The Daley Question

Pressed to find classic duck dish

Experiment with Madame Wu's recipe at home

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Madame Wu with guests

This image, from "Madame Wu's Garden: A Pictorial History of a Celebrated Landmark," shows actress Dyan Cannon (left), Wu and Jennifer Grant, Cannon's daughter with Cary Grant. (Image from "Madame Wu's arden: A Pictorial History of a Celebrated Landmark")

Q: Many years ago I was dining in a restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown. I ordered pressed duck. It was served in a deep fried form about 6 inches in length, 4 inches wide and about an inch or so thick. The vegetables were pressed together with the duck and was served with a sauce. I don't know if it is Cantonese, Mandarin, etc. Chinese cookbooks contain no such recipe. For many years since that occasion I have dined in Chinese restaurants around the country and have never been able to find pressed duck prepared in this manner. I am seeking your help in finding a Chicago area restaurant that serves pressed duck in this manner or a recipe so that I may prepare it at home.

—Ron Auld, Tinley Park

A: You have not been alone in the search for pressed duck. A search on Chowhound, the food online bulletin board, found messages dating back to 2001 from people across the country with fond memories of that duck.

An online search for "pressed duck" turned up some Chicago-area restaurants still dishing it up. One restaurant is Shanghai Inn, 4723 N. Damen Ave., which has a Mandarin duck and an almond duck. Both are pressed duck, a staffer tells me. Do call the restaurant, 773-561-3275, to confirm if you plan to drive in.

As for home recipes, one Chowhound contributor found pressed duck recipes in three Chinese cookbooks dating the 1960s and early 1970s. I turned to Grace Young, the New York-based author, wok authority and avid Chinese cookbook collector, for help in digging up the recipes from the cited books.

One of the recipes was for "pressed almond duck with sweet and sour sauce" from 1973's "Madame Wu's Art of Chinese Cooking" by Sylvia Wu. Find it led to an unexpected encounter with the extraordinary Madame Wu herself, a Southern California restaurant legend.

Before it closed in 1998, Madame Wu's Garden in Santa Monica served as a Hollywood A-list gathering place for decades. Look at the Madame Sylvia Wu page on Facebook and you'll see shots of the restaurateur posing with such celebrity customers as Robert Wagner, Princess Grace of Monaco, Steven Spielberg, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant, at whose request she developed her famous Chinese chicken salad.

Madame Wu is 96 and living in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Her husband of 65 years, King Yan Wu, died in 2011 at age 93. She has two living children: federal Judge George H. Wu and Patrick A. Wu, an senior assistant counsel for Los Angeles County; three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

I reached out to Madame Wu via her Facebook page hoping to learn more about the pressed duck recipe. I got a telephone call from Madame Wu herself. She didn't dwell much on the recipe details, which makes sense given it was written nearly 40 years ago. Instead she was very much focused on the future.

"I'm thinking now I would like to open a restaurant," she said, noting Frank Gehry, the famed architect, had promised to draw up plans for her. "Frank Gehry and Madame Wu. We would do very well but we haven't gotten together."

Patrick Wu said his mother often talks of opening a restaurant and shows no signs of slowing down as her 97th birthday approaches in October.

"She has boundless energy," he said.

Indeed. Don't count Madame Wu out.

Her public relations skills are clearly undimmed. She followed up on the telephone call by sending me two of her four books: A large format book about the restaurant called "Madame Wu's Garden: A Pictorial History of a Celebrated Landmark" and a paperback edition of "Madame Wu's Art of Chinese Cooking" in which she wrote, "To Bill. Happy cooking. Madame Wu."

And that, Ron Auld, is my wish for you — happy cooking. Do try out Madame Wu's recipe but don't be afraid to experiment a bit in doing so. I have not tried to make the recipe yet, but already I have questions.

I'm not sure, for example, if two different soy sauces are needed for the poaching liquid. The two have different flavors, true, but the quantities called for are so small it won't make that much of a difference if you use just one type of soy sauce. (Young recommends saving the poaching liquid after the duck is cooked for use as a flavorful broth).

Young also wondered along with me about why the directions called for putting the shredded duck into a pan only to turn it to coat the underside with cornstarch. We both think a neater alternative would be to dust the cooking pan (Young thinks an 8-by-8-inch square pan would do) with one tablespoon of the cornstarch and then press the duck into place by hand and top with one tablespoon cornstarch.

Two quarts of oil for deep-frying? Most people would burn the kitchen down. Use less oil; cook the duck in batches.

"In my wok deep-fry recipes, I never use more than 6 cups of oil in a 14-inch wok,'' said Young, author of "Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge" and other works. "Also, I wonder if you need 10 minutes for deep frying. The duck is cooked so it's only until the duck becomes golden, which I don't think would take 10 minutes. And I wonder if the duck would fall apart. Will the cornstarch hold it together?"

As for the red food coloring, skip, if you like. I would be curious to see what kind of visual kick it gives the sweet and sour sauce. Young also thinks the crushed almonds called for would be toasted.

"I think if someone used raw almonds they would be disappointed with the results," she said.

You'll have to be the judge of how closely this or any recipe for pressed duck comes to what you remember. I suspect there will be differences, some subtle and some marked, that you will have to deal with when making the dish. Whatever recipe you choose will likely pose challenges for a home cook. Pressed duck requires preliminary steaming, de-boning the bird and a final bath in bubbling oil.

Pressed almond duck with sweet & sour sauce

Makes: 4 servings

A recipe from "Madame Wu's Art of Chinese Cooking." Begin preparing the duck the day before you plan to serve it.

1 4- to 5-pound fresh duck

Water to cover

2 pieces star anise

2 green onions with stems tied around bulb

1 1-inch piece ginger, crushed

2 tablespoons dark Chinese soy sauce

1 teaspoon light (regular) Chinese soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 quarts vegetable oil

For the sauce:

1/2 cup white vinegar

3 tablespoons ketchup

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 drops red food coloring

2 tablespoons cornstarch blended with 3 tablespoons water

1/4 cup crushed almonds

1Place the duck in a large pot; add water to cover. To the water, add the star anise, green onions, ginger root, soy sauces, salt. Cover, turn to high heat. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium, cook duck for 2 hours or until tender. Remove the duck; cool. Skin, debone, shred the duck meat.(Madame Wu adds as an aside here: "If, like many Chinese, you enjoy the skin, leave some of it on as it will produce a crisper texture when deep-fried.")

2Pack the shredded duck into a square cooking pan to a 3/4 inch thickness. Sprinkle cornstarch generously over one side, then turn it over and do the same on the other side until completely coated. Heat water to boiling in the bottom of a steamer. Place the duck in the top section, cover, steam 30 minutes. Remove, cool; refrigerate overnight.

3The next day, take the duck out of the refrigerator, cut into 4 quarters and drain on paper toweling so there will be no moisture to splatter. In a deep-fryer, heat the 2 quarts of vegetable oil to 350 degrees. Add the duck quarters, deep-fry for 10 minutes, then remove with slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels. Cut into 1-inch squares, place on a serving platter.

4While the duck is deep-frying, prepare the sweet and sour sauce. Mix together the vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, red food coloring. Pour into a skillet; bring to a boil. Add the cornstarch and water blend, cook until the syrup thickens to the desired consistency. Pour the sauce over the duck, sprinkle with crushed almonds, serve immediately.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.

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