Since my return to living in Ann Arbor in 2007, I have been joining a couple friends of mine in celebrating the recipes and techniques that feature our favorite meat, Pork. Our colloquial term for these festivities is Porktacular (or Pig-a-thon when talking with my mother-in-law). We rotate hosting responsibilities and typically spend the majority of a Saturday or Sunday enjoying one another’s company and latest culinary masterpieces. The total number of participants has grown over the years they each got married and for some of us, children have been born. On a couple of recent occasions, we’ve even included guests from outside the original group.
Our latest Porktacular took place on New Year’s Day. For about a year, I have been working on making a variety of salt and smoke cured meats so I created a charcuterie plate for this occasion. Since my past experience in charcuterie has included duck as well as pork, I decided that I would build my plate with some duck that resembles pork in its taste and texture.
For my plate, I made four different items, one of smoke cured duck (duck ham), one of salt cured duck (duck prosciutto), one of smoke cured pork (bacon) and one of salt cured pork (guanciale). To fill in the gap in the platter, I added sausage that I bought and smoked on my Big Green Egg. Each of the varieties had a distinct flavor and seemed to appeal to the palettes of the attendees.
Of the four varieties of charcuterie on this particular plate, duck ham takes the least amount of time to make. I have made it a couple of times and it never ceases to please those who try it. After a short 8-12 hour dip in an aromatic brine, it merely dries for 24 hours before it goes into the smoker. I like the flavor that smoke from apple wood gives duck, so a couple hours at a moderate temperature (about 250 degrees) will complete the transformation of a simple duck breast into a cut of meat that has the taste and mouthfeel of ham.
The duck prosciutto requires a bit more time than does the ham, but certainly not much more effort. Encasing a duck breast in a bed of salt for 24 hours then a quick rinse and dry prepares it to be dusted with white pepper and hung in cheesecloth to complete the curing process. This was the first time that I had tried to make duck prosciutto, but it certainly won’t be the last. I usually do not include an absolutely new recipe for a porktacular, but this time I decided to give it a chance. I was very happy with the outcome. I am a big fan of the lightly salty, somewhat sweet flavor of a nice piece of prosciutto (I usually source my prosciutto from the Parma Sausage Company in Pittsburgh, PA). The duck prosciutto had the similar salty-sweet flavor and firm silky texture of a thinly shaved slice of pork prosciutto. The lightly floral essence of the white pepper provided a pleasant conclusion to the overall experience.
The bacon takes about the same amount of time to make as the duck prosciutto. A raw pork belly spends about a week curing in a mixture of salt, sugar and aromatics before its date with the smoker. I used apple wood chips to smoke this particular belly, though I have used hickory chips on other occasions. The final preparation of the bacon before adding it to the charcuterie plate was to slice it and fry it up in a pan. While salt was the predominant flavor in this batch of bacon, there was also a hint of peppery garlic that rounded out the flavor. I actually crumbled up a couple pieces of it to season a serving of black-eyed peas.
Guanciale (a.k.a., jowl bacon) is the one variety of cured meat that takes a bit of time, although most of that time is spent hanging to dry. It is made from a pork jowl that is cured with a salt and herb combination for about a week before being hung to dry in a dark, cool (50-60 degrees) place that has a humidity level of about 50%. Depending on how cool and how much humidity, it will take about 3 or 4 weeks to dry. If you are able to let it hang for a longer amount of time, the flavor will become more and more interesting. The best way to describe the flavor of guanciale is porky. Because it is not smoked, the dominant flavor that you get is the pig. Also, since the jowl includes muscle tissue that the pig used a lot, there is more pig flavor than you will find in bacon or pancetta made from a pork belly. Since guanciale is typically used in a cooked dish (e.g., pasta alla carbonara), I sliced and sautéed the chunk that I included in this charcuterie plate.
Overall, I think the charcuterie plate was a success. The duck ham and guanciale were both gone well before the end of the party and the duck prosciutto and bacon were nearly gone too. I will certainly continue to expand my repertoire of cured meats and add them to future plates, perhaps a lonza or coppa will be next, who knows?
Note: Recipes for all the cured meats came from Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn