I knew, if I were going to reboot this bullshit, it wouldn’t be long before I’d have to engage in a favorite pastime of the Danny/Gwyneth Project: searching for duck. So, on a recent Sunday, on the way back from the gym with my boyfriend Justin (yes I have a boyfriend now, please do try to catch up), we stopped at Brooklyn Fare, the fancy, upsettingly expensive grocery store in downtown Brooklyn, to check out their meat counter.
When I told Justin I was considering restarting the project he was, of course, excited. A free, steady stream of home-cooked meals? And all I ever ask of him is to, occasionally, get off the couch and take a picture of me in action? I tried to warn him that it’s not pleasant for anyone in my life, but he encouraged me to leap back into this mess. I wonder if he’s already regretting it. It won’t be long until he does.
Stepping into Brooklyn Fare carrying a list of obscure ingredients in the Notes app on my phone felt oddly comforting, like sliding into an old pair of pants that still, somehow, fits perfectly. I grabbed a basket and, without even realizing it, left Justin in the dust. I poked and prodded produce. I read labels, examined the sauces and spices in the “international” section (which begs the question: what makes some spices “international” and others just “spices”? Is it racism? Yeah, it’s probably racism). Occasionally, I put something in my basket. But mostly I was just scoping out the store, getting the lay of the land.
You see, there’s an art to cooking a Gwyneth Paltrow recipe. Because even the most innocuous-looking list can conceal an obscure, hard-to-find ingredient that sends you grocery- and specialty-store-hopping for several hours. So having a general idea of what ingredients are available at which store can save you an incredible headache in the future. It’s become almost a reflex for me.
Even though I haven’t cooked a Gwyneth recipe in years, I can’t help but always check every grocery store I enter for two items: Vegenaise and duck bacon. My brain, warped and twisted from Gwyneth’s mind-altering powers, has gone ahead without my permission and filed away a list of which grocery stores in Brooklyn sell Vegenaise. I haven’t purchased Vegenaise in years, and yet, somehow, I know instinctively that if I needed to, I wouldn’t waste my time at the grocery store around the corner from my apartment, but would find it at the other grocery store in my neighborhood, a 10 minute walk away. Why do I know this? Why do I ever need to know this? Gwyneth Paltrow has diseased my brain, I fear forever.
So, as I entered a grocery store for the first time in years for the purpose of this project, it required no effort at all to shed my years of Gwyneth-less shopping mentality, like a snakeskin I didn’t even know I still had. And there it was, just below the surface. I skated through the aisles, clocking where everything is like a grocery store expert. I wasn’t even thinking. I just turned my brain off and let my lizard brain take over. I scanned the shelves at warp-speed, like a robot sent from the future to catalogue every stupid ingredient Gwyneth Paltrow ever fell in love with.
Spelt flour? Nice to see you again, glad to know you’re there when I need you. Chia seeds? Hello, my friends. You’ll come in handy later. Duck?
“You want duck? In June?” the man at the butcher counter said.
“Yeah. Like… a whole duck?” I replied, sheepishly.
“A whole duck?! No, buddy, we don’t got that.” And back he went to the room behind the counter, done with my foolish questions.
My basket brimming with ingredients for several upcoming recipes, I knew I had to get duck tonight, or all would be lost. You see, I had decided to make Perfect Roasted Chinese Duck, a recipe that actually encompasses three recipes, requires 24 hours to make, and whose leftovers beget a whole other recipe. But nothing could be done without this damn whole duck. Google Maps said there were two butchers, each about 10 minutes away, both closing within 30 minutes. So I quickly checked out with the rest of my ingredients, and fired off a quick text to Justin. “Running to a butcher, meet you there.” He had wanted the free meals, but I tried to warn him that this is what will happen for 95% of the Danny/Gwyneth Project: him, left behind in an expensive grocery store, while I sprint down the street carrying bags of groceries, in a frenzy at the thought that a butcher may decide to close 15 minutes early because it’s a slow night.
Luckily, the butcher shop was still open. And there, displayed at the counter, were fine, fat, purplish duck breasts. A promising sign. “Can I help you, buddy?” asked the rotund butcher in his thick New York accent.
“Yeah, you have whole ducks?” I asked, unconsciously lowering my voice an octave, attempting to sound like the guy who confidently strides into a butcher shop 10 minutes before closing on a Sunday evening in summer, the kind of guy who knows just what to do with a whole dead duck and needs it now.
“Whole ducks? No, man, not this time of year. Winter? Yeah, I got whole ducks. Not now. Got some breasts! Those’ll do you fine,” he insisted. And I had the thought: yeah, why wouldn’t they do me fine? I just need duck meat, and duck breasts are delicious, so why can’t I just buy duck breasts instead of a whole goddamned duck? But, well, you know how this goes by now. I’m chained to the project.
“Sorry, I need a whole duck. Thanks anyway,” I said, gathering my bags of groceries.
“No problem. Here, let me give you my card. You give me 2, maybe 3 days’ warning next time, I can get you a duck.” And just like that, day 1 of the Danny/Gwyneth reboot, I already have a butcher giving me his phone number and offering to kill a duck for me. I’m definitely back in business.
“No duck. Going to the second butcher,” I texted Justin and off I ran again.
The second butcher’s shop was the aesthetic opposite of the first: where the first was clean, beautiful, and sleek, this second was cluttered and overcrowded, teeming with people, meat hanging everywhere. I took a spot in line and faced the counter where, like a beaming ray of sunshine, I saw it, a holy omen:
I knew right then I was set. And when my turn came I requested a whole duck and, like a wizard, the butcher whipped out a whole duck carcass. My final ingredient. I now had all the ingredients to complete my next five recipes, and it only took three different stores to find everything I needed. By Danny/Gwyneth standards, this was a success.
Back at the apartment, I preheated the oven and got to work scrubbing the duck. Though I’ve dissembled a whole chicken for Gwyneth before, I’m still not so used to, well, sticking my hand in dead animals’ orifices. So, this shit was gross. There was a neck shoved in its cavity! Or at least I think it was a neck? Was I supposed to do something with that? (I saved it for a day in my fridge out of guilt and then, at a loss for what to do with it, just threw it away.)
But I scrubbed that dead duck with salt and patted it dry like Gwyneth told me to, and then I trimmed the extra skin from the duck’s two ends. “Render it and save it for frying potatoes if you like,” she suggested, and, in the spirit of getting off on the right foot with my old friend Gwyneth, I did. That’s right, I rendered like half a fucking cup of duck fat, from a dead duck I had in my kitchen. Me, a little old schmuck! It took several hours but it made my apartment smell like heaven until two grown men and one dog were obsessively licking their chops, and now I have a jar of duck fat in my fridge. Day 1 of the reboot, and I’m already The Guy With Duck Fat In His Fridge.
Meanwhile, I had to finish preparing this duck carcass. Apparently, I had to separate the skin from the breast meat, using my fingers and a paring knife. She describes this in one quick, easy sentence. In actuality, it took about 15 minutes, and only because I gave up about halfway up each breast. This was a goddamned struggle. My fingers kept poking holes in the skin, I almost sliced my hand a couple times, and the whole exercise felt futile as hell.
Once that was finished, I covered the duck in salt and pepper and shoved onions and star anise up its hole. I put the gross thing in a pan and sprinkled brown sugar around the duck, not on top of it, which felt silly. I then poured boiling water all over the thing (after waiting another 20 minutes because I forgot I was supposed to have boiled some water) which supposedly tightens up the skin, but I didn’t see anything happen. Then I just put it in the oven for an hour, just enough time for Justin and I to watch another episode of the Handmaid’s Tale.
After an hour, I removed the duck from the oven — it smelled insanely good — and flipped it, returning it to the oven for another hour. And this is the part that confuses me still. I spent all that time and effort separating the duck skin from the breast meat, supposedly to get the skin to crisp up and become that flaky, fatty, delicious skin duck is famous for. But if that’s the goal, then why in the hell would I flip the duck over in the pan, submerging the breast in an inch-deep puddle of water, pressing the skin against the bottom of the pan? The result should have been obvious: an hour later, when I removed the duck to cool, half of the delicious, supposed-to-be-crispy duck breast skin stayed behind, stuck to the bottom of the pan. I may never forgive Gwyneth Paltrow for this waste of duck skin.
The final step for the evening was to boil down the liquid from the pan for another half hour, reducing it by half. I then stored the liquid and the duck (separately) overnight in the fridge. By this point, it was midnight, and from the point where we started shopping until now, I had been preparing this duck for nearly six hours, and we still hadn’t eaten a single bite. We ordered Chinese food on Seamless and went to bed.
The next day, we lounged in Washington Square Park with friends, drinking rosé, petting dogs, etc. But I couldn’t stay long, because I had sold my soul to the white devil. “I have to go cook some duck,” I explained, and parted ways with my friends, who went off and drank more and ate edibles and had more fun than me.
Back in my apartment, I fired the oven up to 500 degrees, and immediately turned on the A/C as my kitchen temperature skyrocketed. I removed the gray, sodden, miserably cold duck from the fridge and popped it into the oven to finish roasting. The reduced sauce from the night before, meanwhile, had solidified into two layers: a bottom layer of dark gelatin, and a top layer of thick fat. I scraped off the fat, which separated from the gelatin in a satisfyingly disgusting manner, and melted and reheated the gelatin into a sauce on the stovetop.
Meanwhile, I had to make two more recipes to complete this one: Sesame Pancakes and Red Miso Hoisin. Both were fairly easy: the sesame pancakes were basically pancakes with toasted sesame oil mixed in (and with rice milk instead of real milk, which I didn’t know even existed). The trickiest part to making these was technique. “The first one’s usually a dud. That’s okay,” Gwyneth forgives, and anyone who’s ever flipped a pancake knows that’s always true. But still, it was incredibly disheartening to see the first pancakes I flipped: greasy, misshapen, either undercooked or overcooked. Eventually, I started to get the gist. One pancake could almost be described as perfect, if I could be so bold.
The hoisin was nerve-wracking. Look, I love hoisin. You’re crazy if you don’t. I have no clue what goes into the stuff, but I doubt it has “real Vermont maple syrup,” like Gwyneth’s does. And she introduces the recipe by insisting, “This is so much healthier than a commercial version!” which is usually said to a group of people who are discreetly spitting out something you cooked into a napkin. But I mixed all the ingredients together and boiled it for a few minutes (the inclusion of red miso and Chinese five-spice powder reassured me this wouldn’t be a totally gentrified nightmare), and let it cool. I stuck a finger in and licked the sauce off. It tasted outrageously good. Insanely good. Better than I could have ever expected. To make sure, I grabbed my bottle of store-bought hoisin from the fridge and compared. Yep: Gwyneth’s was better. More authentic? Probably not. But Jesus Christ that was some good sauce.
The duck came out of the oven, and it didn’t look too bad! Relatively crispy skin, juicy-looking meat, and with an aroma so thick it must have carried calories. The only problem: I had no idea how to carve a duck carcass. So Justin tossed a random YouTube video up on my TV, and I attempted to follow along. The results weren’t pretty, but thankfully a well-cooked duck is relatively forgiving, as the meat is tender enough to just kind of fall apart on its own. Whatever, who cares. We got a big plate of duck meat, I can’t be expected to make it pretty, okay?
We sat down to eat (my apartment doesn’t have room for a table so get used to lots of eating-on-the-couch photos): grab a sesame pancake, slather it with hoisin, throw a bunch of duck on it, and top with sliced scallions and matchsticked cucumbers (oh yeah, at some point in the cooking I sliced scallions and matchsticked cucumbers, sorry for not telling you until right now). And, uhhhhhhhhh, these were so fucking good??? Sure, the duck was a little drier than I’d prefer, and there wasn’t enough crispy skin to go around, but we weren’t complaining. The key, of course, was that hoisin. Slather that on anything and it’ll be delicious. I can’t believe I like Gwyneth goddamned Paltrow’s hoisin. Of course, if I ever chose to make these duck pancakes again, I think I’d just buy the duck breasts, not a whole duck. The food was good, but 24-hours-of-effort good? Not a chance.
Satisfied with the first recipe (+2 bonus recipes!) of the Danny/Gwyneth Reboot, I wrapped up the duck carcass and, feeling like a crazy person, slid it into my fridge to use in an upcoming recipe.
To recap: day 1 of the rebooted project and I’ve abandoned my boyfriend in a grocery store in a frantic search for duck, gotten a butcher’s number, and my fridge now contains a jar of solidified duck fat and a picked-apart duck carcass. Sounds about right. Here we gooooooooo.