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How to make pancetta… starting with a five-hundred-year-old pig

November 21, 2011 2 comments

OK, the pig itself was not 500 years old.  But my pancetta project started 5 centuries ago, give or take.

Pancetta, for the uninitiated, is an Italian version of “bacon”.  It starts with a pork belly, but unlike American bacon, it is salt-cured (along with garlic, pepper and other spices), not smoked.    Pancetta is typically cubed and rendered to provide flavor for any number of dishes, and to my taste is more enjoyable than American bacon, mainly because it tastes more “porky”.

Ossabaws at Cane Creek Farm, the place we bought our breeding stock.

Before I became determined to make pancetta, I became infatuated with a hog.  Not just any hog, an Ossabaw Island hog.  These pigs are descendants of the legendary Iberica swine, and were deposited by the Spaniards on Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Georgia, in the 1500’s.  As an isolated, feral herd, they are now the most genetically  pure European swine on the planet.  These are not your ordinary industrial hogs.

Fortunately for me (who lacks a farm), I have a friend as crazy as I am.  Bruce is the fourth generation on his Hillsborough, NC farm, and he agreed to raise a some Ossabaws.  We bought some gilts from Cane Creek Farm in Snowcamp, NC, later found a boar from another farmer, and soon enough we had piglets.  Bruce’s young son took care of the piglets, and in October we harvested the pig that was subject of this post.

While our piglets were bulking up, a couple of food bloggers created the Charcutapalooza Challenge.  The gist of it is that they proposed one charcuterie challenge per month, and dangled a big prize for the person who completed all the projects in an exemplary way.  They managed to get Michael Ruhlman, author of the amazing book Charcuterie, to be a consultant to the project.  As soon as I saw the project I knew I needed to be involved.

Sadly, however, I’ve only had time for one challenge – duck prosciutto – till now.  I posted on that one several months ago.  In some ways, knowing that I can’t compete for the prize was liberating.  I am now free to focus on my art, the way I want to.  And I thought that it would be pretty unusual for anyone to make Ossabaw pancetta, let alone from a pig they’ve grown.  In addition, I decided I would do the hog processing myself.  Here’s the photo tutorial.

It all starts with a hog. Bruce wisely talked me into letting him take the hog to be killed, scalded, and halved. The harvesting itself isn't such a big job, but the scalding is. So this half hog is how I took delivery of the pig. Note the beautiful fat on this pig, including the leaf lard in the viscera.

Here's the mid-section of the hog after I liberated the ham and shoulder. Since this isn'a post about how to butcher a hog, I'll focus just on the task of separating the belly that we'll turn into pancetta. Note that you don't need a lot of heavy cutting equipment to butcher an animal - a sharpening steel, a good boning knife, and a bone saw will do the job.

We start by separating the loin from the belly. We'll separate out the tenderloin, then turn the loin itself into three roasts.

We isolate the belly by removing the ribs. I also trimmed off a lot of the excess fat (which I retained for more lard). This belly is now ready for curing.

Bruce was enthusiatic to have me turn his half of the hog into pancetta, too, hence there are two bellies here. Bruce's is a little oddly shaped because he was a little more aggressive about separating the ham from the loin. The glasses contain the curing spice mixture specified by Ruhlman: Instacure #1, pepper, garlic, bay leaves, nutmeg, thyme and crushed juniper berries. Ruhlman also calls for brown sugar, which I forgot. But I was very happy with the outcome, and would probably omit sugar on the future, too.

Here are the bellies with the curing rub on them. From here they went into a giant Ziploc, and into my reach-in to cure for a while. Ruhlman said a week, but I let them go for three weeks, just because I didn't have time to take them out sooner. I did take them out once or twice for overhauling (rubbing the spices into the meat).

After three weeks in the reach-in, the meat was ready to roll and cure. First step was to rinse off the spice mixture, and trim them to an appropriate size for rolling.

Pretty simple now... cut, and roll tightly. You could add extra seasoning now, but I didn't.

Now tie the roll TIGHT. If you don't know how to tie a roast, see this video: http://video.about.com/homecooking/Tie-a-Roast.htm

Once they're all tied, hang them in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Ideal conditions are 50-60F and 50-60% RH. Because pancetta is cooked, hanging to cure can be an inexact science.

Because the weather in NC is highly variable (and warm for several days at a time), I built a simple curing chamber out of a dorm fridge. Basically I hijacked the controls and added humidification capability. It needs dehumidification, too. Next project.

After two weeks of curing, they were ready to slice and store. The vinegar was used to wipe off small bits of chalky white mold. I checked them every few days while curing and wiped off small mold spots when they popped up (which they did, because of the high humidity while I was curing). White mold is no problem. Green and black mold is the stuff you worry about, and I didn;t see any of that.

Here it is, all sliced up, ready to package. Beautiful, isn't it?

Couldn't resist a close-up.

Vacuum seal and store for 6 months, easy.

Now that you see how to make the pancetta, let’s do something with it: pasta carbonara.

Cube a wheel or two of that pancetta.

Render it.

Cook some pasta. Yes, I was lazy and used boxed pasta. Sue me. Be sure to reserve a little of the water from boiling the pasta (maybe 1/2 - 1 cup), you'll need it later.

Get some other stuff ready: a big hunk of butter (1/8-1/4 lb), a big mound of hard cheese (2 cups pecorino romano), a couple eggs, and wine (optional, for drinking, not cooking).

Heat a big pan in the oven while the pasta is cooking. When pasta is al dente, throw the butter in the hot pan to melt.

Add the pasta, cheese, and eggs to the hot pan with butter. Yes, one of my eggs was a double-yolker. Bonus.

Mix well, adding a little retained pasta water till consistency is correct. Normally I would have added pancetta in same step, but I have one vegetarian in the house, so I mix it up veg and plate hers first.

Add the pancetta, mix well.

Plate and enjoy!

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How to make scrapple from scratch

April 20, 2011 9 comments

WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT SUITABLE FOR THE SQUEAMISH

After 12 years of living in the southeastern United States, I consider myself a southerner.  But every once in a while, my Pennsylvania Yankee roots show themselves, usually in connection with my food preferences.  And one of my guilty food pleasures is a food that is loved by some and loathed by others: scrapple.  Also known by the slightly more appetizing Dutch name of Pon Haus, or “ponhaws”, or the more descriptive name “pork mush”, scrapple is a unique Pennsylvania delicacy that does vary somewhat region to region.  The common threads, however, are that it’s a food made from pork scraps, spices and cornmeal.  Variations include the specific scraps of meat used (more specifically, whether the recipes include organs), the specific spice melange employed, and whether grains other than or in addition to corn are used.

I might not have ever been possessed to make scrapple myself, but for “the Ossabaw Project” I embarked on with a friend a couple years ago, and which is still ongoing.  To make a long story short, we bought a couple Ossabaw gilts, which my friend raised on his Orange County, NC farm.  Ossabaws are a heritage breed swine from Ossabaw Island, GA, and they are reknowned for their spectacular flavor and texture.  We bred our gilts with a Duroc boar, another breed with wonderful eating characteristics.  The resulting piglets have been some of the best pork I have ever tasted.  In keeping with my desire to minimize waste and respect the animal, scrapple is a perfect food to make from scratch.  It also happens to be exactly the kind of food that should be the focus of this blog: something that utilize “unusual” ingredients that people generally don’t know how to handle any longer.  Including me, as it turned out.

Because even though I’ve eaten my share of scrapple, I really had very little idea how to make it.  So I started where I usually start when I’m stumped: with a Google search.  It turns out there are as many scrapple recipes as their are scrapple recipe authors.  What I usually do in that situation is read as many as I can stand, and start to mentally construct my own recipes and techniques from the best of what I read.

The common threads I kept coming back to were some of the spices.  Many of the recipes leveraged one or more of three spices: salt,

Pork head. I warned you, not for the squeamish.

coriander seed and sage.  I knew my recipe would include those in some way.  I became very enamored of one recipe in particular, from the Food Network, of all places (I’m a big enough man to admit when I admire a Food Network recipe), and even more surprisingly, from Bobby Flay (I say surprisingly only because scrapple seems so unlike Bobby Flay’s usual cuisine choices).  The thing I liked about the Food Network recipe was that it specified the use of roasted cornmeal, which is exactly what we make at our coffee roastery.  Score!  I also knew that any recipe I made would have to include pork liver (because what else would I do with it), and pork head, because while many other variations are possible, using the head for this purpose is very traditional.

Here’s the recipe I ultimately concocted:

1 lbs pork jowls, trimmed of fat
1 lbs pork liver
1.5 qts water
2 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns
1-1/2 TBSP smoked sea salt
1-1/2 TBSP sea salt
1/2 TBSP dried sage
1/2 TBSP coriander seed, toasted and crushed
1/2 TBSP ground black pepper
3-1/3 cups roasted cornmeal

Here’s the photo tutorial on how to do it:

My spice melange. Toast the coriander seeds in a skillet until highly aromatic, then smash them in a mortar.

Here is the trimmed jowls and liver, about 1 lb each. You can use whatever you want in yours - a shoulder roast will do nicely, or you can add other organs, too.

Adding the water to my pressure cooker. I absolutely LOVE my Russel Hobbs electric pressure cooker, i.e., could not live without it. If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can braise for a couple hours, instead.

Add the bay leaves and whole peppercorns to the pot. Pressure cook for about 15 minutes, or if you are doing an oven or stovetop braise, cook for a couple hours.

After the meat is cooked, allow it to cool. Strain and reserve the cooking liquid. Then grind the cooked meats.

Add all the ingredients to a large skillet, including the reserved broth, and simmer gently until the mush is stiff enough for a spoon to stand in it, maybe 10-15 minutes.

Spoon the mush into a mold. Traditionally, bread pans are used, but I wanted smaller units. So I used pencil baskets, and lined then with parchment paper. It worked great and was a perfect size. Once in the mold, refrigerate long enough to set up. Once set up, you can freeze for at least several months.

Here is my molded loaf. Perfect size.

Cut a slice about 3/8" thick, and pan fry on each side till golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Here is what it looks like when finished.

I wish that this challenge would be raised by the charcutepalooza women, so I might actually be ahead of a challenge for a change!  Mrs. Wheelbarrow, are you listening?

In any case, if you make your own (and I highly recommend you do – like everything else of this type, making your own is infinitely superior to what you can buy), be sure to share the recipe here.  And make sure you’re drinking some fine Muddy Dog coffee when you eat it.

Duck Prosciutto – Check!

March 21, 2011 2 comments

So I’m hopelessly behind on the Charcutepalooza challenge.  I accept that.  I will not finish all 12 challenges this year.  My goal, then, is to make the challenges I do complete worthwhile.

The duck prosciutto challenge is now in the rear-view mirror, and I can say without a doubt it was a smashing success.  The curing took a bit longer than expected – 2 weeks instead of one to achieve the 30% weight loss desired – but the result was so worthwhile.  The prosciutto is slightly salty, but not so much that its “duckness” is lost.  It has a smooth, almost creamy texture.  We ate a little tonight with some beautiful cheese from the Hillsborough Cheese Co., and some nice wines.  Fabulous.

The final weigh-in. It took 2 weeks to lose 30% of its original weight, but we hit the 315 gram target precisely. Note how loose the kitchen twine is now - it was tight at the beginning.

For the more geeky among you, you may be interested in the day-by-day weigh-in data. I'm guessing ambient conditions have something to do with the second derivative of that curve.

Behold the mummy! The breast now has a firm texture, with no off aromas (it has a slight "meaty" aroma) and no mold whatsoever.

Here it is in all its cured, meaty splendor. Wafer thin, simply delicious. I might try cooking some, too, pancetta-style.

With this one behind me, I’m looking forward to starting on one of the newer challenges.

Charcutepalooza: Duck proscuitto, Step 2

It’s been 24 hours since I broke down my duck and salted the breast for proscuitto.  It’s time clean it, dry it, wrap it, tie it and hang it.  This is one of those times I miss my dad (more than other times) – that man was an idiot savant with ropes and cords, there was nothing he couldn’t lash, secure, bind and make beg for mercy.  Me, I’m not so good with knots and ropes.  So I checked my volumes of books (no luck), but found a good video on how to tie a roast HERE.

Here’s my pictorial on step 2 of the process:

Here's the breast coming out of the salt. I was amazed at how much water the salt had pulled out - about 22 grams by my later weighing. After pulling it from the salt, rinse well and pat dry.

Here's the breast, rinsed and dried. You can see how I scored the skin to let the salt through. You can also tell this was a fairly lean duck - many of them have skin on the breast approaching an inch thick.

Here's the carcass side of the breast. You can see how the salt has darkened the flesh, and its consistency is more rubbery.

A salted breast, some cheesecloth and a length of kitchen twine. This is all the technology needed for a miraculous transformation over the next week.

Here we are wrapped like a mummy and ready for twine.

Trussed up like a duck.

Hung in my special place in the garage (the broom rack). There is a paper in the loop with the weight on it (447 g all wrapped and tied). It will be done in about 7 days, when the weight is reduced by about 30% (so our goal is 315 grams: 439 dry weight * 0.7 = 307, plus 8 grams for cheesecloth and twine: 447 g wrapped - 439 g unwrapped = 8 g of cloth and twine)

Update in about one week!