I've read that chefs often discuss, over a drink late at night, what their last meal would be, as a way of finding out some essential truth about each other. Apparently the majority pick something simple and homely and reminiscent of their mothers: Spanish chef, Ferran Adrià, of famed El Bulli restaurant, would go for pan-fried green asparagus with olive oil and sea salt; English chef Jamie Oliver, a big bowl of spaghetti; and acclaimed French chef, Jacques Pépin, a good piece of bread and some good butter. Good bread and butter has to be pretty high up on my list too. We are fortunate to have two excellent artisan boulangeries close by (one of which makes arguably the best baguette in France) and when we bring the bread home in the morning, still warm and squishy and spread it with a bit of unsalted butter, there is something so satisfying and soothing and uncomplicated about it that it's hard to imagine anything better.
But my "death-row meal", as my pal Carol and I call it (and for both of us it's the same), would be crispy aromatic duck with pancakes. For this I would crawl over broken glass just to lie in the shadow of someone preparing it.
I can remember the first time I had it - in a little Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, the guest of two hotshot lawyers and their gangster client. I was a rookie lawyer at the time and I was wearing a navy blue wool suit and dramatic red lipstick, and I don't know whether it was the fanfare with which the whole crispy fried duck arrived and was expertly shredded at the table with two forks, or the tantalising aromatic smells of ginger and spices, or the frisson of excitement (fear?) at being in the presence of a gangster - but I ate with audible relish and declared it the best thing to have ever passed my lips.
This version, by Ken Hom, calls for a long marinade and steaming but don't be put off by the long preparation process. The steps are all straightforward and can be done a day in advance. The crispy skin and moist flavoursome meat wrapped in a pancake with shredded spring onion and cucumber and a smear of Hoisin sauce is cosmic.
Crispy aromatic duck
1 x 6 lb/2.75 kg duck
6 slices fresh root ginger
6 spring onions
cornflour for dusting
2 pints/1.2 l groundnut oil for frying
For the spice rub
2 tbsp five-spice powder
2½ oz/65 g Sichuan peppercorns
1 oz/25 g whole black peppercorns
3 tbsp cumin seeds
7 oz/200 g rock salt
Chinese pancakes (available in Chinese supermarkets)
6 spring onions, finely shredded
½ cucumber, peeled, deseeded and finely shredded
Rinse the duck and pat dry. Mix all the spice ingredients for the rub together in a small bowl, then rub the duck inside and out with the mixture. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for 24 hours.
After this time, stuff the ginger and spring onions into the cavity and put the duck on a heatproof plate. Set up a steamer or put a rack in a wok. Fill with 2 in/5 cm of water and bring to the boil. Lower the duck and plate into the steamer and cover tightly.
Steam gently for 2 hours, pouring off excess fat from time to time. Add more water as necessary. Remove the duck from the steamer and pour off the liquid. Discard the ginger and spring onions and leave the duck in a cool place for 2 hours until dried and cooled. At this point the duck can be refrigerated.
Just before you are ready to serve, cut the duck into quarters and dust with cornflour. Heat the oil in a wok or deep-fat fryer. When almost smoking, deep-fry the duck in 2 batches. Fry the breasts for about 8-10 minutes and the thighs for 12-15 minutes, until crisp and heated through.
Drain the duck on kitchen paper and cool enough to handle. Remove the meat from the bones and shred it. Serve by smearing some Hoisin sauce on a pancake then adding some shredded duck then some shredded spring onions and cucumber and roll up.