DUCK PROSCIUTTO, OR MORE ACCURATELY, COMPLETE UTILITY OF A DUCK WITH the DELICIOUS BREASTS GOING TO MAKE DUCK PROSCIUTTO
I learned to cook from my grandfather. He had one often spoken but informal rule:
don’t be a dumb sonofabitch.
It tended to go something like this, “Don’t be a dumb sonofabitch and let that sauce stick.” Or “Don’t be a dumb sonofabitch and cut yourself, that knife’s goddamn sharp.” Or “Don’t be a dumbsonofabitch and use too much salt.” Or “Don’t be a dumb sonofabitch and fix me an Old Crow.”
It was a very good rule. Particularly in its universality and timeless nature. So much so that it has evolved into sort of a guiding principal of mine, particularly in the kitchen. I’m not entirely sure of the existence of souls but if they are floating around out there “don’t be a dumb sonofabitch” is definitely the call of my grandfather’s.
It is with this in mind that I was standing in Whole Foods looking at a duck, a whole duck—I really dislike the idea that the only useful part of a bird is the breast, it’s a crap attitude to have and does wrong by the poor critter that died so you can stuff your overly finicky hole… although in honesty my righteous decision for “whole bird” was predicated as much by the fact that Whole Foods didn’t have solo duck breasts as anything else. Anyway I’m looking at a Whole Foods duck and hearing the guy with the duck on the scale say “25 bucks” but what I’m also hearing is “If you’re gonna be a dumb sonofabitch and pay 25 dollars for a goddamn duck at least get some use out of the thing.”
Enter complete utility. A few months earlier I had seen a thing on Youtube that I really dug about stretching your duck dollar, so I figured I’d replicate it as best I could. Which is what I did, and which also happened to be more time consuming than I had anticipated, leading to me spending the better part of a football weekend fondling and manipulating various bits of duck.
In short, one duck plus one weekend equals two cured duck breasts worth of duck prosciutto, a tiny serving of duck liver mousse mounted with extra duck fat, about 1½ cups of rendered duck fat, a gallon of duck stock, 2 legs of duck confit, duck cracklings and confited duck heart and kidney that I’ll probably chop up and hide in something tasty (if only in order to say that I ate them).
This all begins with breaking down the duck, really not all that disagreeable of a task: get the legs off the body along the seams, get the wings off, then get the breasts and tenderloins off the remaining carcass– all the while creating a nice pile of duck fat and skin scraps. The goal here being to complete the task without it looking like an epileptic kid with a chainsaw did it. Which I did. And I gotta say, there’s a very base level gratification in that. I’m now a guy that can debone and break down a duck. It’s like being a guy that can replace a muffler. Sure, it might not be the most impressive task on the planet but it’s more than most of your friends can do. For some of us that’s enough, and in this case “some of us” includes me.
(It’s at this point that I made dumbsonofabitch mistake number one. After deciding that I was going to document this, I didn’t. I’m just not used to taking pictures of food in progress—stopping what I’m doing, getting duck bits off my hands, grabbing the camera, arranging, adjusting lighting, composing, shooting, deciding it looks like shit and recomposing, lighting, shooting, etc. This is a disagreeable task, but I’ll work at it. In the mean time please just use your imagination and enjoy the above photo of a part of the finished product.)
So the duck is broken down. Breasts go in salt to make duck prosciutto. Really, that’s it. Meat plus salt equals good. They stay that way for a day then gets rinsed and rubbed. I did one breast with some fine black pepper and the other with some pepper, bay, coriander, juniper and fennel. Just to have a comparison. Then I wrapped and hung them from a pot handle in my kitchen. They then stayed this way for a week. I read once that the key reason “the real thing” in the authentic-as-balls prosciutto and salumi department tastes so good is that you can actually taste the soil, rain and verdant air of the specific area of Italy it comes from when you put it on your tongue. It is with this in mind that I hope that my duck prosciutto doesn’t taste of the “verdant air” from the litter box at the opposite end of my house.
Then came the confit. I really wanted to do this old school: some salt, some thyme, some garlic and a few peppercorns. Unfortunately there was no fresh thyme anywhere, meaning that there was no fresh thyme at the first place I checked and I wasn’t willing to drive all over hell to get some. So instead I laid it down with some rosemary from my yard, and hoped for the best.
With the legs and herbs mingling in the fridge, I turned to rendering the duck fat, which makes your house smell like tasty fried bits of duck skin and rendering fat. A friend came over in the middle of this activity and proclaimed “Smells great in here!” I then showed her that I was wringing liquid fat out of the last few vestiges of a duck corpse and she corrected in an equally excited and pleasant tone, “Well! It smelled great before I knew what it was!” She then left. (She’s a very polite and cheery friend, if not all that into lard).
The next day with the fat rendered, the legs came out of their fridge and garlic/ rosemary tomb and got cooked in the fat in a low oven for about 5 hours, then cooled and left in the lard to “ripen” over the course of seven or so days in the fridge. Mmmm, fat-ripened duck legs.
The duck liver mousse was a bit more challenging. Namely because most of the resources I found hadn’t considered the thought of some a-hole trying to make a tiny amount of mousse with just one duck’s worth of liver. It was a this point I adapted the highly scientific approach of marinating the liver in a glug of white wine, pureeing it with a splash of cream, a smallish plab of egg white and with a let’s-call-it-a-schmeg of extra rendered duck fat, as well as a liberal sprinkle of salt. Then into a ramekin and into the bain marie and a 180 degree oven for an hour or so.
For those of you keeping track, I’ve now made use of the breasts, the legs, the liver, and the skin and fatty bits. Leaving me with the bones and other various bits including the neck and wings. Into the stockpot, all of it. I ended up putting the wings in here rather than frying them buffalo wing style, which I admit is a small source of personal disappointment. But, stock is a noble pursuit in and of itself. Bones, aromatics, water and simmering: when treated with some respect and love it makes everything you cook better and it makes your house smell good AND it lets you say things like “Don’t be a dumbsonofabitch and throw out those bones, use’m for stock”. All these benefits from finding a little extra use for a few bones and some cheap veg, which I find outstanding. This particular stock turned out about like a dark chicken stock, only more ducky. Literally, it’s like a liquid quack.
The tenderloins I held back with intentions to skewer and grill them over a wood fire as a pre-dinner snack for some other meal. (Which I did: marinated in Tiger Sauce and grilled over pecan logs that were cooking a tri tip– perfect premeal fortification with a beer in the backyard.)
Now with the duck liver mousslined, duck tenderloins skewered, grilled and consumed, and duck stock… stocked, we wait. The delicious breasts need to continue drying and the confit must continue to ripen in its own fat… all with the grand plan in mind.
Next post: The Grand Plan: Reassembling my various manipulated duck bits into one cohesive meal. (Sort of like a more delicious version of the screwy toys the bad kid/ future offender in your neighborhood used to make… don’t pretend like you don’t remember that kid, we all had one.)