grape seed oil, fresh chopped rosemary and the flavoured salt. Place in a deep roasting tray making sure they are not all crammed in together as they will not roast properly. Be sure to space them out so they all get even distribution of heat.

Make an aioli - 1 egg yolk, 1 tsp grain mustard, 1 freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1 crushed clove of garlic. Whisk together continuously while very slowly drip feeding grape seed oil into it until it starts to emulsify. If you over whip it and it splits, try putting it in the fridge to cool down, and revive it by whipping it back to its desired consistency. If that fails, chuck it out and start again. Chop a large fistful of fresh dill finely and fold through at the end.

- Chef tip: if in doubt, fuck it out. 

Cut, wash and drain a gem lettuce. Boil new potatoes. Once cooked and cooled, dice to around 2cm. Then mix with the gem lettuce and dill aioli. Pop in the fridge until serving.

In case of emergency I always have a few base stocks made in the freezer. In this case I use a game stock made from the bones of a leg of venison, from a deer shot by another enthusiastic hunter friend. I am completely head over heals in love with the bi-product of their hunting excursions, but I'm a city boy, man of the concrete jungle, and I find it fascinating, but not appealing. I like my canvas trainers scuffed, not covered in mud and wet through to the socks. I think it is a beautiful relationship we are forming: you kill, I cook. A complete winning formula for everyone involved. 

For the game jus, I defrost and season my stock with our deer seasoning (about half a packet to 500ml of stock) and put to one side with a small bar of 100% dark chocolate roughly smashed up.

In a separate pan add about half a block of butter and melt it on a medium to high heat. As the butter heats up it will gradually start boiling and the milk solids will separate from the fat. Be sure to whisk the caramelised milk solids from the bottom of the pan as it adds flavour into the fat of the melted butter. You'll know when it's ready as it will brown and take on the smell of warm toasted almonds. Set to one side to cool down.

Then peel one medium sized celeriac and dice along with half a white onion and 6 cloves of garlic. Caramelise in a large saucepan until golden brown, making sure to season with salt as you go. Small pinch and smell, repeat this until your senses and common sense tells you it's enough. Ladle in one ladle's worth of pear poaching liquid out of the pears to cover the celeriac, and cover with a lid for about 5 minutes on a medium heat.

Be careful taking the lid off as there will be a burst of steam which can burn. Although I'm so impatient and selfish and I want that first smell all to myself every time knowing full well it's going to hurt. 

If the celeriac is soft and all those wonderful ingredients have married together, transfer them to a blender. Whizz on a slow speed to break the mush down even further, then slowly add the burnt butter with caramelised mIlk solids until it starts to form a purée. Blend on turbo speed until smooth. Have a taste, does it need salt? This purée is like no other. The burnt butter is just the right note to turn such a humble and under-utilised root vegetable into something really sexy.

By now your pears will be cool. Drain the poaching liquid into a saucepan. Core the pears, cut them in half and fan them out on your dish. It's such a retro garnish I love it. Basic and not pretentious in any way. It serves a very simple purpose. 

Rapidly reduce the poaching liquid by half and take it off the heat. Throw in a large handful of fresh dill, one crushed garlic clove, 4 juniper berries, and keep hitting the solution with just enough good quality red wine vinegar that the acidic notes just break through the sweetness. Leave to cool at room temperature.

OK, so that's the prep done. Once all my friends have arrived it is just a simple case of timing all the food to come out together. Make sure your celeriac purée and game jus are in pots ready for heating. Your oven should be pre-heated to 185 degrees. Get all your plates, serving bowls, cutlery, napkins, glassware, gravy boat, music and drinks ready well in advance.

Now for the main event. Everybody is here, polite greetings are done, drinks are served and everyone is starting to relax around the table. Time to get my head down and get cracking.

I've had the walnut and maple syrup sourdough heating up gently in the oven, so first things first I slice it and put it down on the table with the homemade butter, radishes, flavoured salt, vinegarette, room-temperature cheese, preserved lemon chutney and the poached pears. 

Evansdale Cheese and Lemon Chutney

I love the look on everyone's faces. I don't think anyone knows what to expect when they come here for dinner. I recommend that they pass the plates around, dip the radish greens in the vinaigrette and the bulb in the butter and salt, use the poached pear and lemon chutney to accompany the cheese and bread. At first there is a little apprehension, but once they get going, they're hooked. 

Like a chef ninja I retreat silently to my domain once I am certain everyone is comfortable with what's in front of them. I slice the mackerel to sashimi style and delicately place the thin slices around a large plate closely together, and gently spoon the red wine vinegar pickling solution over the top. Not so much that it is drowning the fish, but more like a light coating.

I place it down on the table that is now bustling with conversation and people filling their faces with cheese and wine. I recommend they use their fingers, get stuck in and be sure to finish the mackerel with a little sprinkle of the flavoured salt (remember my 'in head' conversation about breaking down people's perception of pickled fish - these are all flavours that I would not normally associate with fish in this way but I trusted my gut instinct and committed to it!). The result was great and I could see my guests really thinking about what they were eating.

Next I put the carrots and beets in the oven to roast and start to sear the ducks in a pan. Once the skin is caramelised all over I drain any of the succulent duck fat and pour it over the roasting vegetables. I place the ducks in the oven - they should take between 15-20 minutes to cook, if you like them a little pink as I do.

Gently reheat your celeriac purée and your game stock. Take your salad out of the fridge to take the chill off of it and then clear any serving bowls or plates on the table that look empty or unused.

- Chef tip: be discreet when clearing the table, don't break people's conversation. They are all aware that they are going to be eating duck but they have no idea what with or how it's coming. Try to keep it that way as the element of surprise is too beautiful to ruin.

Be sure to check on your roasting vegetables, give them a turn and shake. No one wants burnt vegetables. Also be sure to mix your purée so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. If it has stuck it will burn and taint that lovely flavour you worked so hard to achieve.

Now the ducks are out and resting ready to be carved. Spoon the celeriac purée into a bowl and place the roasted vegetables into a suitable serving dish topped with the chopped pistachio, pumpkin seed and dried apricot. 

Whisk your dark chocolate into the hot game jus until it melts and thickens to a consistency similar to a thick gravy, and pour into a gravy boat. The bitterness of the chocolate will marry perfectly with the sweet richness of the burnt butter celeriac purée, so don't lose confidence in its' flavour.

Place all of the above on the table, including the salad. As a side note, normally I wouldn't prepare a salad with a roast dinner but you never know if one of your guests will not be happy with a game bird. If it is not to their liking they can continue to graze on the fish and cheese with salad as a little filler)

The next part is my favourite and makes the hard work of a day in the kitchen worth every moment. I like to call it 'the silence'! As I carve my ducks I can hear everyone discussing what's been put down in front of them, ooo-la-laaing over the smells. All previous discussions have well and truly left the table.

As I sit down with the carved ducks my guests naturally start passing the bowls around and filling their plates while I explain what they have in front of them. After numerous complements on what they've had so far, silence fills the air as everyone is 100% focused on what they are eating.

My work here is done. Very happy guests with the children destroying the house in the background. Calm amongst the chaos. 

 

SHOPPING LIST

If you're keen to try the recipes above, here's what you'll need - feel free to make substitutions where necessary:

2 x wild duck

1 jar preserved lemons

White onions

NZ garlic

Cream

Chardonnay vinegar

Grape seed oil

Dijon mustard

Radishes

Pistachio nuts

Pumpkin seeds

Dried apricots

Evansdale smoked Brie

Evansdale blue Brie

Jack mackerel

Fresh rosemary

Wild Fennel Co. Duck Seasoning

Wild Fennel Co. Deer seasoning

Orange beetroot

Purple and yellow carrots

Eggs

Grain mustard

Fresh dill

Gem lettuce

Fresh lemons

Olive oil

Fennel seed

Honey

White balsamic vinegar

New potatoes

Game stock

100% dark chocolate

Butter

Celeriac

Juniper berries

Red wine vinegar

Walnut and maple syrup sourdough

Sea salt

Comics pears

White wine

Ground Cinnamon 

Black pepper

Cloves

Cocoa nib

Caraway seed

Deer Seasoning Duck Seasoning

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