At Ducks Eatery, chef and owner Will Horowitz is focused on learning the heritage techniques of curing and smoking. While Ducks is known for its smoked meats, the restaurant became a viral sensation for applying the same techniques to fruits and vegetables, most notably watermelon. And the fruit is not alone on the menu. “We make watermelon radish look and taste like prosciutto, we have carrots that look like hot dogs and bubble on the grill,” Horowitz says.
While the plant-based trend drove Horowitz to cure and smoke fruit and vegetables the same way he treats meat, he wanted the end product to be less processed than plant-based meat substitutes on the market. With the simple addition of a salt brine or lye bath, he’s been able to create a skin on peeled fruits and vegetables that will char, blister, and brown just like meat. When it comes to cost, that’s nearly the same as working with meat, too, Horowitz says. The whole watermelon sells for $75 as a large-format meal. The high price tag reflects the heavy prep process and the shareable nature of the dish, and it’s been anything but a hindrance. It sells like crazy.
Oak wood ash is the secret ingredient in Horowitz’ “ham,” while the salt brine is the secret process. The brine and the ash create the skin on the “ham,” which is later scored and seared. Wood ashes are an age-old traditional curing agent for Italian charcuterie.
The prep level on this dish is heavy. The watermelon is peeled and marinated for four days in a brine of salt, Togarashi seasoning, oak wood ash, fennel seed, tamari, garlic, and water. It is then rinsed and dried for five hours, and smoked for six to eight hours. Finally, the whole “ham” is pan seared in its own juices and served with garnish and a pan sauce gravy.
“God bless the invention of the seedless watermelon—it works perfectly,” Horowitz says. “The reason we used watermelon is there are so few presentation pieces in the plant-based world. We’ve won all these awards for best smoked brisket but the hams get us a lot of notoriety—they’re these big, celebratory meals.”