So you might have noticed a lot of interest in Charcuterie lately: pork bellies into homemade bacon, chorizo, head cheese, sausage-making of all sorts. Personally, I couldn't be happier about it. Heritage breed pigs, raised properly have the best fat as many a happy chef is discovering. Some of us have loved charcuterie before it was on every bar menu. We sought it out when only the odd pub or fine dining establishments offered it. But, we are a welcoming, big-tent kind of folk, so we're happy to have you along! The more the merrier, just save some foie for me. And some chicharrones. And finocchiona.
Charcuterie of one sort or another has been around for ages. As soon as we as a species had an abundance of food, that is to say, more than we could eat before it spoiled, we began preserving it. Salting, pickling, brining, air-curing it in caves, the methods go back ages in every culture. Most people enjoy charcuterie in restaurants. It used to be that only fine dining establishments made and served foie. Finding other sorts of salty pig parts as Boccalone's Chef Cosentino calls them, was left to the the gastropub or deli and the salumeria for those hognoscenti in the know. Thankfully, this has changed. Many local restaurants now proudly make their charcuterie in house and serve it on bar menus and dinner menus alike (even in cocktails and desserts!)
Home cooks and chefs alike have taken inspiration from Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie:
Click to purchase from my Powell's Bookshelf.
...and an adventurous lot have begun to cure at home. So many have taken up the practice, you might call it a cure for the cause of renewing this lovely old food preservation art. Vive les Charcutières! You may have even joined the
...a blogging challenge begun by Mrs. Wheelbarrow. (Mmm - imagine a wheelbarrow of charcuterie?)
Perhaps you saw Mrs. Wheelbarrow judging this year's Duckathlon (see the photo in my Suite101 post)? The D'Artagnan team really put on an amazing event each year. I cannot imagine how difficult coordinating what are essentially a series of simultaneous mini-events across the city, must be!
Bird Brains and Duck Livers
Charcuterie is not only about the pig. We're also using our friend the duck. Putting every part to tasty uses.
Here I am at the recent Duckathlon, as one of the proud team called Bird Brains. We were costumed as poulet de Bresse, white, blue feet/legs/red caps for our cockscombs. Brigit created new lyrics to La Marseilles and we sang Le Mayonnaise proudly. Casey coached, Susan photographed. We laughed. A lot. We did our best against the teams of professional cooks and chefs. Our fearless spirit was awarded with Ducks. Here being handed out by Leonard Lopate, Lily and Ariane.
Winning our Moulard Ducks with the whole foie inside! These ducks were so huge and so heavy, we immediately began scheming what we'd do once we got home. I used every bit of that delicious duck. From the fat (still have a bit in a jar. Rendered duck fat, in case you've been living under a rock, makes the best roasted potatoes), to the gizzards and the foie, mon dieu!, that liver.
The duck, the foie, etc. This was the gift that kept on giving.
Inspired by our "spirited win" and by the charcuterie renaissance, I set out to make my first Torchon or Foie au Torchon which Michael Ruhlman introduces in two techniques, here.
Pink Salt and Crack
"Pink salt" sounds innocent enough, doesn't it? The possibility of death, does not. These two are linked concepts. Pink salt is a curing salt specifically for charcuterie. It contains nitrite which prevents the growth of harmful, potentially lethal, botulism bacteria in your cured meat products. The French often sneer at us for our use of pink salt, Italians, too have been known to look down on this practice as it changes the taste of the finished product. This debate and the faint possibility of killing myself or my beloved have prevented me from fully embracing charcuterie at home. I read about it, I eat it, I write about it and attend demos when I can. I relish every morsel - digital bytes nearly as much as the actual bites.
Of course, not everyone uses pink salt that is recommended here in the US, for commercial cured meats. And not everyone who uses it feels it interferes with their delight in the finished product.
I have to say though, once you've tasted really good charcuterie, you are forever thinking about only one thing -- how to get more. It's like culinary heroin or crack -- truthfully, I can still remember specific charcuterie bites here and there. The head cheese at 51 Lincoln, silky and elegant, textured without being too much so, and flavorful, you really just cannot be sated.
This plate of charcuterie by Chef Vergen of St John's Ale House in New Brunswick:
Pickled fiddleheads replace cornichon in an inspired twist.
The plate of delicious salted pig parts at the Portland IACP event was another fine example. This whole plate (breakfast that day) was full of flavor and whatever that dark black pig candy (about 4 o'clock on the plate below) was, I swear I'm salivating remembering it. Maybe when our ancestors reached abundance beyond subsistance living we became hard-wired to love preserved food? Who knows. All I know is that I can barely believe I was once a vegetarian. It was college, we dabble. You know how that goes.
Breakfast of Champions. You may keep your boxed cereal.
Foie, foie, foie.
Getting back to me and this huge duck liver. What to do? I practically hyperventilated over it, like a kid making a list for Santa, I kept ruminating on all the things I might do with it. How much would I eat, simply sauteed? I once challenged Bourdain to a foie eating showdown after seeing his foie orgy show filmed at Pied au Cochon. Course after course of foie practically had me making reservations. And I still have not been!
Finally, I sauteed some with green apple, then decided the rest would go into my first ever torchon. Next question, poach or not, how long, in what. Pink salt or no. Where to get. Whether it's needed. Alternative method is salt curing. Ah HA!
As you will learn if you read Ruhlman's excellent post, "torchon" is actually French for dishtowel. Most recipes will have you soak in milk, devein, reassemble, roll tightly in linen dishtowel, then poach or salt cure. It's not as hard as it sounds and the result is so beautiful, I'm tempted to do another one soon. I wound up eating about half of the torchon in the first day I unwrapped it. Okay, maybe two days.
Then I remembered I could freeze it, too. So I wound up with about 1/3 of my torchon tightly wrapped in the freezer. I remembered the shaved/microplaned frozen foie at Momofuku. But I really wanted to soak prunes in Armagnac, then place a scoop of the torchon. A melon baller works wonders for the perfect foie au torchon scooper, by the way.
In which I become an honorary Gascogne? Armagnac-soaked prunes stuffed with torchon au foie gras. I die.