Just over two weeks ago I spent a fascinating morning foraging for wild greens in the Orcas Park area of Los Angeles with Urban Outdoor Skills leader, Pascal Baudar. Promising to provide an introduction to the edible and aromatic plants that can be found in local parks and other municipal areas, Pascal also conveyed an enthusiasm which means that I am now unable to hike in the local Santa Monica Mountains without also taking a large cloth bag and a pair of secateurs. I have been encouraged by small successes, and have been patiently waiting for the results of what I consider to be my most ambitious project – curing a duck breast to make something resembling a ‘prosciutto’ infused with the aromatic California sagebrush.
The first step of this process was to wash and dry the duck breast before placing it in a shallow dish into which I had already poured a thick layer of sea salt. I then added yet more salt to cover the meat (it’s critical to ensure that the salt completely covers the duck breast), wrapped the dish in plastic wrap and left it in the fridge for 24 hours. Next, I removed the meat from the salt and rinsed it thoroughly before drying with paper towel. (The necessary process of water loss means that the salt will have become wet, and the meat of the duck breast should be darker in colour). All that remained was to add my freshly collected aromatics. I used California sagebrush and also black sage, as well as a liberal amount of freshly ground pepper before wrapping it tightly in cheesecloth, and tying with string.
The final step requires that it’s hung in a cool – and preferably humid – environment which for most people (myself included) means hanging it in the fridge, ensuring that it doesn’t touch anything else. Some guidelines advise that you weigh the duck breast at this point, suggesting that it will be ready to eat when it has lost 30% of its original weight. Others simply state that leaving it for ten days will be enough for the curing process to produce a wonderful home-cured prosciutto. Apparently, you can also check its progress by gently pressing the meat, which when satisfactorily cured should be firmer than raw meat, but not hard.
Although unplanned, it worked excellently that Thanksgiving coincided with the end of this ten-day period, and this beautiful home-cured prosciutto formed the basis of our appetizer. Using a very sharp knife, I began by cutting some thin slices and my first taste was perhaps even better that I had been hoping for. The prosciutto had a delicate flavour that was enhanced – but not overpowered – by the sweet aromatics, and a delightful light texture that was smooth and soft. The effect was superb. And although it would be possible to use this home-cured meat in cooked dishes – for example sautéed to include in a sauce and served with pasta – I chose to keep things simple, serving a few slices of duck alongside a salad of bitter greens (spinach and arugula), with some toasted pine nuts and a few pomegranate seeds. The dressing was made with olive oil, lemon and a little seasoning, as well as some very finely chopped black sage. As well as tasting delicious it provided an interesting talking point, and really was a great start to our meal.