Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Our latest home curing exploits

As mentioned in my last post, now that it’s cold, we can get back to curing and air drying some of our favorite things. This past summer we had to completely clear out our basement because of flooding and the subsequent fear of mold. As we slowly put things back together, I was mindful of the fact that five months later would be prime time for hanging some cured favorites for drying, and made space for it.

We’ve been making our own guanciale for several years now, and it has proven enormously popular with family and friends. I made 5 jowls-worth last year and we ran out over a month ago. So this year, I’m going to make two batches of 6 jowls each, just to be sure.

As always, we can’t leave recipes well enough alone, and decided to tweak it yet again to see what the results are. The original one calls for “a bunch of thyme”, then tells you to strip off the leaves and finely chop them. It gave good results. (But one thing bugs me with these kinds of measurements: just how much is “a bunch”?) Anyway, one thing most folks don’t know is that the stems of many herb plants also have a lot of flavor. I decided this time out to just coarsely chop my bunch of thyme and use everything since it’s all discarded in the end anyway when you wash off the cure from the meat prior to hanging it. True, I’d have to be a little more careful not to leave behind any bits of stem, but that wasn’t much of a problem in the end.

The other thing we tweaked was in the way we use white wine (not in the original recipe I got it from the Wrightfood website). To make my life simpler, I’d previously just thrown 2 oz of it into the cure, basically because it seemed simpler and a good idea to let the vino have contact with the meat for a longer time. I’d read about this from various online sources (no recipe attached, just a mention). This past summer I talked to a neighbour who remembered from his youth back in Italy that, after rinsing off the cure from the jowls, his family would “wash” them in white wine (Colli Albani since they lived in the Lazio region). I figured it was worth a try to do it this way.

So my jowls have been hanging for nearly three weeks, and I have to tell you, they smell fabulous, much more fragrant than in the past. I used Orvieto for the wash (because I prefer it to Colli Albani) and it has really added to the piggy bouquet. I plan to take them down next week to vacuum pack before chucking them in the freezer.

I’ve been wanting to try pancetta for a couple of years, and decided there was no time like the present. I’d also bought 13+ pounds of pork belly from my buddy Nick Gasparro, and really didn’t think we needed to make all of that as our regular double-smoked bacon.

So I loped off about a quarter of it, pulled out my copy of Charcuterie for the recipe, and got to work. It’s a very reliable book, and I figured I’d let Michael Ruhlman’s expertise guide me for my maiden run at this Italian delicacy.

What is pancetta? The easiest explanation is that it’s bacon. After curing, it’s hung to air dry, rather than being smoked. Well and good. The reason pancetta is so special comes from the flavorings added during the curing process. Hanging it to dry after curing merely intensifies these flavors.

What flavors (herbs and spices) are used? Since my lovely wife, Vicki, speaks Italian, we even researched this on Italian sites. A partial list of possibilities includes garlic, black pepper, juniper berries, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, fresh nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cayenne pepper, lemon zest, orange zest, thyme, rosemary, bay, star anise… I think you’re probably getting the idea that you can do whatever you want in this department

I feel very strongly after viewing several clips on YouTube made by people who think it’s a terrific idea to show people how to make something, never having made it before themselves, and also having rather suspect skill levels at curing as well as butchery and general cooking. My feeling is you need to make something at least a half dozen times before you start offering assistance to the general public. Needless to say, I haven’t seen much on YouTube about making pancetta that fills me with a lot of confidence. One site, though, stella culinary, impressed me as being professional and Jacob Burton certainly had cred in the cooking department.

All that being said, I am encouraged by the results so far from the pancetta I’m making. Since I didn’t want to be bothered with it over the Christmas holiday, I decided to take Ruhlman’s advice to not roll the cured belly as is traditionally done, but to leave it flat, wrap it in cheesecloth, and then hang it to dry for only a week.

It’s been up for three days now and smells absolutely marvelous, so I’m going to go against my accepted practice of waiting until I’ve made something enough times to at least confidently share the recipe and necessary techniques with you. As the project finishes, I will share the results and my thoughts on how things worked. I should tell you that, like most home curing, it is basically very easy to make your own pancetta. If you enjoy this Italian delicacy, you should consider doing up your own. You’ll save money and you can make it with exactly the herbs and spices you want. Plus you won’t have a lot of extraneous chemicals in the finished product. If you can source antibiotic-free, growth hormone-free, humanely-raised pork, you will have something quite exceptional to serve to your family and guests.

So let’s take this path together. I make no promises, but my nose tells me this new home curing project is going to be rather special. Hang on for my next post, and if all goes well, I’ll have a review of my efforts and will share the recipe with you.

Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

And on the curing front, we've just pulled 10 pounds of double-smoked bacon off the fire. This time we tried orangewood pellets for the cold smoke and applewood for the hot smoke. The aroma is amazing. The flavor is amazing-er. Photos at 6:00.