But now it's time for the final installment (I think) and we're going out with a bang. This month's challenge? Do something cool with meat.
Regular readers will realized just how excited I was to see this topic, as I have a tendency to add a little bacon or sausage to most dishes (even cookies and ice cream), thus dubbing myself the Meatasaurus.
I'm also obsessed with charcuterie. While you may think of mini quiches or spinach dip when
someone says "party appetizer", I think meat: proscuitto, salami, pate.
I think I might take my own life if Mr. Ninj suddenly decided to become a vegetarian. Or even said, "Let's cut back on our meat intake a little."
Good thing there's not a chance in hell this would ever happen.
So, realizing that the latest Cook It challenge would give me an opportunity to offer some homemade charcuterie at Thanksgiving, I dove right in and purchased the DIY Meatasaurus Bible, otherwise known as Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Poleyn.
I chose this particular book because it was the subject of 2011's Charcutepalooza, organized by Mrs. Wheelbarrow, in which participating bloggers made a different meat product from the Ruhlman book each month (similar to our Cook It challenge). The first challenge in Charcutepalooza was duck prosciutto, which struck me as a pretty painless and non-dangerous way to get into the world of meats.
(Sadly, I came a little late to the blogging party to have taken part in Charcutepalooza, but I look forward to trying out some of the other "assignments.")
Painless? Yes. More than that: ridiculously easy. Seriously: All you need is a duck breast, a boatload of salt and a cold room.
(Snort. I live in Vermont and it's late November: every room is a cold room.)
Essentially, you simply salt cure the meat and then air dry it. See? Easy peasy.
Here's how it works. First, you get yourself a duck breast. Mine was a magret breast (which tend to be a bit large) but any kind will do.
Or, if you're my friend Matt, put your house up for sale, go to the other side of the state to buy a piece of property with a pond, get some ducks, raise them and then butcher them.
I simply went to the market, lame-ass that I am.
Next, select a shallow dish that will hold your duck breast without a lot of extra room and without touching the sides. Pour a cup of kosher salt into the dish.
Rinse the duck breast and pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels. Shallowly score the top / fat-part of the breast in a criss-cross pattern (if you look at my photo, I scored a little too deeply, but it only mattered in the presentation).
Lay the duck breast on top of the salt in the dish, and then completely cover it with more kosher salt (I used nearly 4 pounds of salt, given that my dish was large, so make sure you have an ample supply of salt before beginning).
Put the whole dish in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This is the salt-curing part (the part that kills off any potentially nasty bacteria and the like).
After 24 hours, remove the duck from the salt, rinse it well and thoroughly pat it dry again with paper towels. Be sure to THROW AWAY ALL THE SALT. This is no time to be frugal and try to recycle, what with there being nasty raw bird juice in there.
Sprinkle each side of the duck breast with ground white pepper, then wrap the whole thing in a layer of cheesecloth. I went a little overboard on the cheesecloth (two layers) which just slowed down my drying time, so one layer is better.
Truss it up with some kitchen twine (I'm clearly not a professional trusser or a sailor, based on my trussing photo), leaving a long piece at one end for hanging.
Now, this next part is important. Be sure to WEIGH your wrapped duck breast before hanging it. The estimated time for the air drying is one week, but what you're really going for is about a 20-30 percent reduction in weight (20 for larger breasts, 30 for smaller ones, but anything in that range is fine). If you don't weigh it first, you'll just have to take a wild-ass guess as to when it may be done, and, if you leave it drying too long, it can get a bit too hard.
Once you've weighed the breast and done some wicked math to determine what the goal weight should be, hang the breast in a place that stays between 50 and 60 degrees with moderate humidity. For me, this was the closet of our guest bedroom; it's always about 54 degrees in that room, as we keep the heat off. (Unless you're a guest; then we sport you some heat ... unless there's a duck breast in the closet. Then I guess you should bring an extra blanket. And maybe a hat.)
There was much hilarity in the comments on my Facebook post about this process, as I noted that the duck was hanging next to my wedding dress. I threatened to put my wedding tiara on the duck but decided that was going too far.
Note: if you don't have a spot in the house that's the right temperature (for some this could be the garage or the basement), you could try hanging the bundle from the inside ceiling of a wine refrigerator.
After about five days, weigh the duck breast to see how close it is to the target weight. It usually takes about seven days, but you really don't want it going any longer than about nine days. Mine was going very slowly, which is when I realized that the second layer of cheesecloth was slowing it down, so I removed it and the drying sped right up.
Once the target weight (roughly) is reached, unwrap the duck and eat it (or wrap it in plastic and refrigerate it if you're not ready). Yep, that's it!
I sliced mine super thinly (thanks to my freakin' awesome, only-thing-I-need-on-a-desert-island Kyocera ceramic chef's knife) and served it as part of my Thanksgiving antipasto platter. HEAVEN!
I even froze half the cured breast and have plans to make some wicked pizzas with it.
See? I told you: ridiculously easy. You've got plenty of time to whip one of these bad boys up and impress the bejeesus out of everyone at the holidays.
Go get yourself a duck breast. Wedding dress and tiara not required.
(Note: An alternate version of this post also appears on Vermont Life Magazine's web site.)