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...


  1. I'm hopeful as the new year approaches knowing you will continue to create such amazing dishes sans 'palooza challenge. Knowing the constraints of your space, having a dedicated partner made these amazing dishes possible over the past 12 months. Thankfully, I had the pleasure of enjoying many of your creations which elevated my palate.

  2. Naomi,
    I envy your experimentation. I believe your fantasy of living in a farm house and raising pigs can be easily realized by moving to Argentina and trying the rural life. Argentina has some of the best beef in the world and the friendly people would enjoy your "charcuterie". You might discover a new way of processing and curing meat. You will be amazed at what you might find and what might open up. Try it girl ..go ahead.

    John (friend of marc)

  3. marc, you're absolutely right, chacutepalooza will live on in our kitchen. And I will make sure you have the pleasure of enjoying many more of our charcuterie creations in the future :)

  4. John. Thank you for checking out my blog. I agree that exploring the world is a key component to building momentum towards my dreams, and is something I don't do nearly often enough. I've never been to Argentina, but have heard only good things. Maybe its a good time to start planning a visit...

  5. Beautiful food, Naomi! It sounds like we've got a lot besides charcutepalooza in common: I also want to live in a sort of farmhouse and raise pigs. I say we team up and head to Argentina ;-)

  6. ..hey, we both did chicken confit'd in duck fat too!

  7. Thanks! I love your plan - Maybe we can start an Argentinian charcutepalooza commune ;)

    I didn't even notice that we both did duck fat confited chicken - I was too mesmerized by all the gorgeous caul fat in your post!