Thursday, June 14, 2012

Meat Candy

True story: At a big get together at my family's cottage with our neighbors, the youngest of the neighbor crew - a 4 year-old with wisdom beyond his years - was seen walking around with a slab of bacon about half the size of his arm. His uncle stopped and ask him what he was eating. His response: "Meat candy."

I have had a few foods ruined for me so far in my life. I'll never find carne asada tacos as good as the grilled-over-open flame goodness at Taqueria el Asadero in Chicago or roasted chicken quite like hardwood rotisserie chicken at the pollerias in Lima and Cusco. But by far the most devastating of these moments was a trip to Mario Batali's parents' salami shop in Seattle - Salumi. It has effectively ruined an entire food group for me as every slice of cured meat I've had since has paled in comparison to the expertly cured meats at Salumi.

But like the saying goes, when life deals you lemons, toss the lemons with a bunch of salt and make some preserved lemons. And so began my foray into charcuterie - the craft of preserved and cured meats.

Broadly speaking, charcuterie can be thought of as any meat that has been cured or preserved in some way, typically through the use of salt and drying the meat in a cool, dry place for anywhere from a week to a year or more. Initially invented as a way of preserving protein sources prior to the invention of refrigeration, it is now mainly found in artisinal meat shops or your local hipster-infested farmer's market. Unfortunately, most of our exposure to charcuterie is limited to hot dogs and bacon, or maybe some salami or capicola from the local deli. But the world of cured meats extends far beyond these grocery store classics to things like duck confit (preserved duck leg cooked in its rendered fat) and smoked sausages.

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Salumi had been on my radar for a while but I wasn't sure when I'd ever make it to Seattle. On one visit out to Portland to visit Mrs. T's family, I had the idea of flying into Seattle and then driving to Portland, for the sole purpose of grabbing at sandwich at Salumi. Mrs T., being the good sport that she is, only gave a slight roll of the eyes before going along with the plan. 

After my first bite of my finocchiona sandwich at Salumi, I knew I had crossed a Rubicon of sorts, I would never be satisfied by a generic Italian deli sub again. The thin slices of finocchiona - a salami spiced with whole fennel seeds - bursted with porky, salty goodness, topped with a fresh baked airy ciabatta. I was in pork nirvana and didn't want to leave. 

Later that week, while in Portland's famed Powell's bookstore, I came across Charcturie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, written by Mark Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, the Godfathers of charcuterie in America.

A few weeks later, I had hunks of raw meat hanging in our spare closet.

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Pancetta - Bacon goes Italian

Pancetta is everything we love about bacon - salty, fatty, porky. But where bacon typically gets its flavor profile from a cure in something like maple syrup or brown sugar followed by a quick trip in the smoker, pancetta incorporates savory herbs and spices followed by a dry curing phase to intensify the the porkiness.

Bacon and pancetta are made from the same cut of pork - the belly.

 My mom and aunt thought it a good idea to split a whole hog from a local butcher and when they offered me any of the "weird" cuts that they didn't want, I immediately pounced on the belly. Belly is still somewhat difficult to come across, but if you have access to a decent butcher shop or an Asian grocery, you should be able to find a slab of belly.

Once the belly is trimmed of any loose fat, give it a good rub of juniper berries, peppercorns, garlic, crumbled bay leaves, some brown sugar, and a pinch of nutmeg and a little fresh thyme. Toss it in the fridge for about a week in a big Ziploc bag, flipping it each day to redistribute the seasonings - until the belly feels slightly firm to the touch.

Remove the belly from the cure and rinse it off. Roll the belly and tie it via a butcher's knot into a nice tight roll. You want to make sure you pull it tight to get out any air - air pockets will facilitate bacteria growth.


Once the belly is rolled, it is ready to hang in a cool, dry place (50-60 degrees, 60 percent humidity) - a basement or cool closet works fine. Let it hang for about a week and then take it down and it's ready to go - since pancetta isn't meant to be eaten raw, the drying stage isn't as critical since you are going to throw it in a frying pan before eating it. I couldn't resist slicing a few pieces off a digging in to them. It's the perfect addition to an egg sandwich, a replacement for bacon on your burger, or served along with some sauteed squid. It's like a fried egg - it goes with everything.

Guanciale - Bacon on Steroids

If Pancetta is bacon's Italian cousin, guanciale is bacon on steroids. It takes pancetta and dials it up to 11.

Guanciale is made from the jowl, basically the pork cheeks, similar to the belly but more fatty and more porky. To make guancial, the jowl first takes a dry cure in salt, sugar, garlic, peppercorns, and fresh thyme for about a week, until it feels firm all the way through.

After the dry cure, the jowl is hung in a cool, dry place for 1-3 weeks until the meat portion of the jowl turns firm to the touch. Make sure the meat does not dry out (it will turn a dark red/purple if it begins to dry out) as there is no way to save it if it dries out too much.
I was blown away at the flavor of the guanciale when I tried my first batch. Intensely porky with a strong herby flavor.

 The possibilities for either pancetta or guanciale are endless. A simple pasta alla gricia where the rendered fat of the pancetta or guanciale is used to make a sauce for the pasta, or lardons for salad, or my personal favorite - sliced thin and used as a topping on a pizza with braised fennel, brussel sprouts, and a anisette cream sauce.
Next up for me will be doing a faux prosciutto out of duck breast and then I might take the next step to more advanced stuff like capicola or sopressatta.

Mr. Lucy and her friends are big fans of meat candy.

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