Pete’s Charcutes’: Duck Prosciutto

A new blog category after a couple-week break for some summer travels and general busyness.  You would think posting once a week would be relatively easy, but at least five times a year I hit a case of writers block despite a bunch of meals to blog about.  The break was really for the best, though, since charcuterie takes some time to cure properly.

About two months ago I started the process of curing something that will either end up being an interesting new food discovery for me or a tremendous time consuming failure never to be spoken of again.  In order to do so, I had to clear out a few shelves in our wine fridge to give a cool, appropriately humid curing environment in the midst of a hot summer.

This friggin kid, gets into pretty much everything she isn’t supposed to play with.  She’s also already figured out how to give me a look that takes away any frustration with what she is about to do just before she does it.  I am screwed

Just behind the mischevious child pictured above is the dual zone wine fridge that Kristi has graciously allowed me to conduct my experiments in.  The bottom half has thick cardboard on the inside to block any sunlight from the inside since light makes fat rancid apparently.  Makes sense.  Definitely explains the progressively worse BO I’ve developed over the years when exposed to direct summer sunlight.

Anyhoo, I had minimal space remaining with the other project already in the wine fridge, and I was hoping to make something with a relatively short curing time.  After some consideration of a sopressata or liver sausage, I ended up going with the item that seemed like the easiest home cured charcutes’ to make by far; duck breast prosciutto.

After extensively researching the method laid out by Michael Ruhlman, I started with a couple surprisingly difficult to find duck breasts.

The good camera is back but Kristi wasn’t wielding it right away, so expect subpar results until she takes over.  In other news, duck breasts always look like all fat and skin.  Way too soon for another joke about my appearance

These duck breasts were purchased from a Shaws in downtown Boston after we struck out at multiple specialty stores looking for Magret duck breasts.  Magret breasts are far meatier and larger since they are from ducks fattened for foie gras.  Apparently Boston’s gourmet food stores are hiding from the recent controversy on these ducks.  I really want to launch into a poorly informed 3,000 word rant covering hundreds of topics related to this issue but persuading on none of them.  So, lets just move on.

I scored the skins of the breasts a bit and laid them on a thick bed of kosher salt in a Pyrex dish before covering with a solid top layer of additional kosher salt.

$18 worth of duck breasts and I get stingy with the $.85 worth of kosher salt I used.  I acknowledge that I am extremely illogical when it comes to cooking, but luckily I am completely logical at all other times

I covered the Pyrex tightly then placed it in the fridge for what I planned to be 24 hours but it ended up being 36 hours due to needing bed more than late night meat prep when 24 hours came up.  Never a good idea to start a 24 hour curing cycle at 10PM on a weeknight.  Put that in the notes app on your iPhone and make it your wallpaper.  Thx.

The next morning Kristi and I got up and spread out some cheesecloth for wrapping the duck breasts when they came out of the salt.

Kristi resumes control of the camera and all is right in the world.  Janet is crawling around there somewhere, probably playing that game where she seeks out tiny dangerous items to ingest before we can sprint towards her and remove it from her grasp.  Her parents are winning, but she’s started to throw some Ray Rice moves our way recently

With the cheese cloth setup, the duck breasts come out of the salt one at a time.

I was amazed at how different and deflated the breasts looked after 36 hours.  Always good to get some encouragement that things are going in the right direction early in the process

I rinsed the breasts under cold tap water to remove all excess salt because by this point the salty flavor should have been (and was) well infused into the meat.

I know I scored the skin a little too deeply, and it led to the salt penetrating more than I had hoped, but give me a break since it was my first try and I have no idea what I am doing ever.  Way to make me feel self conscious!  Jerks!

The rinsed breasts went onto some paper towels to dry, at which point I could see how much the fat and skin had deflated and become more balanced with the meat.

This was around the time I recognized that a bigger breast would definitely be better.  Sigh.  Stupid family-friendly blog that I can’t build out with stupid puns and double entendres related to the previous statement.  Once again, let’s move on

I placed the duck in the cheese cloth and wrapped it so that it was covered with a few layers of the thin cheese cloth on all sides.

I was talking a HUGE game at this point about how the hardest part was yet to come and there was no way either of us were going to be able to tie up the wrapped breasts correctly.  Which led to…

…Kristi eagerly accepting the challenge of tying them.  Look, I’m not a conniving genius or anything, but tasks like tying these up properly are not my cup of tea and Bill Cosby’s Parenthood-era reverse psychology tends to work remarkably well with my rather competitive wife.  All it takes is some acknowledgement of defeat at the end, and she’s ready for the next challenge to be issued

With the salt cured breasts fully wrapped they headed to the wine fridge (set to 54 degrees) to hang for 7-10 days.

Ignore the background, nothing to see there, move along

About a week later I started to check the hanging duck breasts to see if they had firmed up a bit.  The idea is that the duck breasts should lose a third of their weight and be firm though not overly stiff.  It was really just guesswork, but I knew that a week should be enough to completely cure the meat.  I gave it some extra time since I prefer a dryer prosciutto and figured this was a learning experience.

After 10 days, I unwrapped the first breast to find this.

Had all the color I was looking for and smelled/looked like the duck prosciutto I had in the past and enjoyed.  All that said, cutting into it and eating the first bite was surprisingly scary

My first bite was a little tough; A) it came from the thinnest, most dried out end and B) I wasn’t slicing it thinly enough or on a proper bias at first.  Also, the thin breasts and longer time than planned in the salt made it much saltier than expected.  At the same time, the cured flavor and overall texture were great.

After a little practice I started to figure out how to slice thinly enough to make the fat ore translucent.

The slivers at this point were a little small, but I wasn’t working with a full sized pork leg that had to cure for 12 months, just an easy ten days to this point.  And this looks as good now as it did then

As I dug in a bit further I realized that the over-salty flavor wasn’t going to subside completely based on the thickness of the meat.  Yet, I could not stop eating it.  As I got towards the center and continued slicing on a greater angle making the slices thinner and larger I was able to appreciate the texture and flavor more.

Although it was definitely one of the saltiest prosciuttos I have tasted, the cured flavor and texture were exactly what I hope for when I buy charcuterie.  Plus, it looked nice on a cheese plate.

I was tempted to yell, “Hey!  See this prosciutto!?  Over here on this side of the platter!?  No this one!  Yeah, I made that!  No, like I cured it myself!  OK, have a nice evening.” to every person who walked by our Long Beach Island cocktail hour, but was able to restrain myself

If I had to do it again, and I will be doing it again soon, I would stick closely to the 24 hours recommended for the initial salt cure and also look for bigger duck breasts.  Both of the ones I used were about .4-.5 pounds, but I think the Magret-sized 3/4 pound breast would be better for this execution.  I think a goose breast would be a good experiment to execute since they are usually a bit meatier and might be a cheap/easy replacement for increasingly expensive duck breasts.  Hint, hint hunter friends.

I am home the next three weekends (I think).  Feel free to bombard me with taunts and occasional compliments if I haven’t posted by next Wednesday.

Cleanin’ Out My Cabinets: Cheese Rind Mac and Cheese

I wish I could make this a Pete’s Recipes, but I’ve made this multiple times and never come even close to keeping track of quantities.  As an example, I checked out a few sites to see approximately how many pounds of cheese go into a normal mac and cheese since I guessed anywhere between 1/2 pound and 2 pounds for a pound of pasta.  In related news, I might be getting worse at this whole blogging thing, and you’re all going down with the ship.  Enjoy the ride!

I think the title of this one says it all, but I’ve found that the best mac and cheese usually involves several different flavorful cheeses in addition to the old mainstay, cheddar.  What better way to make a mac & cheese with those ingredients than to use the leftovers from a good cheese plate.  We’ve done this two ways; start a full day (football Sunday) party with a cheese plate and end the party with an awesome mac and cheese or just save the cheese rinds in the freezer for later use.

A little short on images for this post, took this one a few minutes before sitting down to write.  Each time I’ve made this I’ve remembered to photo document a portion of the process, then forgot the rest.  I’m considering home schooling Janet just so she can focus on photography for this blog

The idea is to use not just the cheese ends, but the wax rind too.  The rind adds a funky mushroom-like flavor when used in a cheese sauce, which works really well in a mac and cheese.

Before we get into the mac process (there’s not much to it so I need to kill some time), lets gab about the other ingredients that make mac and cheese great.  I have two go-tos, prosciutto/pancetta/bacon and peas OR mixed mushroom.  I like to do the prosciutto and peas version when I can get my hands on a reasonably priced shank.

I would rename this blog “Cheap Meat” if I wasn’t scared of drawing a seedier element that was disappointed with the non-racy content of the site

I know I say “write that down” a lot sarcastically here, but if you live in Boston you need to write down the name on that label.  They cure a whole leg of prosciutto for 14 months, but they can’t sell the narrow area by the shank for the standard $20-25 a pound, so they price it for a reasonable $4.  Again, write that North End address down, it makes a great ingredient in any meal.

Unlike the cheese, it’s good to cut away the fatty rind before cubing the prosciutto shank for use in your mac and cheese.  You can also immediately see the extra fattiness that makes this perfect for a punch of extra flavor in a cheese sauce when browned in the roux pan.

The extra fat is why the shank shouldn’t be bought for raw consumption.  Con and I both tried mightily on that front, lots of floss was required in the aftermath and generally it’s just much better as a cooked ingredient

With the meat and (possibly) vegetables prepped, it’s time to start boiling water for the macaroni.  I generally do a pound of macaroni which I boil just over half the recommended length of time, then strain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking.  Put that off to the side while you brown your salty pork product.

And I’ve switched up the event.  This is from a different time when I used half a pack of leftover bacon.  I really didn’t want to insult your intelligence and pretend that picture was of the cubed prosciutto.  Please thank me at your earliest convenience

Once the meat and/or vegetables have browned, I use a slotted spoon to fish out the ingredients and leave the cooked off fat and liquids behind over medium/low heat.  Add to the pot two tablespoons of butter then whisk in around three tablespoons of flour, and you have a solid roux base for the cheese sauce.  I let that cook for 10 minutes stirring often to avoid overly browning or burning.

This is when it becomes a balancing act with milk and cheese (I don’t think the fat content of the milk matters, I’ve used skim and whole).  I usually whisk milk in slowly until the sauce has a thin gravy consistency, then add in handfuls of the grated cheese, starting with the rinds, melting/blending completely before adding more.  Season heavily with white pepper and salt plus some onion powder and ground mustard if you’re feeling a little wacky.

I am pretty sure I would put cheese sauce on anything and everything, which is why I wonly make it for mac & cheese.  I am incapable of controlling myself.  I’ve never made cheese fondue or gone to a fondue restaurant because I know I would eat the whole cauldron myself.  Cheese Eatin’ Problems!

Once the rinds are blended in, I usually add in as much cheddar as necessary to make enough sauce, using milk along the way to match the consistency I am looking for.  All told, I think I use 4-5 cups of shredded cheese or around a pound of cheese per pound of dry pasta.  I have no basis for those general measurements, but they sound right.

With the cheese sauce ready to go, preheat the oven to 350F and put 3/4 of the partially cooked pasta in a bowl along with the reserved other ingredients.  The goal is to avoid having too much or too little cheese sauce so I try to make sure there is enough cheese sauce before adding in the rest of the pasta.

You can make the prosciutto and pea mac or the mushroom mac, or just cook every possible ingredient in your fridge and dump it all into the mixing bowl.  I even thawed some frozen peas that are hiding in there somewhere.  Also, contrary to my previous caption, I despise the whole Jersey Shore “____ ____ Problems!!!” spoof

Once the cheese sauce is fully stirred in and you have the pasta/cheese proportion right, I dump it all into a 9×13 baking dish and level it out.

If I remember correctly, I under-cheesed this one.  Had it right, then haphazardly added in the last of the macaroni.  I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, and under-cheesing is a little better because it’s ends up like a good baked pasta that you can add some parm to.  Nobody who reads this blog or has seen me with my shirt off expected me to be in favor of under-cheesing

The mac is ready for the oven like this, but if I have some panko breadcrumbs a good sprinkling over the top always make the meal a few percents better.  Just one, maybe two percents better.  Pandering to the Pumping Iron documentary fans with that spoof!

After about 20 minutes in the oven, the top is usually browned and the bottom is bubbling.  Which means it’s ready for eating.

Yeah, definitely the one I under-cheesed.  I’m sure I ate the living sh*t out of it with a sprinkling of parm and a drizzle of olive oil

I’m not going to wrap up this blog the way I normally would by explaining how the mac tasted since I’m guessing you’ve all had homemade mac and cheese.  On the other hand, I recommend that if you are using an aged and funky cheese rind, definitely consider complimenting with some mixed mushrooms and truffle salt.  So freaking good, just a lot of earthy, umami-type flavors all mixing together and separating it from a normal mac.

But if you also have salty crispy browned prosciutto shank, you can push it into a whole new world of deliciousness.  Mostly I’d just recommend trying anything, since it’s bound to at least be edible since you’re combining a bunch of good things.

Still don’t have my grill, it’s going to be a game changer whenever it arrives.  I also need to figure out where to hang the meat that is curing in my fridge sometime in the next week and I have a sinking suspicion it’s going to be inside a cardboard box in my basement since I don’t know how to use real men tools.  Food Blogger Problems!!!