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.