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Five spices and don’t duck the flavour

Five-spice duck breast with satsuma and baby fennel

A good formula should not be messed with. No one wants to hear you say, ‘Well, I made five spice but I changed it – I used goji berries instead of the star anise and pumpkin seeds instead of the fennel. Oh, and I left out the cinnamon. And the cloves.”

Because that wouldn’t be five spice, would it? It would be just some random mix of five spices. Oh, sorry, three.

Look, use them by all means, they might work (not sure about the pumpkin seeds though, and if there’s a point to a goji berry other than it’s kind of cool, I’d like to know what it is). But if you’re talking about Chinese five spice, traditionally you’re talking about five particular spices: Star anise. Szechuan pepper. Cinnamon. Clove. Fennel.

To be fair (and ever so slightly less dogmatic), five spice can include other spices such as ground dried ginger, cumin, even nutmeg. But don’t leave out the star anise or cinnamon (or cassia, which is similar but milder). I wouldn’t use nutmeg as it is too strident for such a mix, but if you do, go easy.

It’s all about the yin and the yang, they say. To make your own Chinese five spice, grind the seeds in quantities to suit yourself, but more or less even quantities of each are probably best. First roast the peppercorns, star anise, cloves and whole cinnamon bark or cassia in a flat iron pan, shaking constantly to avoid burning. Toss fennel seeds in a hot pan for a few seconds and add to the other spices, then grind very finely.

Or buy a jar of five spice from your local supermarket or from a Chinese speciality food store – perfectly good five spice products are available, mixed by experts, so there’s no need to go to all the trouble of making your own.

Five spice works superbly with fatty meats. So it’s great with duck, with pork, and also with chicken. It can be used with beef too, though I can’t imagine it being a good partner for lamb. It is more often used on its own, being such a rounded mix of disparate flavours, with which there isn’t much point in tampering, really.

But this does not mean you can’t add other non-spicy elements to five spice – or rather, five spice to other non-spicy elements. Stir five spice into a mix of soy sauce and honey, or tamarind with a little palm sugar, or honey and lemon, or sesame oil and rice wine vinegar. Douse chicken, beef or pork in any of these before braaing, for some delicious Asian flavours. Just be careful they don’t catch, as the sugars can blacken the skin.

But I was cooking duck breast, and I kept it simple…

Five spice duck breast with baby fennel and satsuma

Serves 4

 1 piece of cinnamon bark or cassia bark

3 whole star anise

2 tsp fennel seeds

6-8 cloves

1 Tbs Szechuan peppercorns


2 Tbs Chinese five spice for each breast

4 duck breasts

9-12 baby fennel bulbs

2 cups chicken stock

Juice and zest of 1 satsuma

2 whole star anise (for the sauce)

Salt to taste

The best piece of cooking equipment for duck breast is a hot, dry heavy-bottomed pan. I have a heavy enamel one that I bought years ago at a second-hand kitchen store, and it’s perfect. Heat this until it’s moderately hot. Clean and pat the duck breasts dry. Score the skin on the diagonal with a very sharp flat knife, no serration.

Fry the duck breasts skin-side down over a moderately low heat – that is, hot enough to keep it at a gentle sizzle but not so hot that it cooks too quickly and the skin burns. It only needs to develop a gentle golden brown while it crisps and the fat renders away. Every now and then, pour off the fats that ooze out of the breasts. You can either discard or keep the fats for sautéeing potatoes in, if you’re making them.

Once you turn the breasts over, you’ll only need to cook for another couple of minutes, so that they’ll be pink in the centre. Season the breasts with a little salt shortly before completing the cooking. Wrap them tightly in oil while the meat relaxes and tenderises.

Simmer the baby fennel (trimmed) immersed in chicken stock and satsuma (or other citrus) juice and star anise until al dente but not discoloured. Refresh under cold water.

Add the chicken stock from the baby fennel to the same pan (discard the star anise) and scrape up all the bits at the bottom. Boil this down, then add the juice of a satsuma (or other citrus fruit). Add the peel to the sauce too. Briefly reheat the baby fennel in the sauce and remove to plates. Reduce the sauce down until it makes a nice pouring consistency, remove the peel, and strain through a fine sieve.

Slice the breasts into narrow strips on the diagonal and plate up. Don’t pour the sauce over the duck breasts, otherwise you’ll spoil that lovely crispness.

First published in Weekend Argus May 2012


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