Category Archives: Preserving

Fantastic Flavor from Fermented Fruit

For me, many things culinary are an experiment. I often order food I have never tasted before when I see it on a menu and I regularly cook things I have never previously prepared. (Most often, without really using a specific recipe.) I like to try cooking with exotic and unknown ingredients. So, it was no big deal that when I put up a couple of jars of preserved lemons I really had no idea what I was doing! (If you want to know how I made them, have a look here.) Nevermind that I had never cooked with preserved lemons before. Nevermind that I had only eaten a couple of dishes containing them on a few occasions. Nevermind that I didn’t really know anyone else who had cooked with them (outside of the few restaurants where I had experienced them). And, nevermind that I had never tasted them “naked” in order to really know exactly what they are! I just knew they were going to be fun to play with.

I had to wait a month for the fermentation process to work its magic on my lemons but OMG was it worth the wait. During that month, I did my research and read plenty of recipes calling for preserved lemons. I learned quite a bit about how to prepare the lemons for use. Some people utilize the resultant juice and pulp, as well as the rind. Many, if not all, separate the rind from the pulp. Most just use the rind – shredded, chopped or minced. All recipes instruct the cook to rinse the lemons lightly before chopping, etc., to get rid of some of the saltiness and “goop” (though mine don’t seem so salty). Quantities called for vary – from heavy to light – depending on how “lemony” one wants their end result to be. Many, many of the recipes I found were of a Moroccan or North African origin or at least heavily influenced by the cuisine of those areas. Preserved lemons seem especially favored in various tagines (a kind of stew that is cooked in a special kind of vessel) though I have mostly had them as part of a broth or sauce in restaurants.

Once the lemons were ready, I couldn’t wait to cook with them.  I wasn’t going to let a little thing like having no idea about what I was doing stop me, was I? Now I don’t have a tagine vessel and frankly, these stews don’t really float my cooking boat so I decided to go in the direction of the broth. With all this sous vide stuff going on in my kitchen, sometimes as my friend Josh has been known to say, I just have to walk over to the stove and turn on the burner! A tasty broth with seafood, fish or crustaceans can be truly easy and satisfying to concoct and it takes no time at all – right there on top of the stove.

I went to the freezer and pulled out some wonderful giant prawns I like to keep around. I tossed those babies (previously portioned out and sealed up with my Food Saver). I put about ten to a package and then when I want to use them all I do is toss the package into a bowl of tepid water for about 15-20 minutes to thaw them. Then they get shelled and made ready for what I am cooking, which takes all of about 5 minutes. Often times, I use the shells as a basis for a sauce but I did not do that this time. Once peeled and cleaned, I set the shrimp aside on a paper towel.

I also took out a pint of rich chicken stock (made from the stewing hens I buy from Farrar Out Farms): this is an important staple in my kitchen. I thawed that stock quickly in the microwave (no, not in the plastic it was frozen in). The stock went to the stove in an uncovered, 4 quart stock pot, over a medium heat.

Meanwhile, I opened a can of San Marzano tomatoes (these are found at my local italian grocery store) scooped out about a pint of these and dumped them into a colander set in a bowl to drain the liquid. The reason for doing this is so that I can pick over the tomatoes to remove the core and any little bits of left over skin. Using my favorite kitchen tool, the immersion blender, I pureed the tomatoes with the liquid. and then strained it through my handy, dandy chinoise into the sauce pot with the stock. The mush that is left over in the chinoise has some pulp and lots of seeds. The resultant liquid is rich and velvety smooth.

To the pot I added a ton of finely chopped, preserved lemon rind and the pulp from the lemons that I had picked over and pushed through a medium sieve (leaving the seeds and membrane behind). Then I let my fingers do the walking through my spice cabinet where I found and added 1/4 tsp cayenne, 1/8 tsp white pepper, 1 heaping tbs of special indian curry powder (use the curry you like), and a tbs of fresh yellow mustard powder. I didn’t add any salt because I wanted to wait to taste the soup after the lemon had cooked into it for a while. With preserved lemons, you have to be careful about salt, especially when you are using the lemon juice from the jar that you did your preserving in. I hit this mixture with the immersion blender again, just to smooth out the lemon and to mix the spices in thoroughly.

Next, I brought the liquid just barely to a boil while stirring and let it simmer for about ten minutes to marry the spices to the broth. Amazingly, there was no froth or foam to worry about – the broth stayed a wonderful velvety texture because of all the straining and blending. I had previously done. When I tasted it, I found that I did not need to add more salt. 

Just before I was ready to serve up my creation, I tossed the waiting shrimp into the soup, turned up the fire a bit and stirred until they were no longer translucent – this took all of about two or three minutes. I had chopped up some fresh cilantro for a garnish and was ready to dish up our meal in my favorite wide lipped bowls. Dinner was a lemony, spicy, amazingly flavorful shrimp stew. With some buttered up, toasted ciabatta to soak up the sauce, Bob and I were completely satisfied. This dish is definitely good enough for company. As a matter of fact, if it was served to me in a restaurant I would return to order it again! I am certain it will work well with a variety of fish or seafood.

 

Here is a little thing to take note of if you are on a diet: this was a completely healthy, low-calorie meal. The only fat was from the butter I put on the bread (about a tablespoon for 4 nice chunks of ciabatta) and that which naturally occurs in the shrimp. If I were not perpetually on a diet, I would have added some cold chunks of butter to the sauce just before serving to thicken and enrich the soup but, in truth, I did not miss it at all. If you are one of those naturally thin people who never has to worry, I would encourage you to go ahead and add the butter.

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Filed under Cooking, Food Trends, Preserving

The Finest Food From Fat

I know people who don’t like chocolate, I know people who don’t like cake. I know people who don’t like tomatoes and I know people who don’t like steak. (Sounding a bit like Dr. Seuss here, I am!) These are things I cannot imagine disliking. Amazingly, I have met more than one of each. But I have never met anyone (vegetarians don’t count) who doesn’t like bacon. I am certain no matter what that if a carnivore exists who doesn’t like bacon, they are a unicorn.

So bacon lovers, here’s the deal: if you have never eaten homemade bacon, do whatever you must to get some. It being homemade, you can’t buy it. That does not mean that you can’t buy incredibly great bacon but the bacon that is homemade defies description.You can’t imagine what you are missing.

Happily, it is fairly easy to make, there are just a couple of little tricks.

Trick one: you are going to have to get some “pink salt,” otherwise known as Instacure #1 or tinted curing mixture. (In Europe, they use saltpeter which is potassium nitrate.) Pink salt is a mix of plain salt (93.75%) with nitrate (6.25%). The reaction of nitrate with certain bacterias in meat, produce nitrite. Nitrate can be toxic if ingested in a large quantity. On the other hand, it is the nitrite that kills the bad bacteria and otherwise helps to transform the meat into the desired end product also contributing to the desired rosy color of the meats in which it is used. By mixing the nitrate with a ton of plain salt , it is diluted substantially so that you would have to eat an awful lot of just plain salt to get to a meaningful level of toxicity.  Assuming you are not a complete dufus and you follow the simple instructions for combining your pink salt with your other ingredients which go into your bacon curing mixture (kosher salt, sugar, and herbs and/or spices of your liking), you really have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Nitrate and nitrite got a really bad rap in the 80’s and ever since then some people have been avoiding the stuff. It was believed that in large enough quantities, the chemicals might cause cancer. But according to Harold McGee, the guru of food chemistry, if you don’t eat a huge bunch of food with these chemicals in it, you really don’t need to be concerned.  The amount that you are going to use for your bacon really is miniscule especially compared to the size of the risk you are significantly minimizing with its use. That risk, the one you are minimizing, is botulism and you don’t want it (unless, in the form of Botox, you have it injected in the right places by your qualified medical professional). But you do want homemade bacon, so just get over your concern about the pink salt. Everything in moderation.

Trick two: You have to obtain some pork belly. The higher quality you get, the better. Get thee to your sustainable, local farmer and order some. How do you find your farmer? There are plenty of ways, but one is to go to www.slowfoodusa.org and follow the links through to your local chapter’s web site. There you should find a list of farmers’ markets and possibly even some links to specific purveyors of good pork in your area. Of course, you can just do an internet search and you should come up with other resources as well – here is a great site to check. You can even order some over the internet from various gourmet purveyors. (For example, Food52 has a New York resource through its online store.) Here in the St. Louis area we have Prairie Grass Farm, Farrar Out Farm, Greenwood Farms and Hinkebein Hills, among others. If you can Red Wattle Belly or other heritage breed type pig meat, this is even better.

Trick three: If, like me, you prefer your bacon smoked, you have to find a place and a way to do this. A barbeque grill will work – just know that you have to keep stoking the smoke for a couple of hours until the bacon gets up to temperature. You will want to heat up the grill, get some wood chips smouldering with the coals or heat source being only beneath the wood or otherwise indirect, and put that cured belly on the grill. If you want, you can buy a cheap smoking gizmo to set in your grill at most hardware stores and this time of year you can even buy the smoking wood there. Choose the flavor of wood chips that most please you. I prefer a mix of applewood and hickory. Hickory is very strong and applewood is sweet. If you have a line of any other fruit woods, go for it! Soak some of the wood in very hot water for at least an hour before you put it over the fire. Add back some dry chips to get the smoke going and go to town. Leave the meat on the covered grill until the belly reaches an internal temperature of 150F.

Once the belly has been refrigerated and is thoroughly cold, it becomes easy to slice. Hand sliced bacon is rustic and likely to be thicker than the store bought stuff. But, if you are like me and you put tons of sugar in your cure, the thick cooked bacon will have a fantastic chewiness to it. OMG TDF! It will keep in your fridge for a good long time – up to a couple of weeks if you keep your fridge nice and cold (I keep mine at 34-36F). Mostly what I do, however, is slice it and package it up in serving sized freezer packages.

Basic bacon cure (per Michael Ruhlman):

  • 1 pound (450 grams) of kosher salt
  • 1/2 pound (225 grams) sugar (use superfine sugar if possible)
  • 2 oz (50 grams) pink salt

It is really important to use a scale for these ingredients and it is best if you can do it in grams, for greatest accuracy. Salts and sugars vary in volume substantially. If they were smushed in the course of getting to your pantry, the crystals are broken, etc., etc. You get it, right?

Mix these ingredients together very well so that the pink salt is thoroughly distributed throughout. This will take care of about 5 pounds of pork belly. Now is the creative part: figure out what you want to season your bacon with. I use a palm full of juniper berries and a teaspoon of so of black pepper corns which I crack with a rolling-pin. I also toss in a sprig or 4 of thyme per chunk of bacon. After I have thoroughly coated the meat in the basic cure and sprinkled on the seasonings, I top it off with a generous sprinkling of brown sugar on top. Other possibilities include pouring a mess of maple (instead of brown) sugar on top, leaving out the sugar completely and using lots of herbs or tons of cracked pepper. I have even heard of people using Jack Daniels (yuck).

All this gets put into ziplock bags (one piece of meat per bag), closed up and put in the fridge for about a week. Each day I turn the bags to redistribute what will become a liquid in the bag.

 

Now I’m going to tell you this: there are many different ways of doing this and I myself have tried it a number of those ways. For me, this is the easiest, most effective and thus my favorite. I have never gotten bacon that was too salty this way. Nonetheless, I invite experimentation!

Because of the high sugar content of my bacon, when it cooks it caramelizes beautifully giving the finished product a texture that can’t be matched. The sugars come to the surface and out into the bacon grease so you have to be a little careful with your heat – fry the bacon a little more slowly than you might the store-bought stuff. Another thing is that homemade bacon does not have a lot of water in it. It will render more evenly and quickly as a result. But, the most striking thing is that it tastes so much more heavenly. Can’t you just smell it?

 

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Pork, Preserving, Uncategorized

Prosciutto, Parma, Serrano, Iberico, Bayonne: A dry cured ham by any other name hopefully tastes as sweet.

Last fall, along with three other people, I bought a Red Wattle pig. I was actually part of a larger group of 12 people who bought three little piggies. We bought them when they were not yet ready for market and still happily being fattened by the farmer. Of course, when we took delivery, our pig came to us all nicely packaged according to our specifications and ready for eating. This was the second time we did this and we learned a great deal our first time. Namely, we learned that 4 people is just the right number for pig sharing. We also learned something about each other.

First time around, Our Fearless Leader  and organizer broke us up into teams based on our preference regarding the form in which we wanted to receive our pig. To figure this out he asked us to answer these questions:

(A) Am I a “Just gimme my Pork” type of person? 
 
OR
 
(B) Am I a “Just gimme my Pig” type of person?
 
Brilliant! And, obviously, NO, I am not a wuss. The “just gimme my pork” folks had their bacon cured, their hams cured and their sausage made for them by the processor which the farmer hired. They were not interested in offal, either. Me, on the other hand, I definitely want my pig unground, uncured and butchered in a way that leaves me plenty of options.

From those first pigs, I cured a whole mess of bacon and guanciale (pork jowl) for my team and a few other folks. It came out fabulous and we ate gourmet BLT’s with micro greens and homegrown tomatoes all the late summer long. We were blown away by how good bacon could be.

Wanting to learn about charcuterie, I took the liver and I made homemade braunschweiger. The first batch ended up in Sadie’s dish but the second batch came out really good – we ate it all up. Then I tried my hand making boudin blanc – a wonderful, mild white sausage made from a mix of chicken, pork and cream. What could be bad. My family at that up in a hurry! After we got the Red Wattle, I invited a group of guys from the buying group over to my house and we had a sausage making party. You can read all about it here. We made all sorts of wonderful things including two kinds of salami, chorizo and bratwurst. Even after that, I still had a little sausage meat left so I combined it with some humanely raised, pastured veal to make bockwurst. We have been dining on that for a while and it is delicious!

With that first pig, even though we were the only group who said “gimme my pig” it was decided (not by me) that the hams would be cured at the processor. I didn’t really care because I don’t eat ham…unless it is dry cured, prosciutto type ham. The other ham is just yucky to me. I find it to be watery, salty, squishy and generally unappealing. Even our super pure, all natural, ham that came from our happy pig was not something I wanted to eat. I ended up trading mine to another team member for some other pig parts.  I must admit, I regretted not having been able to convince my teammates to let me make the ham into prosciutto.

With my Red Wattle team, however, it was different. Folks were happy to let me take control of one entire leg for dry curing. How exciting to me that I was going to be able to push my charcuterie skills further. I did my reading and my studying and I contacted my friend Josh Galliano, an incredibly talented, generous, kind and very cute local chef. Josh agreed that he would show me the ropes with the ham. Being the really lucky one, I got to spend an afternoon in the kitchen at Monarch restaurant, an experience that energizes and inspires me. While I was waiting for instruction and because I am not one who can hack standing around doing nothing, Josh willingly set me to work cleaning and chopping vegetables for a broth that he was going to use in one of the evening’s offerings. In between doing the myriad of things an executive chef has to do, he showed me how to remove the aitch bone from the meat without destroying the whole joint. Josh coached me in the proper way to trim up the meat and skin to make it ready to look like a prociutto.  Finally, he gave me lessons on how to apply the cure to the meat to make the ham ready to be transformed into a dry cured delicacy. This is a process that will, when all is said and done, take at least 9 months.

The first stage of the process is one in which the meat, coated with a cure made of kosher salt and a little bit of a chemical called instacure #2, is weighted and refrigerated. The length of the refrigeration is based on the weight of the fresh ham. Our 20 pound clod calculated out to 40 days during which time I drained the box in which the weighted ham sat of all liquid that appeared over the 40 days.  This amounted to quite a bit! I also continually moved things around to make sure that the weights I had place on the ham (6 saran wrapped bricks) were evenly doing their work. The purpose of this is to compress the flesh so as to help the liquid to leave the meat and, in the meantime, to achieve that nice square, compact prociutto-like shape. When I took the meat out of the fridge at last, it had lost nearly 2 pounds.

After that 40 days, the second stage began. For this stage, I had been monitoring the temperature of a closet that is located just inside of my garage where there is no heat. I ascertained that the temperature ranged between 45F and 55 F. This I learned was an excellent environment for the drying of a ham. So, I took the ham and hung it up in that very cold closet. I checked on the ham regularly just to make sure nothing bad was happening. I photographed the ham and sent the photo to Josh to get his reassurance. Everything was going well. The ham needed to stay there for three months. Here is what the ham looks like right now.

Pretty gross looking, eh? On the other hand, it smells really nice and I have a really good feeling about the quality of dry cured meat we are going to be eating in a few months. For now, the second stage is over (i.e. three months have now elapsed) and the ham must go into its third and final stage of curing.

Here is how it works. A towel moistened with salt water is used to rub the ham down and to take off the stuff that has accumulated on the outside of the meat. A mixture of lard and rice flour is prepared. This “sugna,” as it is called, is rubbed on the exposed part of the meat – that part not covered with skin. Some people recommend putting cracked peppercorns on the outside of the lard, believing that this keeps away bugs. My mentor Josh has not recommended this. The whole thing is then wrapped with cheese cloth (to keep the lard in place, more or less. Then, the ham is again going to be hung to age further – but this time, due to the change of seasons, the temperature will be rising as high as 55-65F in the closet.

Here are a few photos of me getting ready to hang the ham up for its third and final stage:

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Filed under Cooking, Dry Cured Ham, Lard, Pork, Preserving, Prociutto

Food Fanatic Joins the Society for the Preservation of Lemons

Sometimes I get a hankering to try something out in my own kitchen even though I have no idea at the time what I am going to do with the end results.  The fruits of this particular experiment, fortunately, should have a very long shelf life, thanks to our friends, Mr. Salt and Mr. Acid.

I have noticed that lately many cooks are flavoring things with preserved lemons. For instance, a little while back, I had some incredible octopus at this fabulous little tapas bar  that was served in a broth with potatoes. The broth was marvelously complex but the most pervasive flavor, other than sea salt was preserved lemon. (As an aside, if I were a betting woman, I would wager that the octopus had been cooked sous vide, slow and low, before being set afloat in that broth.) On another recent visit to a favorite local fish restaurant, I ordered a beautiful steamed shellfish soffrito which featured fantastic giant prawns, succulent muscles and tender clams, floating in a preserved lemon and tomato sauce. The preserved lemon imparts a very exotic citrusy flavor to whatever it touches. Lets just face it, I love exotic!  

In my personal library, I found two recipes for preserved lemons. One in Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and the second in Preserved by Johnny Acton & Rick Sandler. I am sure I could have found others elsewhere but I decided these two versions were enough for a first try. I’m not sure how many preserved lemons a girl needs, anyway.

The recipes, both very simple, were similar except in one you were instructed to juice half of the lemons and slice the the other half into 8 wedges per lemon. These wedges are placed in the jar between layers of salt and spices. In the end, the lemon juice gets poured in the with the other fruit and fills all of the spaces. Ruhlman, on the other hand, tells you to put a bed of salt into a vessel and then to shove as many lemon halves as you can get in there, too. Next, throw in the spices and cover it all with a whole bunch more salt – much more than is called for by Acton/Sandler. I had a little lemon juice left from the first recipe so I put it into one of the two Ruhlman jars. You cover the jars and hide them in a cool dark place for one month. Supposedly, voila, you have the exotic flavoring element that I have been enjoying lately all over town.

I’ll let you know how it goes when I open them up the first of April!

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Filed under Cooking, Preserving