Winter heralds many things; the arrival of redwings, fieldfare and short-eared owls, the first frosts, the frantic digging out of mittens, hats and scarves and in the kitchen, it needs to be cool before you bring the big casserole dish out after its long hibernation over summer. Not only because this substantial piece of cast iron weighs quite a bit, so you don't want to put it back straight away, but also because autumn and winter are ideal seasons for braising. This explicitly slow method of cooking requires the oven to be on for hours, which would only heat up your house or flat on a hot summer's day.
On the other hand, you don't want to be too early: After all, everyone hopes that the warm days are not quite gone yet, that winter is not really just around the corner. With a bit of luck, one or other barbecue dish might still turn out. But somehow the first big braised dish hints at the inevitability of the approaching cold, just like the arrival of the waxwings.
But that's also a good thing. After all, we've had enough of that tired equation of varied salad platters x cold soups x cured meats + other lightweights that sated our hunger in the heat of the sun. A steaming pot full of dense glory, gently braised for hours, carries much more weight, in every respect – with rich chunks of meat and complex spices that bluntly convey the power of the ripe year. Duck is the ideal meat for this, powerful and juicy, it's made to stand up to strong flavours, more so than for pheasant and partridge who have always had a privileged place on the table in autumn.
The dense aroma of the duck requires a proper counterpart. Fresh or dried plums (prunes) are a perfect match, their ripe flavours provide extra umami. They harmonise ideally with hearty meat dishes, whose juices they make creamy thanks to their abundant pectin. To prevent them from falling apart during braising, add them to the pot whole, with their stone still intact. Pitted prunes tend to have less acidity, but these can still be used if whole ones cannot be sourced.
It is no coincidence that the Chinese combine their Peking duck with sweet, dark, shimmering plum sauce. Our recipe is also about the tart qualities of the plum, the rich tannins from its skin as well as the seductive sweetness. The plums are meant to stand up to the power of the flesh. Combined with the enchanting aroma of star anise, the oriental notes that cinnamon brings out and the sour freshness of pomegranate seeds, this becomes a rich, dense, unctuous dish that tells us quite unmistakably that winter is here.
Click here for the recipe for Duck legs Braised with Pomegranate and Prunes.
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