Friday, April 15, 2011

Tasso | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 4

After our charcutepalooza “practice run" with smoked turkey, ken and I tackled the official challenge, making tasso ham, a cajun dry-cured and smoked pork shoulder.  Because the pork shoulder is sliced into thin slabs before curing, it calls for a relatively short curing time of four hours.  The entire process of making tasso can be completed start to finish in less than one day, which is about as close as any charcuterie project can get to offering instant gratification.  After curing, the slabs are coated in spices and smoked.

The day before we had problems getting the Bradley smoker up to temperature, but decided to give it another try.  Ken deftly diagnosed the problem, finding that the lever that controls the temperature wasn’t working.  He employed his expert engineering skills, and with crackerjack timing, fixed the faulty lever by “jiggling” it while making temperature adjustments.
And less than three hours later, we had tasso!

We had eaten tasso before, but it was nothing like this one.  The meat was juicy and salty, the crust almost too spicy to enjoy alone (I may have overdone the spicing), but perfect in a gumbo, which is exactly how we ended up using it.  
Our go-to cookbook for cajun cooking, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, has several gumbo recipes but none that use tasso.  However, we have made the seafood and andouille gumbo so often that we figured we had the basic technique down well enough to improvise.  
One of our favorite stands at the greenmarket is John Fazio’s Duck Farm, which sells chicken, duck and rabbit.  Although they are our regular source for chicken and duck (and, in fact, they supplied the meat for my first charcutepalooza challenge, duck prosciutto), we have never actually cooked one of their rabbits.  Thinking this would be a great time to remedy the omission, we chose to make a rabbit and tasso gumbo.
This was my first time working with rabbit so, although the meat would ultimately be shredded into soup, I took the opportunity to try my hand at breaking it down into its usable parts.  For reasons completely beyond me, I had assumed it would be like taking apart a really skinny chicken.  Apparently someone needs to explain to me the difference between a bird and a rodent.  A rabbit is a rodent, right?  Regardless, I think I did a pretty good job with this bunny for my first try.
In fact I was so proud of myself for getting the tenderloins out somewhat cleanly that I kept them out of the soup, and featuring them in their own course alongside the liver.
Whenever I make meat based soup, strew, ragu - anything which requires both a braise-tender meat and stock, I like to braise the meat ahead of time, over a basic mirepoix, bay leaf and parsley.  I remove the meat once it reaches the desired texture and strain the liquid, yielding plenty of stock to use in the final dish.  Although less crucial for a lean meat like rabbit, this method allows me to degrease the liquid in advance, strain it of impurities, and reduce it as necessary, without worrying about overcooking the meat.  Applying the same technique here yielded tender boneless rabbit meat, and just over six cups of flavorful rabbit stock.
One of the most important parts of a gumbo is the prep work.  Once the actual cooking starts up, there is very little time to get things measured and chopped, even with two people in the kitchen (especially when one of them is busy taking pictures of the process!).  To prepare for our gumbo cooking we combined and set aside all the necessary seasoning, and brought the stock to a simmer.  We combined chopped garlic, onions, celery and green bell peppers in one bowl.  And, in another, went our lovely diced tasso.  
And finally we started the actual gumbo, which began, as all gumbos do, with a dark roux.  This is the most labor intensive part of making the gumbo, because it requires constant whisking and careful attention.
Once the roux took on the right color, half of the chopped vegetables were stirred in, followed a couple minutes later with the rest of veggies and the diced tasso.  After a few more minutes we stirred in the seasoning mix and removed the pan from the heat.
We then added the roux mixture to the bubbling stock, one spoonful at a time, stirring all the while to make sure it was well incorporated, and brought the whole thing to a gentle boil.  At this point the stressful portion of the cooking is over.  We let the gumbo boil away for about 45 minutes, allowing the flavors to develop and the gumbo to thicken slightly, while we enjoyed our first cocktail of the evening, a Vieux Carre.  The recipe came from the ever informative site on all things New Orleans, The Gumbo Pages).  
After 45 minutes of boiling, we reduced the heat and added the rabbit meat.  The gumbo simmered for ten more minutes, before we served the whole thing over Prudhomme’s basic cooked rice.
And the final product?  Amazing!  I was afraid I would miss the taste of the andouille but the tasso gave it the perfect spicy smoky porky flavor.  We both preferred the tasso to our usual andouille, as the sausage often leaves a grease slick on the surface of the final gumbo.  There’s a good chance as long as there is tasso in our freezer, it will be replacing andouille in most of our cajun cooking.  Until, of course, we have a smoked sausage challenge, in which case a homemade andouille may be back in the running. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hot Smoked Turkey | Charcutepalooza, practice run

This month’s charcutepalooza challenge was easily my favorite one so far.  Maybe because it didn’t require maintaining frosty temperatures in my apartment like the pancetta challenge, or because it didn’t take up every usable inch of space in my fridge (the brining challenge...).  Most likely this was my favorite because my parents were generous enough to let ken and I to stay at their summer home for a weekend, where we completed the challenge.  Try to imagine cooking with this view, and not loving every minute of it!

Plus for once we had a well-sized and -equipped kitchen, a striking contrast to the tiny window-less closet we call a kitchen back home.  And the icing on the cake: access to a Bradley smoker - perfect for this month’s challenge: hot smoking!  
Although the Charcutiere challenge was to hot smoke either pork shoulder for tasso or tenderloin for canadian bacon, we started with a practice run of smoked turkey.  And its a good thing we did, because we had some issues using the Bradley which we managed to resolve by the time we got to the real challenge: pork.  
I usually prefer buying whole birds in order to have carcasses for stock, so despite the fact we were only cooking for two, we used a whole turkey from DiPaolo’s Turkey Farm stand at the greenmarket.  This turkey was pieced, brined then smoked over hickory.
Ironically, (as cold smoking is supposed to be the more difficult process) we could not get the Bradley smoker to go above 100 degrees.  After leaving the turkey in the smoker for a couple hours essentially cold smoking it, we moved it to the weber, where we finished the cooking process.
We were slightly nervous eating this turkey, since it sat at 100 degrees for two hours before finally being cooked through.  But, emboldened by the careful sourcing of the bird and the pink salt in the brine, we went ahead and ate what turned out to be delicious turkey.
Yes it was more than enough to feed two people but with turkey that tastes this good, we made sure none of it went to waste.  The smoked thighs and legs were devoured straight.  One breast was sliced for sandwiches and a so-cal-mex quesadilla we threw together for a quick weeknight meal.
The other breast, which we diced and shredded, along with the wings were a perfect addition to soups and vegetable dishes, providing a nice meaty smoky flavor.  We used some in a lentil soup (made with stock from the turkey carcass), and the rest is in the freezer for future use.
This cooking process exemplifies why I like to buy whole birds (and if I someday have the freezer space, would like to purchase whole animals as well).  From just one 13 pound bird, we managed to prepare four meals for the two of us, plus a couple turkey sandwiches, with more in the freezer for later use.  After eating these farm raised turkeys - with meat that is dense and tasting of, well, turkey, I’d be hard pressed to go back to eating just any supermarket butterball.  Turkey like this makes you realize why turkey is a wonderful food in its own right, and not just an over-sized bland chicken substitute to feed extended families on holidays.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Liberated Daffodil | A Nature Drawing

The design*sponge nature drawing contest was a lovely excuse to get outside yesterday.  In honor of the warm weather we are finally having here in the northeast, I wanted to draw daffodils.  Daffodils are the first sign of spring, if not botanically (I’m sure some other flowers bloom first), certainly aesthetically.  Who can look at the sunny yellow color, and slightly ridiculous looking shape, and not feel hopeful that spring is here to stay, despite recent frigid temperatures, and late march blizzards?  Walking around my very urban hometown, however, I noticed something distressing: all the daffodils and other blooming flowers were behind bars.  Fenced in to protect them from careless pedestrians, incontinent animals (and pedestrians), and inconsiderate flower pickers.  Not wanting to draw through iron bars like some jailhouse visitor, I decided instead to draw a tangle of branches conveniently dwelling by a park bench.  Happy with my drawing, I abandoned my flower search and decided to head home.  It was on the way out that I came across a giant patch of yellow flowers on the side of a grassy field where anyone could join them.  So I did, and made the drawing shown above.  These were not the perkiest daffodils, a little bedraggled and faded, but they were free and out in the open.  To me, nature is really at its most beautiful when I can be a part of it, and not just an outside observer. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Stinky Muse | Baby Conch Studies

A few weeks ago I had the sashimi omakase at Kanoyama, which included baby conch.  I brought  the shell home to draw, figuring that it would be a nice change from all the brussel sprouts.
I didn't realize until the next day that this little shell packs quite an odiferous punch.  I tried soaking it in bleach, packing it in baking soda, scrubbed it inside and out with an old toothbrush.  Nothing worked.  So I decided, do a quick study, and get the offensive thing out of the apartment, asap!  Well, two weeks later, and it is still there.  I'm finding that I cannot stop drawing this shell - the interplay of geometric and organic forms is fascinating.  So thought I'd share some of what I'm working on:.

 I also have a couple more detailed and refined pieces that I'm still working on, and hoping to make prints from.  I have one more week to work with my lovely stinky shell before I have to dispose of it - we are expecting house guests, and I cannot force them to tolerate the stench.