Friday, December 26, 2014

Tis the season — for curing meat! (The 2014 Lonzino Report)

I’ve got a break from Christmas dinner prep and wanted to get this out to everyone.

With the cold months now firmly entrenched, we’ve been busy with some home curing of meat. So far it’s only involved pork, but we’re also looking forward to making a bit of bresaola (cured dried beef) and possibly some duck prosciutto. Those latter two will have to wait until the new year.

Beginning the drying stage
Our lonzino has been a huge hit with everyone who’s tasted it. I thought we’d run out by August before discovering two vacuum-sealed packages that had somehow migrated to the wrong shelf in our freezer, so rather than having to disappoint some friends who’d asked if we were serving it before a meal in September, I could at least bring out a small sample.

(Sidebar: We’ve had our sealer for a year now (it was my big Christmas gift in 2013) and it has certainly earned its keep. If those two packages of lonzino hadn’t been vacuum packed, they would have been inedible due to ice crystals and freezer burn. I’ll be doing an update on the sealer soon, but I will say now that if you’re seriously into home curing, you’ve got to have one of these. It makes a huge difference – unless you’re going to consume everything fresh.)

If you’re not familiar with exactly what lonzino is, I’ve already written about it: Making your own lonzino. I tend to think of it as “poor man’s proscuitto” but that’s not quite fair. It is a wonderful (and easy!) thing to make, and if you don’t want to have a pig’s hind leg hanging in your basement for a few months, a very good alternative to making your own proscuitto at home.

Dried and ready for slicing
As for our recipe (it’s included in the post linked above), we’ve gotten it to the point where we’re not fooling around with it anymore. We may try something completely different. I was recently talking to another avid home-curer and his recipe doesn’t include any fennel seed but does feature a lot of lemon zest and sounds quite intriguing. We may try it in a second batch scheduled for sometime in early February.

Now that our lonzino is finished, all that remains is to slice it thinly and then vacuum seal it in manageable portions. For the moment it’s “resting” in the fridge. You’ll notice in the photo to the left that one piece picked up a bit of white mold while drying – a good thing since this actually adds to the flavor of dried meat. You do not want green or black mold on drying meat. If you find it, wipe it off immediately with a cloth soaked in vinegar. If it persists, throw your meat or sausage away. Sadly, it’s beyond salvaging.

We’ve learned a couple of things about making superb lonzino along the way in the past year which I’d like to share with you all:
  • Toasting is definitely the way to go to bring out the full flavor of not only the fennel seeds but also the juniper berries. We’ve gotten a small grinder which we use only for herbs (it’s original function was to grind coffee beans) and it does a much more uniform – and quicker – job than a traditional mortar and pestle.
  • If you’ve got a vacuum sealer, you can make perfect use of it in curing meat. I use it to make sealed (but not vacuum sealed!) bags to hold the meat while the salt and spices do their thing. Simply plunk the meat in a vacuum bag along with the cure, suck out a big of the air and then seal it. You won’t have to worry about unintentional leaks while the meat is curing in your fridge and overhauling (rubbing the cure in additionally every other day while the meat is curing) is simplicity itself. I’ve just bought a couple of rolls of vacuum sealer bags so that I will now be able to custom-cut bags of a perfect size to hold the meat.
  • I’ve tried using cheesecloth to wrap lonzino to slow down the drying of the outside layer and not had great results. To my mind, beef bungs (as a natural product) or synthetic salami casings (punctured to admit a bit more air) gives the best results for even drying. You don’t want the outside of the lonzino to get too dry and hard before the inside dries out enough. Even drying throughout is the goal and I feel beef bungs (click HERE for an explanation: the info is partway down the page) give the best result.
  • I’m probably a bit too anal about the way I tie the supporting string (using four strings instead of two), but it looks really pro, doesn’t it? Once you’ve strung up a half dozen or so, you can do a good job pretty quickly. Your finished product (especially if you’re generous to give away a whole one) will look very impressive. One project for the new year is to shoot a video explaining how to do it. Stay tuned for that.
  • If you’re going to go to the trouble of making something like lonzino, you really need a deli slicer. Trying to slice thinly enough is just too difficult manually even with a razor sharp knife. If you don’t own a slicer, maybe your butcher or a deli where you’re a good customer would slice if for you.
  • While lonzino is cured, it will still eventually spoil if it sits around long enough. That means you’re probably going to need to freeze at least some of it. If you can’t vacuum seal it first, don’t bother sealing. Your packages will form ice crystals in a short time, and when you get around to thawing the frozen lonzino for serving, you’ll be very disappointed in the results. Again, try asking your butcher to do a bit of vacuum sealing for you if you don’t have your own unit.
I know there’s a lot of information above, but I do not want you to think that making your own fantastic lonzino is difficult and requires all kinds of specialized gear and expensive gadgets. It doesn’t. Even beef bungs are easy to source and can be ordered online or going to visit a butcher supply outfit. You may have to buy a half-dozen at a time, but the ones I just used have been sitting at the back of the fridge for over a year. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer to custom make a bag for holding the meat while it cures, simply make use of a large freezer bag or even a ceramic baking dish covered with plastic wrap. Hanging the meat only requires a cool place (60°F or lower) and reasonable humidity (around 75%) for effective drying. Our basement is that cool if I close all the furnace ducts. If you have a cantina in your house, you’ve got a perfect spot. Don’t have either? Ask friends. I’m going to be playing host to some salamis in the new year since a butcher friend lives in an apartment and wants to make some. (I may charge a “fee” of a bit of his finished product in return…)

Next up on the curing front: this year’s first batch of guanciale, and boy, have we sourced some fantastic hog jowls this time out!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut!

Emptying the crock of the finished kapusta before
it’s frozen for later use.
For the past three years, we have been part of a group led by the indomitable Henry Gluch and put together for the sole purpose of making sauerkraut (or kapusta – since he’s Polish). Henry and his wife Madeleine are part of our group that gets together at the end of every summer to make tomato sauce. This year they also joined Vicki and me to preserve a number of liters of chopped tomatoes. Henry’s also a hell of a sax and clarinet player.

My wife and I are both half German, so sauerkraut was part of our lives from an early age. I must admit that I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I know now that it was because my mother bought the kraut at the supermarket. It was salty, sort of mushy and didn’t have a particularly pleasant taste or aroma – at least as far as this young eater was concerned. Whenever it was served, I tried surreptitiously feeding it to our dog (who was always interested in “people food”), but he wasn’t having any, either. My wife, on the other hand, enjoyed it very much. (That didn’t come out quite the way I mentioned it. I have never tried to feed my wife anything under the table, surreptitiously or otherwise!)

The first time I tasted sauerkraut that piqued my interest was at the Naschmarkt in Vienna which we visited while researching my novel, Cemetery of the Nameless. The samples we were given by someone who made it fresh right in the market was world’s away from what I was used to. Flavorful, crunchy and piquant all at the same time, it really opened my eyes.

When Henry mentioned making sauerkraut, we were immediately onboard. It is a very simple thing to make: shredded cabbage and pickling or kosher salt are all you actually need. Put a few inches of cabbage into a crock, sprinkle on a couple tablespoons of salt, any herbs you want to use (we like juniper berries, bay leaf and black peppercorns), and pound it hard with something until some water is released. We used a rubber mallet until Madeleine came up with a carved wooden pounder of ancient vintage. Pile in another layer of cabbage, more salt and herbs and do it again. Eventually you want to fill the crock to about two inches from the rim. Then you put a plate on it to weigh it down, cover it with a cloth and put it into a cold place to form more brine – hence the plate – and the sauerkraut will pickle itself in just a few weeks (depending on how cold your space is). The only drawback is that it’s a bit stinky while it’s fermenting. Henry has a cantina below his porch that’s perfect — and it has a door so the smell is contained. He skims off the gray scum that forms on the top of the sauerkraut as it’s pickling. That’s basically all there is to it.

Our recipe for cooking it (if you want) is based on a recipe Henry’s mother uses – more or less. It’s easy, fairly quick and very tasty. On a cold night, you can’t beat it. It also is a great dish for a slow cooker. Throw it together and leave it to cook for 4-6 hours and it will be ready when you get home from work in the evening. I’d suggest keeping the sausage to kielbasa in this case. And I would cook the bacon first, too.

Baked Sauerkraut with Sausage
Serves 4

3 rashers of bacon, sliced across into quarter-inch strips
2 Tbs bacon fat, butter or oil (bacon fat is the best here!)
1 1/2 cup onion, sliced finely
1 cup grated carrot
2 cups thinly sliced fresh cabbage
4 cups raw sauerkraut
12 juniper berries, crushed with the side of a knife or using a mortar and pestle
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1 bay leaf
1-2 Tbs dark brown sugar
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup semi-dry wine (Reisling or Gruner Veltliner are lovely)
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1 cup chicken stock (more may be needed)
4 fresh pork sausages or some big chunks of kielbasa


  1. Preheat oven to 325°. Fry the bacon slowly in an oven-proof casserole so the fat renders out. When done, remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve. Use the rendered bacon fat to sauté the vegetables.
  2. Gently sauté the onion and carrot in the fat until softened but not browned. Add the fresh cabbage and cook a few minutes longer until the cabbage has wilted.
  3. If your sauerkraut is too salty, put it in a colander, run it under some water, and squeeze it dry. Then add it to the casserole.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sausage (don’t forget to put the bacon back in!), and mix it all together gently while continuing to heat to a boil.
  5. Cover the casserole and place it in the oven. Bake for 30-45 minutes (depending on how crunchy you like the sauerkraut. If you enjoy your sauerkraut soft, bake longer, up to two hours if you want it very tender. Regardless, watch the liquid level. Add water or a little more stock if necessary. You don’t want it swimming in liquid, but it must be moist.
  6. If you’re using fresh sausage, bake it in the oven alongside the sauerkraut for about 20 minutes so some of the fat renders out. (You don’t need to cook kielbasa first.) Add the sausage to the sauerkraut, nestling it in as much as possible.
  7. Continue baking for another twenty minutes. Serve with mashed potatoes, latkes, or perogies (with sour cream!). Finish off that bottle of wine with it, too!