When the Smoke Gets in Your Thighs

My dad grew up in Winchester, VA, in the northern bit of the state from whence hail a lot of good apples and Patsy Cline. (My dad’s dad was a food scientist at National Fruit; that meant we got to eat a lot of amazing peaches from dented cans.) Though pretty close to the Mason-Dixon line, and not far from the mid-Atlantic coast, it’s still definitely the South there, or at least was when he was growing up. Now I guess it’s as much a bedroom community for DC as it is a small Southern city. At any rate, hailing from Virginia meant my dad learned early about sugar-cured, hickory-smoked country ham. Occasionally as a kid we’d get country ham, and mostly what I remember is its overwhelming saltiness. I wasn’t a big ham fan then and not the salt fiend I am now, so it seemed pretty gross. I’ve had it once or twice in recent years, but always sliced from a package and never made from non-industrial hogs, so I’ve yet to be impressed by it, but my dad waxes nostalgic over it every time the topic of ham comes up (which is not infrequently in my family). Now that I’m doing a little ham-curing of my own, though, I’ve become intrigued by country ham. Turns out it’s basically cold-smoked prosciutto: it sits in salt in cool temps for a month or so and it gets hung to dry for many months. But between the hell of salt and the heaven of hanging, it wanders as much as an unattached thigh can in the purgatory of wood smoke, until it is finally deemed ready to ascend. Like any good Southern food, regional variants exist: what goes in the initial cure besides salt, the kind of wood for smoking, how long it gets smoked — all differ depending on who’s doing it and where. (A good story about a Kentucky version here.) It tends to be eaten cooked, unlike European dry-cured hams, and in thick-ish slices, which is why mostly what I remember about it is the salt. If you ate prosciutto sliced like ham at Sunday dinner, you’d be overwhelmed by its saltiness too. But most recipes call for cooking country ham it in a way that purges some of the salt content, and it seems that these days some more chef-y types are slicing it thin for charcuterie plates, which sounds pretty good to me. So, I’ve put in an order for another ham from Dave at Young Earth, and provided I can find someone to do the smoking (I don’t think my city neighbors would like hickory smoke belching from my backyard for a month), I hope to have a real country ham like my dad had growing up to give to him for his 80th birthday next winter.

Belated birthday post for the boy

My son’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and he wanted to do a blog post about the dinner.

Oven fries, ready for baking…

Burgers, his second-favorite food (pizza takes #1), ready for smashing on the griddle…

And at the end of the meal, the Roman-numeraled (because of the classicist mama) gingerbread cake…

Let’s hope this next year is as much fun as the last! Birthday IX will be here before we know it.

They gave their all

The bones from the Thanksgiving turkey generated many a bowl of delicious stock. Here they make their final contribution, to a lunchtime soup, before being sent to rest in the rubbish. Nary a morsel of meat was left on them. As Julia Child would have said, they gave their all.

(The slight soft focus is from the steam rising from the bowl. O lunch, how I love thee.)

My Own Private Portlandia – Thanskgiving edition

Tuesday evening I picked up our pasture-raised, heritage (Bourbon Red) turkey from Blackberry Pines Farm, a lovely place run by Jim Ekhardt and Ron Thompson near Pullman, MI. Last time I was out here was a couple of years ago. On that visit, they gave me and my then six-year old son a tour, which included visits to varicolored chickens, turkeys that looked like feather puffballs gliding above their legs, and peacocks in exotic colors I’d never seen before (did you know they lose those long tail feathers all at once?). That time we left with several small chickens (just the right size for frying) and a whole lot of feathers for my son. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, but there weren’t a lot of feathers laying about this time, so the only thing I brought back was 13.04 pounds of turkey and the newfound friendship of four and a half cats. That same evening I spatchcocked the bird, sprinkled it liberally with a salt and baking powder mix (the b.p. helps crisp the skin), and let it sit until Thursday morning.

bird-for-roasting

I cut off the leg quarters so I could pull the breast out when it hit 150 deg. (checking with my new Thermapen mk 4!), put it all in the oven at a low 250, and by 3:45 had an  almost perfectly cooked bird. It came out to rest, then, at a little before six, once the sausage-cornbread-walnut dressing and roasted green beans were done, I gave it a few minutes at 500 to warm it and crisp the skin, and the result was the juiciest, most perfectly cooked bird I’ve yet done, dark and white meat alike. (The dark meat is a bit tougher with the pastured birds, but the flavor makes the jaw workout worth it.) Besides the dressing and beans, we had garlic mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with fennel brought by friends. While everything was cooking we laid out a spread of appetizers that included six cheeses chosen by my now almost 8-year old son (we’re raisin’ him right!), some home-cured prosciutto (old and new), an orange-walnut sausage leftover from last year that my friend Joan and I made (still good after 12 mos. in the freezer), tomato jam and various pickles my wife made, and more besides. Family and friends gathered and, with the help of more than a few bottles of wine, we worked things over pretty thoroughly, from all of the above to the pecan and apple pies my mother-in-law brought to bring closure to the meal. The only thing lacking in the evening was light from artisanal bulbs.

 

Pigging Out

Last Wednesday evening, Chef Brian Polcyn, co-author with Michael Ruhlman of the now nearly biblical volumes on curing meat Salumi and Charcuterie, as well as being a well-known restaurateur, cooking instructor, and now wide-ranging food entrepreneur,  gave a 4+ hour demo class in the theater kitchen at KVCC’s fabulous new culinary school building. In the space of 4 hours Polcyn broke down two sides of pork, one in the American way, where with the aid of a bone saw you get five primal cuts (shoulder [butt], picnic ham, center-cut loin, belly, and ham), the other in the traditional Italian method, which follows muscle seams and so doesn’t require a saw, and is designed to maximize cuts for dry curing. The biggest difference is in the front half of the pig, for the Italian method cuts the ribs further down the back in order to preserve the long neck muscle (coppa) as a cut to be cured whole, instead of leaving it as part of the shoulder to be roasted, ground, or whatever. Both methods remove the tenderloin (filetto), which is on the inside of the backbone, and both allow recovery of fat from different places, organs, tongue, jowl, ears, and tail (although Polcyn didn’t talk about the tail), as well as bits of trim that can be ground for sausage, terrines, etc.

pig fest (2)Farmer Mike de Schaaf, Chef Brian Polcyn, KVCC chefs.

In the hands of an expert like Polcyn, the American method takes about four minutes, the Italian method ten times that – and you really have to know what you’re doing. (The economics are obvious from the point of view of a meat processor. That’s why, if you lack a good local butcher, as, sadly, we still do in Kalamazoo, you can’t get some of the specialty cuts for curing that are common on the continent.) From all this Polcyn prepared bacon, pancetta, and guanciale, all of which are still in a fridge at KVCC in their initial salt-cure phase (no doubt under heavy security). He also prepared, with cooking help from KVCC chefs, spuma (lard from the belly fat whipped into a mousse-like consistency with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with the cracklings that came out of the lard rendering), a terrine of ground pork and seared pork tenderloin, and a porchetta-like dish whose name I missed which involved butterflying the meat cut from the pigs head, seasoning it, laying the ears and tongue on it (for some reason there were two tongues), rolling it, and braising it.

 

A pig beholds its former self.A pig beholds its former self.

Seeing a master at work was a treat, but there were lots of takeaways for home curers like me and my friend Joan, who was there with me, and with whom I’ve been making sausage and salami for more than a year. Maybe the biggest thing was just seeing the lack of slavishness to the recipes. The books give the impression that precision is essential in terms of proportion of meats to salt and seasonings. Now, Polcyn has decades of experience, so when he has, say, a slab of belly in front of him, he’ll be able to judge by hand and eye many things that it’s still best for us to measure. But even so, it was clear that there was some wiggle room. Forgot to season the jowl for guanciale? Just scrape some of the seasoning of the belly that’s being made into pancetta. Need the right amount of fat in your sausage? Judge the fattiness of the meat by eye and don’t add extra if it looks good. And so on. Preparation of the recipes seemed more like cooking than baking.

More concretely, there are two things that I learned that I think will have the most effect on our ground-meat products (which have, to date, never been less than delicious). (a) Don’t substitute belly or leaf fat for back fat in salami. The back fat is harder and renders less easily, so it will remain in the sausage as it cures or cooks. We’ve had somewhat crumbly salami, I think because we substituted one of the soft fats, which weeped out as the salami hung. We used the soft fat because it was what we had on hand, and it seemed wasteful to go buy other fat, but now we know better. (b) It’s OK to mix the ground meat and fat by hand to get the primary bind (the goopy meat mess that gets stuffed into the casings). Following the books, we’d been hesitant to do that, because we were worried about the heat from our hands warming the meat too much. Joan asked about this though, and Chef Polcyn not only said it’s fine (provided you don’t overdo it), but showed a good test for when you’ve mixed enough: if you hold your hand up and the meat stuck to it doesn’t fall down for ten seconds, it’s sticky enough.

The evening ended with a nice meal cooked up by various supporting chefs from KVCC, including some of the dishes mentioned above, as well as fillets of (uncured) coppa, and a range of tasty non-pork offerings. The spuma was a little intense for me, I have to say, but I think it would make a great touch to appetizers that have some sweetness and acidity to balance its fattiness. The other pork dishes were great.

The pig, by the way, came from a Mangalitsa pig raised by Mike de Schaaf at 1936 Meadowbrook Farm in Benton Harbor. Mangalitsas are a very fatty, furry heritage breed from Hungary — click the link to see the pigs. I’ve got a (trotter-less) ham from one of them hanging in my basement, along with one from a Berkshire-Duroc cross (if I remember right) from Dave Warkentein of Young Earth Farm in Decatur (see my ProZooto post about my first ham made with his pork). I’ve made bacon from pigs from them both too, which is an order of magnitude better even than bacon made from the same pigs done by their processors. Now if only we could get a good butcher in Kalamazoo, I could get a nice coppa to work with!

Meating the Needs of the Future

FarWriting at Civileats.com, Lauren Dixon informs us that since the Wholesome Meat Act (WMA) of 1967, the number of meat processors in the U.S. has dropped precipitously, with “with some states [now] only offering one USDA-inspected plant, and roughly half of the states in the nation completely lacking such a facility.” The sticking point here is “USDA-inspected.” Any facility that slaughters and processes animals for eventual sale to consumers, grocery stores, restaurants, etc., must, according to the WMA, meet safety and sanitation criteria set at the federal level by the USDA and be subject to regular inspection. As these criteria are generally designed for large-scale processing, and as they regularly get updated, smaller processors can’t afford to comply and so get forced out of business. The result, as Dixon says, is that now, even “[i]n a time of growing awareness about the ills of factory farming and increasing demand for local, pasture-raised meat, many small producers who might sell direct to consumers just don’t have time to drive for hours to get it processed.” The flip-side of this is, of course, a system whose benefits accrue to those operating at a large scale, as is shown by the massive consolidation in the meat-packing industry, where, according to Dixon, “just four companies produce 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S[;] [a]nother four companies produce 60 percent of the pork, and five produce 60 percent of the poultry.”   (See Christopher Leonard’s recent book The Meat Racket for how we got to this point.)

In July, two members of Congress, Republican Thomas Massie from Kentucky and Democrat Chellie Pingree from Maine, introduced a bill aimed to change all this: the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. Continue reading “Meating the Needs of the Future”