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.