Cheeky

Several weeks ago, I had a go at making my own bacon. This was my second foray into the world of simple homemade charcuterie, after duck prosciutto, which I recommend as a good entry-level effort to the craft of curing.

Bacon is pretty easy. Buy yourself some good quality, free-range pork loin or belly… or even better, the loin with the belly attached. Cure it in a mixture of salt, sugar, some cure #1, plus whatever other flavourings you want to add and then massage it into the meat. Chuck it all into a big zip-lock bag and put it in the fridge for a week, turning it every day or so. Once it’s cured, you can hot smoke it or in the absence of a smoker, cook it in a low (120C) oven for a couple of hours.

To make it smoky, you can lightly spray the meat with a liquid smoke before it’s popped into the oven. The one I bought from Misty Gully is great and smells like Cheetos’ Cheese & Bacon Balls. There are a few more steps to it than what I’ve outlined, but this post on the Overclockers Forum is a great resource if you want to give it a go yourself. Kudos to kodo78.

bacon

As for my attempt at bacon – it looked like and smelled like bacon. Finely cut and pan fried, it also tasted pretty bacon-y and damn good between two pieces of bread, butter and a good dollop of HP sauce.

Wanting a greater challenge and with some spare time on my hands at the moment; I sought some inspiration from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie to seek out my next curing venture. As space is a bit of issue at my place, there was a requirement to stick to a smaller cut of meat, so I decided that Guanciale would be the most viable as it could be used in a number of recipes, as well as being delicious on its lonesome.

The direct translation of Guanciale is ‘pillow’, which may relate to the delicate texture, thanks to the higher fat to meat ratio in the cut. Or the simpler inference is that its name is derived from the Italian word for cheek (guancia). Either way, the cured and dried pork jowl is a little stronger in flavour than pancetta and as any staunch Italophile will tell you, is the only meat to use in a Carbonara or Amatriciana sauce.

Now you would think that with all of the various bits of pork we consume regularly, the cheeks and jowls would be a little more omnipresent and therefore easy to find, but they’re not. That is, until they probably feature in a future series of Masterchef and Coles will start to sell them at ridiculously-inflated prices. Alas, it wasn’t as simple as walking to either of the butcher shops on my street. I suspect the local restaurants might get first dibs, given jowl is so meltingly delicious.

After unsuccessfully widening my search to incorporate the surrounding suburbs, the next obvious place was Victoria Street, Richmond. Sadly, after 10 minutes, I was zero from six on Victoria Street and so I decided to cut my losses and head to the most next obvious place – the Queen Vic Markets.

Thirty five minutes, a further nine butchers, eight bucks for parking and a doughnut from the American Doughnut Van later (alright, it was two), I was still jowl-less.

A quick Google search had me back in the car heading towards the next, next most obvious place –  the Footscray market, which in hindsight was probably what I should have done in the first place.

By butcher number five, my luck had changed and the guy was only too happy to hack off a couple of jowls right before my eyes… All for the bargain price of $4.50, later finding out for an extra dollar, I could have purchased the whole pig’s head. Perhaps next time.

Cheeks getting a trim
Cheeks getting a trim

Sourcing the jowls was easy, compared to my next dilemma; to cure or not to cure with curing salt. And if I did use it, which cure do I use? Cure #1 or Cure #2? There were so many conflicting recipes that used different cures, if at all. Now I wasn’t in the mood for seriously harming my family and friends through some serious food poisoning or worse, botulism.

Therefore a bit of research is always a good thing. In Cure #1, the sodium nitrite only keeps the meat safe for a short period of time, as well as imparting that nice ‘cured’ taste. It’s also assumed that anything cured with Cure #1 is cooked after curing. In Cure # 2, the sodium nitrate breaks down over time and transforms to sodium nitrite, which is further broken down to become nitric oxide; the key oxidising agent that keeps the meat safe from that nasty old botulism. This cure is reserved for the likes of salumi, etc; things that aren’t intended to be cooked before consuming.

So knowing which cure was the best for me, the rest of the cure recipe was pretty simple and the one I used was from Nuovo Mondo, by Stefano de Pieri & Jim McDougall.

Guanciale (for 2 cheeks)

2 pork cheeks
300g table salt
300g caster sugar
5 garlic cloves, smashed
30g black pepper, lightly crushed (I only had white pepper on hand)
½ bunch thyme, chopped (stems and all)
2.5g Cure #2

The cheeks needed a bit of a trim up for starters. Mainly to get rid of some of the flappy bits, as well as to remove some of the glands that still may be attached to the jowls. The glands are pretty obvious-looking things; they’re grey in colour so they are usually pretty easy to distinguish from the fat or muscle.

Simple ingredients
Simple ingredients

Once trimmed, they were ready for the cure, which was as easy as combining all of the ingredients together. As for the amount of cure, I used the cure packet as a guide. The 100g pack was enough to cure 40kg of meat, so using my trusty brain and a calculator, I worked it out to be 2.5 grams of cure per kilo of meat. My jowls weighed in at around 1kg after trimming, so 2.5g of cure was mixed well into the salt and sugar before adding the thyme, garlic and pepper.

As the cure was going to draw out moisture from the jowls, I added an extra base of salt to the bottom of my container before rubbing down the cheeks with the cure mix and placing them into the container. I also made sure that the cheeks were only in contact with the cure mix and not the container or each other.

See you in a week
See you in a week

There was nothing left to do, other than pop them in the fridge and let the cure do the rest, for about a week. Every day or so, I check on them and ensured that they were happy and the cure was still covering each cheek.

After a week, it was time to wash the cure off the cheeks, but not with water. So, unless you were a magician, like Jebus, white wine was the traditional method for washing the cheeks and I thought I’d do the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I’d bought a cask of goon and sadly, I thought Fruity Lexia might be a tad too sweet for washing the cheeks, so I opted for a drier, more highfalutin Semillon Chardonnay.

Goon-ciale
Goon-ciale

Once the cheeks were well washed in the good stuff, I patted them dry with paper towel, ready for the next step. They had firmed up in the cure nicely and now they were ready for a rub down of spices, ready to hang. I used a combination of juniper, green peppercorns, fennel seeds and chilli. I went for green peppercorns as I wanted a milder pepper flavour. Juniper, fennel and chilli are fairly traditional spices as far as Guanciale goes.

Ready for hanging
Ready for hanging

The last step before hanging was to weigh the cheeks. I’d read that the same principle I’d followed when making duck prosciutto was also relevant to making Guanciale; that was when they’d lost 30% of their initial weight, through loss of moisture, they were done.

Actually, a precise figure of 30% is a little subjective. Jowls that contain a lot of fat won’t lost as much weight as the moisture is lost. I guess I just had to wait and see. My cheeks had lost around 100 grams in the fridge cure, so I was aiming to lose around 120 grams. In my little wine fridge, set at 13 degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around 65 percent, this could take anywhere from four to eight weeks.

Patience
Patience…

Fast forward to just shy of six weeks later and my impatience had gotten the better of me. On the scales, they hadn’t met the ’30 percent’ rule (closer to 20%) and since I first checked on them at the one month mark, there had been very little additional weight lost over the past two weeks. However, they were nice and firm; I was pretty sure that they were ready.

Worth the wait
… is a virtue

From the first cut of the knife, I knew my impatience was justified. The flesh was a rich and red in colour and the fat was lovely and firm. It smelled fantastic and tasted even better! Rich, buttery and a little nutty. A little bit of sweetness lingered from the cure and the spicing rounded it out perfectly.

A wee favour called in at Maria’s Deli (a few doors down from me) and soon enough their meat slicer had transformed one of my cured cheeks into paper-thin slices.

Patience truly is a virtue.

Feelings & Memories

Food and feelings go together like… vegemite and cheese. How could you not cheer on your team at the footy without a lukewarm pie and sauce? How could you not mend a broken heart without ice cream? You get the picture. It conjures up memories, good and bad and it can effectively use all of your senses (unless you also see dead people) or at the very least, enhance them. It makes you remember.

As a lover of food, some of my happier moments in life have been closely related to it; a meal out with people that are special to me or cooking for them. Or even better, cooking with them.

It took some years to get better at cooking with people. I was told that I was too bossy in the kitchen… too much of a perfectionist, which I guess is a toughie when you lack the desired skill. And if things went a little pear-shaped, I cracked the shits. I’ve improved immensely over the years. I don’t know why… Maybe my knowledge and technique have improved with practise. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older and I’ve learned not to sweat the little things. I think I’ve said before that pastry and me are slowly learning to get along.

Whilst there are fond memories of great meals with friends, things I’ve eaten by myself in amazing places in the world or meals I’ve made for others that I believe I truly nailed, I have two very vivid memories of cooking with people dear to me.

One dates back to around thirteen years ago when I was living my carefree, backpacker life. I was staying in a town called Jelsa, on the island of Hvar in Croatia. My travelling partner and I scored this ridiculously cheap apartment and we ended up staying there for two weeks. I celebrated my 25th birthday there.

Most days we’d head to the markets. We’d buy whatever fish they’d have on offer… usually a small snapper, and we’d stuff it with ham, mushrooms (one day we endured a 16km round trip walk to another town because the market at Jelsa had no mushrooms) and leeks and make a flavoured butter out of some paprika-based seasoning we’d found that was a little bit sweet, salty, spicy and tangy. We’d bake it and serve it with what we christened ‘Jelsa Salad’, which was pretty much roughly chopped up red onion, red capsicum, carrot and cucumber, tossed in lemon juice. None of it was fancy or even regional for that matter, but every now and again, if I want to take myself back to those days, I’ll make Jelsa Salad and I am there.

Whilst my other standout food memory didn’t involve an exotic setting, it’s arguably to date, my best food memory. Why? Put simply, it epitomises why I love to cook; the challenge, the fun, being able to share and of course the end result. All combined it evokes happiness and isn’t that something everyone wants to be able to remember?

Over the years, I have attempted to cook Thai cuisine; it’s never really been something  that I’ve put my love and soul into in order to deliver something that is better than OK. It’s probably also a little out of my comfort zone. However, a friend of mine who had spent a number of years living in Thailand changed that. Having someone that knew Thai food beyond the probable farang holiday-maker stuff most travellers would sample helped a lot.

Raw protein polarises people. Most will try fish in the form of sashimi or beef as carpaccio or tartare. I love stuff raw, but I’d never tried raw prawns; accidentally or as a dish.

Gung Chae Nam Pla is something I have not seen in Australian Thai restaurants, quite possibly because it might not be popular. If you have a sense of adventure and can get beyond eating a raw prawn, then give it a go. It’s amazing. One of the most extraordinary, yet simplest dishes I’ve ever made or tasted, consisting of essentially fresh (the fresher, the better) raw green prawns that have been butterflied and just prior to being served, anointed with a paste that features the usual Thai suspects and some fresh mint.

Raw Prawns with Thai Chillies (Gung Chae Nam Pla)

10-12 medium sized, raw fresh green prawns with the tail shell on
6 chillies
coriander leaves
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
Fresh mint leaves

Now the method was no brain surgery; processing the chillies, garlic, shallot, coriander, fish sauce and lemon juice into a rough paste, then artfully added it to the prawns (tails up!). Grab a couple of mint leaves to top each prawn and eat the prawn in one go, picking it up by the tail shell. We paired it with a few glasses of Mumm, which you probably wouldn’t do in Thailand, but it worked.

Gung Chae Nam Pla

One of the quintessential Thai recipes is Green Curry. Made from scratch, it’s a true labour of love and the one we made was pretty close to perfection. David Thompson may disagree.

The recipe we used was a bit of a jumble from a number of recipes, plus a bit of our own doctoring along the way. What I’ve listed below will get you pretty close.

Green Chicken Curry (Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai)

Curry paste, made from:
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
10 white peppercorns
1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
4 or 5 fresh green chillies
12-15 small green chillies
4 -5 shallots, chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
Coriander stems and roots from a bunch of coriander
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, chopped
Shrimp paste, to taste (start at 1 tsp and go from there)
1 tsp salt
Zest of one or two limes

The rest…

oil
3 chicken thighs, bone in
6 Thai eggplants
10-12 Green beans
1 can of coconut cream
Fish sauce, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Palm sugar, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Lime juice, to taste (start at 1 lime)

Whilst it would be very much authentic to use a mortar and pestle to make your paste, the one we had was a bit small. So we cheated and used one of those small food processors, like you might get as an attachment to a bamix.

First, we toasted the coriander and cumin in a dry pan until fragrant, then ground the toasted spices in the mortar and pestle (at least it got used for something) with the white pepper corns. The ground spices were added to the rest of the paste ingredients (we forgot the ginger) in the processor and blitzed until they resembled a fine paste. Try not to add water to advance the process; it only dilutes your paste.

Some of the ingredients were amped up a bit, to taste. We added more shrimp paste (maybe another half a tablespoon… maybe more). As for the chillies, the long green ones didn’t provide the heat, as much as they added to the colour (although our paste was quite a brown colour, then end result looked like the proper green curry colour). The chillies we used for heat were purchased at the Footscray markets. I will have to go there again and find out what they were; they were tiny, no more than 2cm in length, quite thin, a bit nobbly and pale green in colour. They packed a good heat that built up on you.

After we were happy with the paste, we fried of at least half a cup over a slow heat in a heavy based casserole dish. Once the paste was fragrant, we added the chopped chicken thighs, to cook in the paste for a few minutes, then the halved eggplants, more kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar and a can of coconut cream. Then we left it for about 20 minutes, continuing on a very slow heat.

About 10 minutes before serving, we checked the flavours, added a little more sugar and some lime juice. The sauce, in my opinion, had reduced a little bit too much, but there was a little bit of coconut cream left in the tin, which I added and it seemed to correct this. We added the beans and popped the lid on the let the residual heat cook the beans, but leave some crunch.

Served with the some rice, this was the end result:

Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai

Whilst factors beyond just the cooking attributed to this being my best food memory (like the company, lots of wine, the fun and so on), I have never been so pleased with the end results of the dishes we created. Sharing the toils and fruits of your labour can conjure up some great memories. Just worry about the dirty dishes later.

Okonomiyaki

Kids and vegetables. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Well, not as much as you’d like them to anyway. My eldest, Lily, is a bit hot and cold on them. Although one of the ways I’ve found some success in getting Lily to eat all of her veggies is by cooking them into one of the ever popular Japanese pancakes, okonomiyaki; although I think she just loves the fact that she gets to drench the whole thing in brown sauce and mayo.

You’ve probably encountered these behemoth-sized pancakes at most food courts, if the Japanese fast food outlet offers more than just sushi. Most of them are terrible and quite rubbery thanks to the time spent sitting under heat lamps, in the display counter.

I’ve been playing around with okonomiyaki recipes for a couple of years now with varying success. I recently nailed the recipe on my preferred okonomiyaki, which I wanted to base on more of your everyday ingredients, as opposed to being stung up to $10 for okonomiyaki flour at an Asian grocery store. More on that later.

The name okonomiyaki is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”. Like many national dishes, okonomiyaki varies in style and its ingredients according to the region in Japan, although the primary ingredient in all variations is cabbage. Our good friend, Wikipedia, gives you more information here and there is also some good information on all things okonomiyaki here… although most of you are probably waiting to read the recipe so you can make this for yourself tonight, farfromfamished style:

Okonomiyaki

2 cups self raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1.5 cups dashi stock
2 eggs
4 cups packed, shredded Chinese cabbage (which equated to half of a somewhat large cabbage)
1 carrot
1 zucchini
5-6 spring onions, finely sliced
Half a bunch of chives, cut into 1.5cm batons
2 slices of thinly sliced streaky bacon (for each okonomiyaki)
1/2 a block of silken tofu, cut into cubes

Accompaniments

okonomi sauce, to taste
kewpie mayonnaise, to taste
thinly sliced spring onions (optional)
bonito flakes (optional)
seaweed flakes (optional)

Back to okonomiyaki flour for a moment. It’s a fine, white flour that’s seasoned with shrimp, scallop, bonito and mixed with another flour made from the exotic sounding Nagaimo yam (Japanese Mountain Yam), which makes the batter sticky and glutinous. There’s probably some MSG thrown in for good measure too.

For the price (which works out to be around $15/kg), it instantly makes a dish that’s largely made up of very economical ingredients not so cheap, so going back to my vision of wanting to base a recipe on everyday ingredients, I trawled through many recipes to narrow down the best flour to use. Most recipes called for plain flour, but I wanted my okonomiyaki to be light and not stodgy like its food court predecessors, so I opted to use common self raising flour – a much more economical alternative, lightened further with a teaspoon of baking powder, which produced some excellent results.

I still wanted to capture the same fishy flavour you get in the okonomiyaki flour. When I was in Coles recently, I was surprised to see they sold dashi stock powder ($2.98) in the Asian section. Mind you, it was the Coles in Melbourne Central where the range of international products available tend to be more abundant than your average suburban Coles.

The dashi stock powder comes in ten sachets and from what I could work out from the instructions, one sachet makes around two litres of stock. The quantities in my recipe only required one and half cups of liquid, so I added one whole sachet given there was no other seasoning in the batter.

The last of the ingredients for the batter were eggs and quantity varied across many recipes. The majority of the recipes called for around one to one-and-a half eggs per person. I was planning to make enough to sustain two adults and two children, which was somewhere between 3-4 people, depending on how hungry everyone was or wasn’t, so I decided on three eggs. Unfortunately I had to settle for two because that’s all I had left in the fridge.

I added the stock to the flour and whisked until it was all incorporated, then added the eggs. The end result had the thickness of halfway between single cream and double cream, which looked about right.

I left the batter to stand for around 15-20 minutes, whilst I tended to the vegetables, which make up the rest of the ingredients for okonomiyaki (with the exception of your license to pimp up your okonomiyaki, as per its namesake and the accompanying condiments, which I’ll talk about later).

I’ve found it’s best to no go overboard with different vegetables and to make sure that they’re cut or shredded finely enough so they cook through.

My preferred cabbage is the Chinese cabbage or Wombok as it provides both a finer texture from the leaves at one end and some crunch from the base of the leaf at the other end.

The size selection of a Chinese cabbage at Coles was bloody huge or gargantuan on steroids, so I took the former. I’ve seen the Coles greengrocer people at my local store cut things in half for customers upon request, but at Melbourne Central there were no one available and the lady at the deli counter wasn’t too keen. I think she only knew how to operate the meat slicer.

I initially finely sliced a quarter of the cabbage, but settled on a half because there wasn’t that much room in the crisper compartment of the fridge. As for the carrot and zucchini, I pulled out my ridiculously expensive, yet impractical Zyliss mandolin and used the 3.5mm julienne blade, rather than using a grater as I didn’t want the carrot or zucchini to release excess liquid into the batter. It worked a treat.

I added the remaining spring onion and chives and gave the vegetables a quick once over to make sure there was an even distribution of vegetables before adding the batter to the mix.

When it was time to cook the mixture, I poured about a tablespoon of rice bran oil to a heavy based non-stick pan, which was essential in delivering a quality end product. In attempts gone by I’ve struggled with using a Scanpan Saute Pan that lost its non-sticking qualities (virtually indestructible, indeed) and the high sides didn’t help when it came to flipping the okonomiyaki.

So after evening out a 2 cm layer of the mixture, I placed a couple of slices of bacon on top, then placed on a lid and turned down the gas to its lowest setting. You want to make sure the vegetables cook all of the way through and you also want the bottom to form a nice crust without burning. Bear in mind, bacon could be replaced with your favourite meat. On the day I took the pics I used to accompany this recipe, I used char siu pork from a nearby Chinese restaurant. Roasted duck would also work a treat.

After 10 minutes it was time to flip this beast. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with, as did I without making a mess. I cooked the other side in the same slow manner, but without the lid because all I wanted to achieve was browning the underside and getting the bacon nice and crispy.

When it’s cooked, it’s time for garnishes and sauces. The two sauces traditionally served with okonomiyaki are a must and no alternatives to the authentic sauces should be used. The first one is a no-brainer – kewpie mayonnaise. This is the quintessential Japanese mayo and readily available in supermarkets these days (in the Asian section). It is made with egg yolks instead of whole eggs, and the vinegar is a proprietary blend containing apple and malt vinegars, which gives it a distinct flavour. I think it also contains some MSG, so be warned in case that shit makes you crazy.

The other sauce, a brown sauce, comes in different varieties. It’s like a mix of Worcestershire sauce and teriyaki sauce… a little fruity, sweet and spicy. The two main sauces readily available in most Asian Grocery stores are Tonkatsu (Bulldog brand) sauce and Otafuku Okonomi Sauce, which is my favourite as it’s a little less tangy than the Bulldog brand.

The other common garnishes are finely sliced spring onion, bonito flakes and seaweed flakes. Use them if you want, but I’m happy with just the sauces, thank you.

The other ingredient I’ve wanted to try in my okonomiyaki is tenkatsu, which literally translates to tempura refuse; packaged crunchy bits of fried tempura batter. I’m sure it would add some excellent texture. Unfortunately I haven’t found it in any shops and I’m not going to make my own in a hurry.

Serve it cut into wedges like a pizza as it’s good to share, or serve them whole and hide yourself in a corner so no one else can get to you or it.

Douzo meshiagare!

Quacktastic!

I was rather inspired by our last visit to The Estelle. In particular, I fell for the duck prosciutto…which is a bit of a misnomer, given prosciutto is the Italian word for ham and as much as I love duck, it’s just not pig. Hmm, now there’s a t-shirt waiting to be printed.

Wikipedia says that the word prosciutto derives from the Latin perexsiccatus (perexsicco), which gave way to the modern Italian word prosciugare, meaning “to thoroughly dry”. For the sake of even attempting to pronounce “duck prosciugare”, regardless of whether I’ve been drinking or not, we’ll call it duck prosciutto until someone comes up with something more appropriate.

So, I decided to have a crack at making my own duck prosciutto. After a little research it was apparent that duck prosciutto is by far the easiest of the charcuterie disciplines to attempt at home. More so, I would have probably tried to make this at home much earlier than now.

It makes me think, are we (or me, in this instance) endeavouring to do more with food, than simply buying the ingredients and following a recipe?

It’s got to be said that for what I create in the kitchen, I take a lot of pleasure getting compliments from friends and family when I’ve made stuff from what I call ‘beyond’ scratch. Take hamburgers for example; fresh homemade buns, grinding your own meat for patties, homemade tomato sauce or chutney, throwing in whatever you’ve grown in your own garden, etc. 

Although I haven’t yet gone as far as Heston Blumenthal to make my own ‘processed’ cheese like he did in his In Search of Perfection series, nor attempt to make every single element of the burger from scratch like some guy did.

So why are we doing this? To show off? To be more sustainable? Or is it to get a better understanding of how things are done, which in turn gives you a greater appreciation for not only the food you’re eating, but also what goes into it… or more importantly what doesn’t go into it. My money’s on the latter… although keep the compliments coming.

So in the last 10-15 years… maybe more, we’ve gone from bog-standard salami (and if you lived in South Austalia, you were probably brought up on German mettwurst), Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm pate (which is still great) and your cheap, crappy prosciutto was done to death, by being wrapped around everything from asparagus spears to Britney Spears… phwoooar! chicken fillets, stuffed with goat’s cheese, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes… ugh!

Now, with more knowledge, people with generally more developed palates and greater access to things that were once too foreign or simply unavailable, we can far easily obtain the bestest prosciutto in the world; di parma and san daniel, or Spain’s Jamón ibérico… you know the black pigs they eat nothing but acorns, procotechino, cacciatore, confit duck, guanciale, bresola, chorizo, paté, mousse, terrine, roulade, rillettes and so on.

So, where was I? Oh yeah, my own duck prosciutto… Most of the blogs I researched via Google were American-based. It seems that the rest of the Western world, or Australia for that matter, isn’t all that interested in making their own charcuterie. Maybe they are and they’re too busy making it to document it on a blog? Maybe I just have too much time on my hands?

Australia’s weather could be a disadvantage. Melbourne’s either too hot or too cold and weatherboard houses aren’t all that well-known for their temperate climates. But, duck prosciutto was more than doable. Loosely based on Michael Ruhlman’s recipe in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, all I needed was a couple of duck breasts, some salt, cheesecloth, my choice of spices, a wine fridge and some time.

Giving the chicks from ‘4 Ingredients’ a run for their money

The key to ensuring success was not stuffing up the salting and ensuring the meat didn’t get a nasty black mould (white is OK). Most of the American blogs called for Kosher Salt. USA Foods stocked Kosher Salt, but surely I could use something else More commonly found in Coles? After a bit more research on salt, I came to the conclusion that I could use relatively inexpensive, uniodised sea salt, a.k.a: rock salt. It even said on the bag it was suitable for curing, so that put me at ease.

We are blessed to have good access to all duck-related products and produce, thanks to Luv-A-Duck. Fortunately for me, it would appear that duck wasn’t too popular at Coles in Northcote… Two breast fillets for $7.50! According to the package, they were due to expire that day, but as I was curing the meat, I didn’t think it would matter so much. This exercise was working out well. $2.39 for a 500g bag of rock salt and $7.50 for duck. If this thing turns pear-shaped in any way, I was only out-of-pocket less than a tenner and to date I’ve made many more mistakes in the kitchen that have cost  more (in particular that fucking pizza).

Now you see them...

The method itself was pretty easy: Place a good layer of salt in the base of a container large enough to hold both duck breasts, so they weren’t touching the sides or each other. Place the breasts into the container and cover with the remaining salt. Cover the container with some cling wrap and chuck it in the fridge for around 24 hours. Voila! Stage one was complete.

… Now you don’t!

After curing,  I took the breasts out of the salt. They’d firmed up a little, so far so good. I washed the salt off and thoroughly dried the breasts with paper towel. 

Some recipes I’d read opted not to spice the breasts at all, wrapping them straight up in the cheesecloth after they’d been washed and dried. Other recipes called for nothing but a little white pepper on the skin side only.

I decided to select a few spices that compliment duck. I toasted of some bits of star anise, coriander seeds, a few juniper berries and some chilli flakes and ground them up in my mortar and pestle. I scored the skin, crossways and rubbed the spice mixture well into the skin.

Give your breasts a good rub

After wrapping them in cheesecloth (which was actually muslin because I didn’t have any cheesecloth) and tying them with kitchen twine, I weighed each breast and took note of their respective weights (140 grams and 148 grams). The aim is to reduce their weight by 30%, which can take a week or longer, depending on your conditions.

Ready for hanging

Apparently, wine fridges are perfect for dry curing as the constant temperature (12-14 degrees celsius) and humidity (55-65%) is ideal for an even cure, where the moisture isn’t lost too slowly at a colder temperature, resulting in a loss of flavour and the temperature isn’t too high, which will ruin the thing completely.

My breasts took 3 weeks to the day to reach the desired weight. A little longer than anticipated, but a longer hang resulted in some intese flavour. There was absolutely no mould eveident, so the conditions were perfect.

The end result… Quacktastic!

With some deft precision and a sharp knife, I shaved off my first paper-thin slices to have my first taste of my own handcrafted charcuterie… my own. Sure, I’ve made things in the past that have required more skill, but this is definitely a more fulfilling result. More importantly, 12 hours later there were no ill-effects of botulism… success all round!

Duck prosciutto – done and dusted. What’s next? Pancetta? Breasola? Watch this space.