Edible Blue Ridge Spring 2012 : Page 22
Art of Charcuterie
Forward-thinking chefs have a taste for this centuries-old craft.<br /> <br /> BY JESSIE KNADLER • PHOTOS BY ANDREA HUBBELL<br /> <br /> Great local chefs are turning odd cuts of meat into magic on the plate: goose breast prosciutto, lardo-wrapped walnuts with homemade quince syrup, beef bresaola with shaved fennel and bee pollen. Waste not, want. . .some right now.<br /> <br /> PIG FACE DOES NOT SOUND LIKE something you'd find on a fine-dining menu. In fact, the flesh scraped off a hog's skull is typically banished to the shadowiest corner of the meat case. But in the skilled hands of a charcuterie artisan, such an odd-bits creation can earn the more refined moniker coppa di testa and rise to the tastes of the epicurean.<br /> <br /> So there it is, coppa di testa, proudly on the menu at the Red Hen – an acclaimed, cozy farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Lexington – along with other somewhat mysterious delicacies that make an occasional appearance on the house-made charcuterie board. And there is chef Collin Donnelly buzzing about the exposed kitchen, rifling through the commercial refrigerator, and bringing forth a stainless-steel pan containing several indeterminate blocks of protein. He unwraps them one by one. Some of the meats he shaves paper-thin using a meat slicer; others receive a thicker cut with his chef's knife. He meticulously assembles all of them on a large cutting board just for us, accessorizing each with such garnishes as home-cured pickles, a spoonful of mustard here, a squirt of quince molasses there.<br /> <br /> "Presentation is really important with charcuterie because of what it is," Donnelly says, as he adds a final daub of tarragon mustard to what looks like a rectangle of deep-fried mozzarella but is actually a golden brick of delicately fried trotters – pig feet.<br /> <br /> The biggest question of all, of course, is what exactly is charcuterie, anyway? It's a French word that can be literally translated as "cooked flesh," but came to describe the ingenious work of specialty pork butchers (aka charcutiers) in that country centuries ago. Today, in the United States at least, it's a catchall term for a variety of meats that have been preserved, whether by drying (bresaola and noix de jambon), curing (pancetta and gravlax), smoking (bacon and smoked trout), brining (ham and pickled beef tongue), stuffing into sausage casings (merguez and bratwurst), fermenting (finocchiona and sopressata), or cooking (terrines, pâtés, rillettes, confits). Originally intended as a way to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration, charcuterie holds an exalted status in the culinary world for the complex, multilayered flavors derived from those preservation processes. Anyone can cook a steak, but how many chefs can prepare a pig snout that is not just edible but downright appetizing?<br /> <br /> Actually, unless you've been taking your culinary cues from a shopping-mall food court, you probably know that America has been having a cured-meat moment. The craft of drying and curing and preserving has emerged as one of the standouts of the locavore trend. In an era when "locally grown" is commonplace and once-fancy menu items like truffles and microgreens are as ubiquitous as beans and potatoes, many innovative chefs such as Donnelly practically dare diners to sample random cuts they never before considered – all part of what Donnelly jokingly refers to as the "rooter-to-tooter movement," or "tongue-to-bung eating." It sounds crass until you consider that "hog bung" is exactly what you think it is, and is often used for sausage casing.<br /> <br /> "Charcuterie is so expansive," says Justin Hershey, executive chef at Charlottesville's Zinc restaurant, who almost always has a charcuterie board on the menu – wiTheverything from house-made duck prosciutto to chicken liver pâté to terrines made with beef, pork, lamb, or even rabbit. "We like to make a lot of it ourselves, but also include some from other artisans, like Olli Salumeria near Richmond. Those guys are set up to do salumi, which requires fermentation, and they do a great sweet calabrese."<br /> <br /> It's the air of the unusual – and probably a dash of exclusivity too – that keeps creative chefs like Hershey and Donnelly, as well as Ben Thompson of the Rock Barn, a specialty catering and butchery enterprise in Nelson County, pushing the boundaries.<br /> <br /> "We want to show our customers that the pig isn't just about pork chops and bacon," says Thompson, whose "Porkshare" delivers to customers a box filled with the likes of smoked pork jowl and pork pastrami – think of it as a charcuterie-centric CSA.<br /> <br /> There are many methods for making charcuterie, some more complicated and involved than others, but the core components are quite simple: high-quality meat, salt, and time.<br /> <br /> Good meat is important not just for taste, but for safety. "If the meat comes from animals that have been raised in battery cages or fed all kinds of garbage, the pH, the acidity level, of the meat is high, which could make preserving dangerous," says Donnelly, who sources Red Hen's meat from Rockbridge County: beef from Buffalo Creek Beef and its local processing facility Donald's Meat; hogs from Broadview Ranch. The same can be said for Thomspon, who sources all of his pork from Piney River Farms just down the road from the Rock Barn. It's best that the animals have access to fresh forage and are fed a diet of grass, grubs, vegetables, and nuts. The more varied the diet, the tastier the fat, especially in hogs.<br /> <br /> Charcuterie does lend itself particularly well to pork, but the raw material can be any type of protein – beef, lamb, game, fowl. One of the craft's draws is that it pulls from all parts of the animal, offering a frugality that is not just economical but sustainable, benefiting farmers, butchers, restaurants, and consumers.<br /> <br /> "I can get 10 to 20 servings out of this," Donnelly says, picking up the hunk of meat that just produced a small, reddish-brown mound of thinly shaved slices. Beef heart. The delicate garnish of watercress and kick of pickled horseradish give the overall impression of really, really refined roast beef, even though this beef heart started off as the ultimate workhorse (read: tough and chewy).<br /> <br /> Donnelly brings in an air-dried beef bresaola wrapped in cheesecloth. It's made with a whole muscle, usually any of the round cuts (top, eye, bottom), parts of the animal that are often considered by professional chefs to be too lean for much else. The dry-curing technique he uses is probably the most ancient method for making charcuterie. The raw beef is heavily seasoned with curing salt, which is different from regular salt in that it contains sodium nitrite and/or nitrate – important for preventing the growth of unwanted bacteria. The meat is left to cure in a refrigerator, seasoned with aromatics and more curing salt, and rubbed sporadically with red wine for roughly three weeks. Then it's hung up to air-dry at a temperature of 55 to 60 degrees with 75 percent humidity, moderate airflow, and in darkness until it has lost 30 to 45 percent of its raw weight (a food scale is a must when making charcuterie). Once it has achieved the desired weight and the right taste and texture (firm but not rock-hard), it's ready to eat.<br /> <br /> Because this bresaola is a whole muscle, bacteria is only present on the surface of the meat, not on the inside, and it therefore is less susceptible to spoilers than ground meat, which has infinitely more surface area. But if you don't know what you're doing, dry-curing meat can introduce a risk of botulism or other food-borne illnesses, which probably explains why the laws governing air-dried and fermented meats are strict – and why home cooks are discouraged from even trying. When handled correctly by expert chefs, though, charcuterie is perfectly safe. After all, dried meat has been a mainstay of the human diet for thousands of years. Terrines, pâtés, rillettes, and sausages – which are cooked before they're eaten – are a little more doable for the home cook. "I'm big into terrines because there's a lot of craftsmanship involved," says Hershey, who recently returned from a two-week trip to France, where terrines were a big part of his vacation diet.<br /> <br /> With such decadence in charcuterie, one may be left wondering, What about all of that fat? "Animal fat does not make you fat," insists Donnelly – a not totally surprising thing for a meat-loving chef to say. "Sugar and refined carbohydrates make you fat. In a lot of countries where they eat very fatty meats – Germany, France, Korea – they also have a strong pickling culture: sauerkraut, kimchi. So it's important to serve the two together. The lacto-bacteria and enzymes in those pickled products help digest the food. And it just tastes good." Indeed, the bresaola has a nice beefy flavor, with tart undertones of red wine – savory and succulent, a perfect accompaniment to cheese, home-cured pickles, and cocktails.<br /> <br /> Donnelly has now moved on to more complicated and time-intensive fare. He pulls from the refrigerator a deep, stainless-steel dish containing chunks of pink meat wrapped in cellophane and suspended in gelatin. "It's tongue," Donnelly says, grinning. "Lots and lots of cooked lamb tongue." He transfers the cellophane-wrapped block onto the cutting board, which looks about as appetizing as it sounds. And yet, a marvelous thing happens once he cuts a bread-size slice and garnishes it with homemade pickled shallots, fresh dill, and soft-boiled quail eggs with curry mayonnaise. It suddenly looks. . . non-tonguey, decadent, and delicious.<br /> <br /> And it tastes even better. The flavor is earthy, offset by the sharp acidity of the pickled shallots and the creaminess of the quail eggs – sublime. Donnelly looks pleased, though not surprised, when the entire slice is gobbled up. The colorful, whimsical nature of the arrangements on this charcuterie board makes it almost painterly, leading to the inevitable analogy of chef as artist – with odd meats, robust sauces, and tangy pickles as the media. Very quickly it becomes clear that, in the hands of great chefs, this ancient technique can be married with the theatrics of modernist cuisine to great effect. Outlandish cuts like that pig face and beef heart can be prepared sous vide, a contemporary method of cooking food in an airtight bag at an unchanging, precise, low temperature for an extended period of time.<br /> <br /> In fact, sous vide is a snout-to-tail aficionado's secret weapon because it can turn all sorts of heretofore unsavory (and tough) cuts into delicate, delicious edibles. To make coppa di testa (the aforementioned pig face), the flesh is carved off the skull (which can be put to use for soup stock – waste not, want not!). The meat is washed and cleaned and treated with curing salt to preserve its fleshy pink color, then rubbed with aromatics like rosemary, lemon zest, and nutmeg. After marinating and curing in the refrigerator overnight, the meat is vacuum-sealed in lard and cooked sous vide at precisely 180 degrees for 24 hours, rendering the otherwise leathery cut tender and fatty and, garnished with pickled ginger and preserved lemon, supremely satiating.<br /> <br /> One of the more memorable flavors on this particular charcuterie board is the lardo, or cured pork fatback. The white strip was cured in salt, sugar, rosemary, and cinnamon, wrapped around a toasted walnut, and sprinkled with quince molasses. The combination of the light and creamy fat, the crunch of the nut, and the sweetness of the quince is almost like the most refined peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich you could ever hope passes your lips.<br /> <br /> "A lot of the problem people have with charcuterie is the texture," says Donnelly, rewrapping large cuts of meat and placing them back in the refrigerator for later. "Once you get around that, and people realize it doesn't taste unusual or weird or bad, you win people over. They go, 'Oh wow, I just ate some some lamb tongue.. . . I just ate some pig ear.. . . That was nice.' Well, yeah, that's because it was properly prepared. Foot, tail, or face in the right hands can be manipulated into good stuff."<br /> <br /> Rockbridge County resident Jessie Knadler is the author of the autobiography Rurally Screwed (Berkley, April 2012) and coauthor of the preserving cookbook Tart & Sweet (Rodale, 2011). Find out more at jessieknadler.com.<br /> <br /> FOR MORE INFO. . . .<br /> <br /> Learn more about the restaurants and butchers mentioned in this article at:<br /> <br /> The Red Hen (Lexington), redhenlex.com, (540) 464-4401<br /> <br /> The Rock Barn (Nelson County), rockbarn.net, (434) 263-4222<br /> <br /> Zinc (Charlottesville), comptoirzinc.com, (434) 245-9462<br /> <br /> BASIC TERRINE<br /> <br /> From Zinc executive chef Justin Hershey<br /> <br /> Be sure to read this recipe through before beginning, as it's very important to keep the lean meat and fatback cold throughout: Store the diced fatback in the freezer until right before use. It also helps to chill the food processor, mixing bowl, and paddle attachment for an hour beforehand.<br /> <br /> 2 pounds lean meat of a lesser cut (pork shoulder or ham, lamb shoulder or leg, or beef chuck), connective tissue removed, cut into 1-inch cubes<br /> <br /> 8 ounces pork fatback, diced<br /> <br /> 16 grams salt<br /> <br /> Aromatics such as fennel, mustard, paprika, nutmeg, to taste<br /> <br /> 1. Preheat oven to 300°F. Using a meat grinder or food processor, pulse the meat in short bursts until it's roughly ground, not pulverized. Transfer the meat to a mixing bowl and, using a paddle attachment, mix the meat until spongy in texture (it should stick to itself). Mix in the salt and your favorite aromatics. Turn off the processor.<br /> <br /> 2. By hand, stir in the cold, diced fatback until evenly distributed. Press the meat mixture into a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap or caul fat – a thin membrane from animal intestines that keeps the meat together and adds a nice richness. (If using plastic wrap – which makes the terrine easier to remove – fold it over the top of the meat.) Cover with aluminum foil, poking a small hole in the middle (alternatively, use a lidded terrine). Place the loaf pan into a larger roasting pan.<br /> <br /> 3. Prepare a water bath: Fill the roasting pan with water until it reaches halfway up the side of the loaf pan, being careful not to wet the meat mixture. Carefully transfer to oven, and cook 1 1/2 to 2 hours, when the internal temperature reaches between 145°F and 150°F.<br /> <br /> 4. Press another loaf pan loaded with 5 to 8 pounds of weight on top of the terrine (or use a foil-covered brick) – this gives it a more refined texture. Refrigerate for two days with the weight.<br /> <br /> 5. While still chilled, cut a thin slice and serve with crusty bread, good butter, and small pickles (to eat, butter the bread, then place meat and pickles on top). The terrine will keep refrigerated for about a week.
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