Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gaining Momentum | Charcutepalooza, the final challenge

I am participating in Charcutepalooza, a year of meat which entails twelve monthly challenges to prepare dishes using various charcuterie techniques.  For more information about charcutepalooza, click here.  To read why I decided to partake in the meatmaking festivities, read my first post here.
It all started with the book.  I don’t even remember exactly what motivated me to I buy Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie all those years ago.  I was in law school, a period of my life when the last thing I had time for was elaborate cooking projects.  I used to take extended study breaks, wistfully reading through it, hoping I could someday prepare even half of its recipes.  I imagined a future me, living in a farm house, raising pigs, preparing gorgeous terrines and pates, and curing fatty, ruby red salamis in my basement.  Unfortunately, that version of myself was entirely a figment of my imagination, one I never believed I could actually become.  Hung up on the infeasibility of my dream, I never seriously began using the book, except in my fantasies.  Before this year I had only attempted duck confit and a couple sporadic and failed attempts at a pancetta (unwilling to invest heavily in an experiment, I bought small quantities of low quality meats, and the final results clearly reflected my lack of initial dedication).

For this month’s challenge, we were entreated to show off to our friends and family, impress them with all the charcuterie skills we learned this year.  But something happened that I didn’t expect: I managed to impress myself as well.  At one point, while I was doing some prep work in the kitchen, one of my guests was flipping through my now stained and use-worn copy of Charcuterie and I realized that while I was certainly no expert, I was familiar with every recipe he commented on or had a question about.  Each one was something I had cooked, or at least made a variant of.  I still don’t live on a farm, I certainly don’t own any pigs, but I could prepare well more than half the recipes in that book.  And I was that much closer to my previously inconceivable dream.  It just took letting go of the end goal and taking it one challenge at a time.  I learned so much more than just how to make charcuterie.  I learned I can accomplish anything, no matter how seemingly unattainable, by taking small steps, and letting the momentum carry me forward.  And, of course having the right group of people to back me up.  So I owe so much gratitude to Cathy and Kim for bringing together this amazing and supportive group of meat lovers, to all my friends and family for putting up with, and in most cases, indulging my charcuterie obsession, and above all, to Ken for helping me with every challenge, cleaning up after me and being my co-guinea pig of each meat experiment.

As this year draws to an end, I remember vividly how I felt this time last year.  A couple years earlier I left a career path that made me miserable, and as of last year, I was still trying to figure out what I should do next.  I had ideas of where I ultimately wanted to be, but no clue how to get there.  I felt trapped, stuck in limbo between a life I happily left behind, and one I desperately wanted.  My life hasn’t changed all that much since then, except that I’m approaching the new year feeling hopeful.  Even if I don’t have my life mapped out in front of me, and no clear idea of how to get to where I want to be someday, I feel that I’ve been gathering momentum, and the potential energy moving me forward is palpable and exciting.  I know now that anything is possible and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Ok, enough with the sappy philosophizing, let’s move on to the meat!  

My grand finale meal started with the dry cured goodies to come out of the last challenge.  The chorizo turned out to be fully edible after all, despite my fears of uneven curing and botulism.  We all ate copious amounts of it with zero adverse effects.
Dry cured chorizo, served matchstick style
The ostrich bresaola, while slightly over cured and tough, sliced to a gorgeous red color.  Ostrich has a very beefy taste so the flavor was very similar to that of a traditional bresaola.  It also had a not unpleasant metallic undertone which I attributed to the over curing, but which Ken astutely noted could be explained by the high iron content in ostrich meat. 
Ostrich bresaola
Ostrich bresaola, parmesan and parsley salad
While the meats featured in the previous dishes were prepared for an earlier challenge, the following dishes were all made with this final meal in mind.  This past Spring, for the hot smoking challenge we had made tasso, a decision I have never regretted.  However, I did experience some serious charcuterie envy when I saw all the amazing smoked salmon posts to emerge that month.  So for this final meal, I chose to prepare a smoked salmon appetizer.
Smoked salmon
Served simply on a round of good rye bread, with chives and a little chevre, this definitely satisfied the craving that has been gnawing at me since April.  
Smoked salmon on rye
For the main event, we made a variation on chicken paprikash, serving chicken thighs, confited in duck fat, over spatzle with a parika sauce.
Chicken confit "paprikash" over spatzle
Kielbasa is one of my favorite sausages, so deciding to make it for this challenge was an easy choice.  We combined it with seared brussel sprouts, a side dish that ended up being everyone’s favorite dish of the night.
Kielbasa and brussel sprouts
We finished the night over a trio of stinky cheeses (to our group, the stinkier the better!), which I can take no credit for making.  However, as I basked in the glow of cocktails, wines, and pride, I thought to myself, “why not?  Maybe next year....”
Stinky cheese, and just maybe the inspiration for stinkapalooza 2012...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Facing Fears | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 11

I am participating in Charcutepalooza, a year of meat which entails twelve monthly challenges to prepare dishes using various charcuterie techniques.  For more information about charcutepalooza, click here.  To read why I decided to partake in the meatmaking festivities, read my first post here.

This is a post I never expected to write.  When I started on this meat odyssey back in January, I assumed I would drop out once the dry-curing challenge rolled around.  I had a million and one “practical” reasons why I couldn’t cure meat in my apartment but, in all honestly, I was mostly just scared.  Scared of botulism, scared of sickening myself or someone I cared about, and just generally scared of screwing it up.  

Then towards the end of October, two good friends helped me to face another fear of mine and the payoff was so rewarding that I chose to tackle my fear of dry-curing as well.  For that reason, this charcutepalooza post is dedicated to Steve and Stefanie Richert who took Ken and me rock climbing.  Although I am also scared of heights, the primary fear they helped me face was that of exposure.

I was in a car accident almost fifteen years ago and have walked on crutches ever since.  Despite the fact that my disability is one which is immediately visible to anyone who encounters me in the real world, I’ve been, for reasons I don’t even pretend to understand, incredibly reluctant to discuss it here in the online world.  I realize how ridiculous it is that I was perfectly happy to publicly share the fact that I thought making a beet and chocolate ravioli would be a good idea (spoiler alert: it wasn’t), and yet I felt ashamed and scared to share something about myself that was so completely out of my control.  I don’t know if I was just holding onto one last forum where I could pass as “normal,” or if I felt that the only way to beat my disability was to ignore it or pretend it had no affect on my life.  Or maybe I felt that writing about my injury would come off as self-indulgent and whiny.

My friend Steve has a condition which is essentially invisible - diabetes.  Unlike me, he talks (and blogs) freely about his condition.  Moreover, he and his wife, Stefanie will be devoting an entire year of their lives to raising awareness for diabetes; they will be travelling the country, rock climbing daily and showing that blood sugar can be managed while living a transient and physically grueling lifestyle (and making a documentary about it all the while!).  I think its safe to say that there’s nothing self-indulgent or whiny about them.

Steve had been toying with the idea that his approach to dealing with diabetes would apply just as well to people with any number of afflictions.  Which is why, when we planned to go rock climbing together, he asked if he could document the climb for his own blog.  At first I was conflicted, I really wanted to help their cause, not just because they are friends but also because I truly believe in what they are doing.  But as always, my aversion to exposing myself and my disability online welled up quick and acrid, like bile.  My understanding of the irrationality of this fear paired with my admiration for my friend’s ability to “own” his condition by discussing it, made me realize that ignoring my disability was not helping me overcome it.  On the contrary, it was limiting me.  Hell, I’d never even posted a picture of myself here to avoid showing who I really was - I had forced myself into hiding.  

Charcutepalooza has been about so much more than the meat.  It has been about a community of fellow food adventurers and meat lovers who wanted to take their diy approach to cooking to new heights.  Throughout this year we have shared recipes, tips, our successes as well as our failures, and supported one another through each charcuterie challenge.  It is a community as real as any “real world” group and yet I’ve never felt like I was fully open about who I am.  So, finally, after almost a year of sharing in this adventure with all of you, I am facing my fear and am ready to fully introduce myself.

(Picture taken by Stefanie Richert)

So in the days after our climb, Steve and Stefanie shared our story, both in writing and on film, with amazingly supportive feedback on all our ends.  And having conquered one fear of mine, I chose to tackle another, and immediately began scouring craigslist for a wine fridge to use as my meat curing chamber.  

Attempting a Spanish chorizo for our first dry-cured sausage was an easy decision.  While in Chicago a couple months ago we had a dish (more like a bite) at Alinea, which flawlessly combined chorizo, mussels and saffron.  We were eager to get home and play with the flavor combo.  

Freshly stuffed chorizo, ready to be cured
Knowing that a little fear is healthy, I sanitized the shit out of my curing chamber and kitchen before getting started.  And to good result, as we never encountered any trace of mold on our chorizo.

Curing chamber chamber set up.  A bowl of salt water was
added later to increase the humidity

a new member to the meat hanging party and a sneak peak
at my next post
 We did, however, have some issues getting the humidity high enough in our curing chamber, and ended up with sausages that dried too quickly, leaving a tacky, slightly raw center.
Not quite perfect, yet perfectly delicious chorizo
Fortunately we discovered another reason why chorizo is a perfect beginner’s dry-curing sausage: there are tons of delicious ways to utilize it that involve cooking.  We smelled the sausages, even tasted a few slices raw, and when we didn’t get feel any adverse side effects, we decided that the sausages would be perfectly safe to eat after cooking them through.  

We chose to make fideos, a dish we first discovered back in 2006, when Ilan Hall prepared it during the second season of Top Chef.  Almost immediately after watching the episode Ken and I knew we had to make it.  After cooking the dish once, we were smitten, and have been cooking and tinkering with the recipe ever since.  

This dish is basically a paella made with thin noodles instead of rice.  You can buy fideo noodles at a specialty store, but personally I’ve had more luck working with broken up angel hair pasta.  First, the noodles need to be toasted to a golden brown in the oven.  It is very easy to leave them in too long, so I would recommend keeping extra pasta around in case you burn the first batch.

As with a paella, the topping options are endless.  Shellfish is an easy choice (it is what Ilan used in the winning dish which originally inspired our obsession) but you could really use anything: chicken, veggies, fish, we even made it once with squid meatballs.  In this case we had hoped to use mussels, but because they were sold out at the farmers market on the day we planned to prepare this dish, we ended up using clams instead.  And of course we used our chorizo.
 Rather than boiling in a large pot of water, the noodles are essentially steamed in a small amount of flavorful liquid (here, in white wine and clam juice).  Once they have absorbed the liquid and are soft, they are tossed with the toppings and a sauce and put under the broiler until crispy.
Fideos ready to be broiled
Shellfish and Chorizo Fideos 
feeds 2 (probably more, but you won’t want to share)

½ lb cappellini
1-2 lbs clams or mussels
½ cup dry white wine (may need a little extra depending on how much juice your shellfish yield)
olive oil
1 cup diced chorizo
5 cloves smashed garlic
2 cups saffron bechamel sauce (recipe below)
salt & pepper

1.  Preheat the oven to 375
2.  Break the cappellini into 3 inch pieces (be warned, this will be messy), spread them out on a baking sheet and bake them until golden brown.  Keep a close eye on them-they go from perfectly-toasty to burnt-to-a-crisp in a matter of seconds.  Set them aside.
3.  Steam the shellfish in the white wine, removing them as they open.  Remove the meat from their shells, and if they are particularly large, give them a rough chop.  Once the last one is removed strain the liquid through a coffee filter into a measuring cup.  You will need about 1 ¼ cups of liquid.  If you don’t have enough supplement with more white wine.
4.  Heat a couple table spoons of olive oil in a pot large enough to hold all the noodles.  Because our chorizo was less than reliable, we sauteed it at this point until the edges got a bit crispy, and then removed it and set it aside.  If your chorizo was more successful than ours, feel free to skip this step.
5.  Add the garlic to the oil and let it cook on medium low until it starts to break down.
6.  Increase the heat to medium.  Add the noodles, and the clam juice/wine.  Cover, and continue to cook until the noodles are soft and have absorbed most of the liquid.
7.  Stir in the cooked clams, chorizo, and saffron bechamel sauce.  Salt and pepper to taste. Be careful with the salt as the clams will be quite briny.
8.  Transfer contents of the pot into a over proof casserole and broil until crispy.

Saffron Bechamel Sauce

1 ½ Tbs butter
1 Tbs flour
1 cup hot milk
½ tsp. salt
large pinch of saffron

1.  Melt butter over medium heat, then add the flour.  Cook for about a minute or two to make a light roux.  
2.  Slowly pour in the hot milk, stirring constantly to avoid lumping.
3.  Add the salt and saffron, and continue simmering until thick enough to lightly coat a wooden spoon.
4.  Set aside until called for in the recipe above.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Tragic Tale of Gwen the Hen | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 10

I am participating in Charcutepalooza, a year of meat which entails twelve monthly challenges to prepare dishes using various charcuterie techniques.  For more information about charcutepalooza, click here.  To read why I decided to partake in the meatmaking festivities, read my first post here.

charcuterie plate featuring Gwen and rabbit rillettes,
served with red pepper sauce, spiced plum jam,
hot country mustard and cornichon.
Gwen was prepared following the recipe found in Charcuterie, the only alterations being the use of pork belly instead of back fat and a longer cooking time which was necessary to get her up to temperature.
I had hoped to serve Gwen with a more ambitious sauce, but time did not permit.  We threw together this pepper sauce which is dead simple and ended up being so popular that I had to include the recipe here.  

Red Pepper Sauce
3 red bell peppers
a couple hot peppers of similar color (amount depends on desired heat)
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs tomato paste
salt and pepper

1.  Saute diced peppers in olive oil until soft
2.  Puree peppers and work the puree through a sieve.
3.  Return puree to a hot saucepan.  Add tomato paste and cook on medium high to reduce and intensify flavors.
4.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Best Gifts

The best gifts are those that come when least expected.  A couple months ago I was shopping at the Norwich Meadows Farm stand at the greenmarket.  After inquiring about an unusual looking artichoke on display by the cash registers, I found myself the lucky recipient of it.
Of course my primary interest in such a cool vegetable specimen was aesthetic.
For most of my subjects, I stop at only the one drawing.  But out of gratitude for this surprise gift, I felt compelled to make the most of it.  So I kept drawing...
 … and drawing - until I had an image I was truly proud of.
study alongside regular globe artichoke
Some gifts just add to the recipient’s store of material possessions, the best ones can actually improve the recipient.  Thanks to the generous guys at Norwich, I was motivated to push my drawing skills to a higher level.  
In the days I spent observing it, I noticed the artichoke was slowly splitting apart.  At first I thought I thought it was deteriorating, rotting from the inside, but the slightly stale but otherwise inoffensive aroma suggested otherwise.  It opened slowly, like a bloom and it occurred to me that this may not be some heirloom breed, or deformed artichoke, but an artichoke flower - something I had never seen before.  My suspicion was confirmed days later, when my gift blossomed, revealing a heart of teensy purple petals.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Very Piggy Birthday | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 9

I am participating in Charcutepalooza, a year of meat which entails twelve monthly challenges to prepare dishes using various charcuterie techniques.  For more information about charcutepalooza, click here.  To read why I decided to partake in the meatmaking festivities, read my first post here.
This past month, I turned 30.  My birthday always falls around labor day, which used to be a huge pain in the ass back when I had to start school around the same time.  But now that I am several years out, it has become something to look forward to (aside from the getting older part), and usually involves a full three day weekend in which to celebrate. This month I was blessed with a particularly perfect weekend - an oasis of good weather during a month of floods, rain and earthquakes.  

I planned to spend the weekend upstate with my parents, but my weekend started much earlier than expected when ken returned home from work, only a couple hours after he left, and hustled me into the car.  Forty minutes later we pulled into the site of every farm to table foodie’s wet dreams: Blue Hills at Stone Barns.  It turns out ken and my parents had been plotting this outing for weeks, and managed to keep me completely in the dark until the very last second!

We got there early enough to check out their farmers market, and walk around a bit before our 5:30 dinner.  This place was the platonic ideal for what every farm should be: bucolic & pristine.  And the animals were all happily doing what animals do.
And of course my favorite...  
The baby pigs were particularly adorable.  So much so that I couldn't pick just one photo to share:

After exploring the grounds, we changed into proper dinner clothing, and ate the eight course farmers feast.  It was a very good start to a very delicious and porky birthday weekend.

The next day we consumed our bounty from the blue hill farmers market which included pork hot dogs and a simple tomato salad.

On Sunday, in a combined celebration with my cousin whose birthday is one day before mine, we planned a lunch party.  I’m not a huge fan of sweets so instead of a birthday cake, I planned to serve a meat pie.  I had made Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s raised pork pie back in February, and briefly considering finding a new recipe.  However, the first pie had been such a hit that I decided not to mess with what was already a very good thing.  I hoped that by repeating the same recipe, ken and I could improve our technique, and start ourselves on the path to the pork pie nirvana.  This time around, we put in more herbs (last time we had accidentally left out the thyme), and made it far enough in advance to let the gelatin set.  I also think I improved on the decorations!

Back in February we had procrastinated and baked the pie on the same day we planned to eat it, hence the failure to gel.  This time around we prepared the pie the Thursday before we left, to be eaten on Sunday.  (I now know why ken insisted we finish it Thursday night, rather than my original plan of doing it during the day on Friday... sneaky boy!).  I think the time made a big difference in the final product.  While delicious, the February meat pie tasted a bit like an encased meatloaf, while the filling in this one was much more reminiscent of a real pate.

The pie was served with mustard, green tomato and pearl onion pickles (recipe from the blog of charcutepalooza’s co-founder, Cathy Barrow), a german potato salad and grilled eggplants.

And finally , as a bonus, a close friend, and a loyal reader of this blog (thanks, marc!) included these apropo office supplies in his birthday gift to me, perfectly rounding out my very piggy thirtieth birthday.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tip-to-Toe Terrine | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 8

I am participating in Charcutepalooza, a year of meat which entails twelve monthly challenges to prepare dishes using various charcuterie techniques.  For more information about charcutepalooza, click here.  To read why I decided to partake in the meatmaking festivities, read my first post here.
The sweetest meat is closest to the bone.  Although the Chinese did not coin this aphorism, they certainly live (and eat) by it, as exemplified by my family’s eating habits.  At yum cha, my grandmother would methodically and joyfully (gluttony is a trait that runs rampant up and down my bloodlines) reduce spare ribs and chicken or duck feet into a neat, ever-expanding pile of delicate white bones, clear of all meat and cartilage.  At an early age, I too was taught to tear flesh off bones and crush shells between my teeth to get at the “best” bits, which were always those hardest to obtain.  Once, in my grade school cafeteria, I was mortified when my dining companion commented on how funny it was that I kept eating chicken wings long after the meat was gone.  Mortified, because in third grade I didn’t want to be “different” (who does?), but I also couldn’t understand how someone with fully functional eyesight could not see the very visible scraps of meat still attached to the wing bones.

To a very small extent this embarrassment has survived into my adulthood.  When served bone-in meat dishes at fancy restaurants, I often ask to get the bone to-go for my non-existent dog, so I can gnaw at it in the privacy of my own home.  Other than that one lapse, I am for the most part proud of my ability to get at every tasty tidbit of meat on a bone and every succulent morsel out of a lobster.  Like learning to make charcuterie and to appreciate offal, eating every scrap of meat is one of the ways I show respect for the animals that die for my enjoyment and sustenance.

I suspect the Chinese love affair with the hard to eat bits originated in frugality as much as in respect.  Regardless of the source of this obsession, its influence can be seen in all Chinese cuisine from street food to banquets.  There are some Chinese delicacies, chicken feet or fish heads for example, that are impossible to finish eating without a mound of soiled and shredded paper napkins piling up next to your plate.  The few bites that you work so hard to get are incredibly delicious and usually more than worth the entire undertaking.  But sometimes I’d prefer to walk away from a Chinese meal without grease stains on my clothing and animal bits in my hair.  For this month’s terrine challenge I chose to turn a traditionally messy Chinese dish, jellied pig feet, into easy-to-eat, slice-and-serve presentation.

At the butcher, in addition to pig feet, I picked up a tongue, two pig ears and, as suggested by Cathy Barrow a pork shank for added meatiness.  I brined the meats for 24 hours as called for in the Charcuterie head cheese recipe, but chose to omit the pink salt.  After blanching the meats to rid them of impurities, I put them in a pot to simmer with onion, ginger, garlic, star anise, several tablespoons of both dark soy and light soy, and water to cover.  This concoction is very loosely based on the recipe for Chinese-style pig’s trotters in The River Cottage Cookbook.  At this stage I was careful to avoid over-seasoning the liquid, knowing it may need to be reduced at a later time.
clearly our "big" pot wasn't big enough - I finished it all up in a stockpot
After about three to four hours on the stove, when the meat was tender and the ears offered only the mildest resistance when pierced with a chopstick, I removed the pieces and strained the liquid, which should have absorbed enough gelatin from the pig skin and cartilage to bind my terrine together.
Last month, I had written about how sausage making was finally coming more easily to me.  I think my arrogance seriously angered the charcuterie gods, who decided this month to make me pay.  My memory of everything after the meat finished cooking is hazy.  I remember it was very very very hot that day.  I remember shredding meat off the pig feet and realizing why glue is made from animal hooves.  I remember ken coming home from work to find every surface in the kitchen - walls, appliances, pots, pans - sticky with the gelatin which seemed to have found its way into everything except into my cooking liquid.  The damned thing would not gel.

Ken somehow wrestled me down off the edge of depression and convinced me to put the terrine aside completely until the morning (and he cleaned! Once again, I am struck by how lucky I am to have him).  The charcuterie gods must have been satisfied with my penance, because everything pulled together the next day.  After reducing the broth by about a third, it gelled up nicely.  From there, the process was straightforward, if a bit messy.  I combined the shredded trotter and shank meat with slices of pig ear and diced tongue and pressed the mixture into a terrine.  I kept one ear intact so I could form a decorative stripe of pig ear through the center of the terrine.  Once the stock was poured over the meat, the entire thing was weighted and put in the fridge until ready to be unmolded and served.
Since presentation was a big part of this months challenge, I wanted an appealing spread of accompaniments.  Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking opens with a chapter on the Philosophy of Chinese Cooking in which she describes an overriding characteristic of Chinese cooking to be the “conspicuous juxtaposition [of]...flavors, textures, colors, food types, and cooking methods.”  It was with this principle in mind that I chose the dishes which would accompany the terrine.  From Tropp’s book*, I made fire-dried walnuts, which were crunchy, meaty, and slightly sweet and bell pepper pickles with vibrant colors that contrasted their subtle sweet-soy seasoning.  

*I see the irony that my Chinese recipes come largely from Western writers.  I have a theory which I won’t go into today, that often the best culture-based cookbooks come from outsiders to that culture.  
adorable mini-bell peppers I found at the greenmarket
Szechuan cucumber pickles, from Su-Huei Huang’s Chinese Cuisine contributed a bold spicy flavor with bright vinegar overtones.  And finally, the meal was rounded out with stir-fried bitter melon.  All, of course, served over a bowl of steaming white rice.

The terrine was good, although I’d do some things differently next time I make it.  For one, the gelatin itself needed much more robust seasoning.  I was so worried about adding too much soy the first day, that I overcompensated, and ended up with a slightly bland binder.  Also, next time I would probably leave out the ears.  The crunch was slightly disconcerting (which is odd because I am quite fond of another Chinese dish, pressed pig ear terrine), and there was a slight off flavor to it which I couldn’t help but associate with ear wax.  If I ever get around to making an actual headcheese, I will need to find something more palatable to do with the ears.  These complaints are just nitpicking, though.  Altogether this was a nicely balanced meal, where each component complimented the others.  I’d never had a terrine over rice before, but found it to be a very pleasant combination.  While mostly holding its shape, the gelatin melted just enough to season the rice beneath it.  The dish was complex in flavors and textures, and perfectly showcased the terrine.

unfortunately it didn't slice as cleanly as I'd hoped