Archive for the ‘Charcuterie’ Category

Spaghetti e bottarga

April 4, 2014


It was a damp and chilly Friday night, not the kind of weather one would want to sit and watch a baseball game in. Feeling a tad guilty about forsaking the local AA team’s second home game of the season for the warmth of home, I turned my focus dinner.

Since we had skipped our normal Thursday pasta dinner because of the home opener, beloved spouse and I thought a simple spaghetti aglio olio would be perfect a dinner for this Lenten Friday meal.

I was doubly ecstatic. This would give me the opportunity to try my latest experiment in food preservation: Bottarga.

Bottarga is fairly common in the countries that border on the Mediterranean Sea. Usually made out of mullet or tuna roe, it’s used in very thin slices on bread as an appetizer with wine or grated over pasta.

Doing some online research into recipes for shad roe, I had stumbled across an interesting idea: curing the shad roe for use as Bottarga.

I was intrigued.

Much to the chagrin of one of my friends, I hit up the local fish monger for two roe sets. They were large and ripe, weighing almost a half a pound each.

Two shad roe sets, each about a half a pound.



I made up a light brine solution (1% kosher salt dissolved in water) and soaked the roe sets in it overnight in the refrigerator.

The next day, I took the roe sets out of the brine, patted them dry and then coated them with a little olive oil. I prepared a small pan with a doubled over paper towel topped with a layer of kosher salt. I laid the roe sets down, covered them with a thin layer of salt and set them in the fridge.

Each day, I would check and if/when the paper towel was soaked with the fluids extracted from the roe sets, I would change it. This also gave me the opportunity to flip the sets, always setting them on a bed of salt on fresh paper towel and covered with another thin layer of salt.


Salt cured shad roe sets

Once the roe stopped giving up its moisture, I wiped off the excess salt, threaded each piece with some kitchen twine and hung them in the basement to dry for a week.

They lost a total of half their weight by time I took them down, wiped them down with a little more olive oil and put them in a plastic bag and stored them in the ice box.

Tonight, I made my usual version of spaghetti aglio olio, but after I plated my portion, I grated some of the shad roe bottarga over the pasta.



Shad roe bottarga.

Just what I was looking for! A fresh, briny aroma wafted up out of the pasta bowl. The rich and comforting oil and garlic (and peperoncino) sauce was brightened by a really nice sea shore taste.

Experiment a success!

Oh…and for the investment of less than $20 in materials and about 10 days of time, I created a delicacy that sells for about $90 per ounce. The result was about $675 worth of finished product.


Salumi 2.0

April 16, 2010

We took advantage of Thursday’s lovely weather to take our pre-dinner wine and munchies on the patio.  Some crackers and sharp cheddar for Ann; a little provolone and some home cured bresaola, capicola and finocchiona for me. 

Finocchiona, Bresaola, Capicola (clockwise from top)

A simple pleasure all the more enjoyable because I made the product myself.

These salumi were started back while we were in the throes of the succession of snow storms this past winter.

For the bresaola, I kept everything the same as before but used a whole piece of eye round this time.

After the results of my first attempt at capicola I made some adjustments to the process and prepared a second attempt.  I was very careful to adhere to a tight ratio of salt to meat, plus I added some of the seasonings halfway through the two week curing process.  The object was to affect a good (and safe) cure but not over salt the meat as in the fist try.  And I changed up the spice mix a little for more character and flavor.

To stretch myself a little, I tried a third product…a finocchiona.  This is a Tuscan style salame flavored with lightly toasted fennel seeds.  I bought and trimmed up a whole Boston butt (pork shoulder) and cut it into manageable chunks. These were tossed with the curing salt and spices and then run through the grinding attachment of my kitchen center.  I also picked up a couple of pieces of fatback and coarsely chopped it up and blended it into the ground pork.  The mixed fat and meat mixture was then stuffed into a casing and tied. 

When it came to hanging the meats to dry, I again used our basement but added an inexpensive humidifier in an attempt to slow the process a little bit.  If the relative humidity of the drying area is too low, the outside of the meat can dry to the point that it prevents the inside from properly drying.  This is called “case hardening” and can lead to spoilage rather than curing. 

Then came the hardest part…the waiting.

Just before Easter, I checked on the meats.  By weight loss, they were pretty much on target.  The finocchiona still felt a little soft in the middle when I squeezed it so I left it to hang a little longer.  The bresaola was done.  I cut it in half, wrapped and bagged it and put it in the refrigerator.

The capicola, I cut in half to see how well it had dried.  It looked to need just a little more hanging time.  I put the pieces in a brown paper bag (a trick I picked up at a demonstration on making capicola given by John Scarpati of the Mercer County Italian American Festival Association), tied it up and re-hung it in the basement.

More waiting.

After another 10 days, I checked the capicola.  Fine!

Wrapped and bagged and into the icebox.

The Finocchiona still seemed a little soft in the middle but I was afraid the casing was getting too dry and wouldn’t let the center dry out appropriately.  Cutting the sausage in half, I was surprised to find a pretty well cured center.  The “give” appeared to come from the fact that I hadn’t compacted the filling as much as I should have.  The meat smelled good; tasted fine; and I suffered no ill-effects from eating it.  It too got wrapped, bagged and put into the refrigerator. 

I will admit the Finocchiona could use some work.  Rather than the hard salame I was aiming for, I had a “looser” but flavorful cured sausage.  I hand cut the back fat to add to the “paste” (filling mixture) and could have diced it finer.  The casing I ordered was about twice the diameter that I had anticipated, so the salame was thicker and that probably contributed to the uneven curing.  The oversized casing did have one advantage in that I was able to hand stuff it. This was a good thing because I also discovered that my lightweight kitchen center was not quite up to the task of real sausage making.  Something I’ll have to keep in mind if I’m going to continue to work in this particular area of charcuterie.

That said it wasn’t a total loss. There is a version of finocchiona that is more crumbly and somewhat “fresher” than your typical dry salame. “Sbriciolona” is something I’ve never actually tasted but it sounds close enough to my end result that I’m willing to call it that. 

It’s doubtful that I’ll try to prepare any more salumi now that the weather is warming up.  But I will continue to work in other areas of charcuterie until the fall.


January 16, 2010

Warning: if you are a vegetarian, vegan or even a meat eater who would rather not think about the where and how certain items come to table, skip this.

As noted previously I have become interested, some would say obsessed, with the art and craft of curing meats. 

It began with a desire to make a pancetta less salty than some I have purchased.  My online research led me to the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. That in turn has led me to Ruhlman’s blog as well as Bob del Grosso’s A Hunger Artist, amongst others. 

Guided by the info in the book and the experiences of other bloggers I have plunged into the world of curing, drying, smoking various forms of animal protein for later consumption, much to the chagrin of my ever tolerant and patient wife.

 Along the way I have had some successes and a couple of failures.  No matter the outcome, I have pressed on…not in some Julie/Julia parallel, but in an effort to learn more about the foods I like. 

At the very least I hope to deepen my appreciation and understanding of what it takes to make excellent bacon, pastrami or sausage.  And if along the way I produce some tasty consumables so much the better.

Spurred on by the non-toxic results of my efforts so far I decided to attempt larger projects involving longer curing and drying times. 

A sale at the local grocery store prompted me to purchase a piece of beef eye round to turn into bresaola.   

At the same time, I picked up a small pork loin roast to turn into a version of capicola. Commercial capicola is a product that I often find lacking in flavor.  Traditionally, a pork butt (aka Boston butt, pork shoulder butt) would be used, but for this trial, I wanted to try something leaner and a little smaller…hence the pork loin.

 The process for both products is very similar.  After trimming the cuts, a “cure” is applied to the meat.  A second dose is applied a week or so later. After another week, the meat is rinsed of the spent cure and seasonings, dried and prepared for hanging in a cool spot to slowly dry and age.

Photo by Mark Stradling

 The beef was trimmed of all silverskin and external fat.



In both cases, I scaled down the recipes from Ruhlman’s book and set about the process.

For the Bresaola, I prepared a mixture of salt, garlic, and juniper berries that was ground to a paste and rubbed all over the eye round.  I then slipped the roast into a plastic bag and placed it in the refrigerator for ten days.  Every other day or so, I would redistribute the seasoned curing mix evenly over the meat and flip it.  At the end of that period, I removed the meat and discarded the bag and any accumulated juices.  Another dose of the cure was applied to the beef before placing it in a fresh bag and returning it to the fridge for another week or so.  Again, I would massage and flip the roast every other day. 

Photo by Mark Stradling
The cure and seasonings are rubbed onto the beef.
The copicola was processed in much the same way as the bresaola only the seasonings were added after the curing process but before hanging to dry.  I used  a basic cure of salt, sugar and sodium nitrate. (The sodium nitrate will, over time change to sodium nitrite and provide some protection against the growth of the bacteria resposible for botulism.  It is perfectly safe in the small amounts used in the curing process.

Photo by Mark Stradling

Photo by Mark Stradling

Left: the pork loin has been trimmed and weighed.

Below: the curing mix will be rubbed into the pork.






Both products were put into separate baggies and refrigerated for a week and half.  Every other day or so, I would massage and flip them to make sure the cure is evenly dispersed.  After nine or ten days, the meat was removed from the bags, rinsed and dried.  Another dose of the seasoning/curing mixes were applied and then the meat went into new bags.  The massaging and flipping ritual was repeated every other day for another week and a half.

After almost three weeks…the meats were removed once again from their respective bags, rinsed and dried. 

Photo by Mark Stradling

This capicola was going to be seasoned according the “sweet” recipe in Charcuterie.  I actually prefer a hot (spicy) capicola, but upon consulting with friend Mark it was determined that the sweet cure would allow a fairer judging of the process than the hotter version. 

Photo by Mark Stradling

After the cured pork loin was rubbed with the seasoning mix, I inserted it into a natural beef casing.

Photo by Mark Stradling

Photo by Mark Stradling

The capicola was then tied and readied for hanging.

The Bresaola was also tied with butcher’s twine in preparation for being taken to the basement to hang in a cool, dark, spot until done (looking for about a 30% weight loss or 21 days, whichever comes first). 

Photo by Mark Stradling

The bresaola and capicola were hung in the basement on December 30, 2009.  It was expected to take about three weeks for them to dry cure to completion.  Upon weighing them on January 12, they showed the expected 30% weight loss.  I let them hang a couple of more days just to go a full two weeks.

The speed with which the meats lost weight was due to the lower than ideal humidity in the drying area.  This was reinforced when we cut in to the bresaola and capicola.  You could tell by the rosier, softer centers that the outside of the meats had dried too rapidly.

Still, the meat was done, and not at all unpleasant to eat.  The bresaola I probably wouldn’t change a thing on except to do a whole eye round instead of the half I used for this trial.

Bresaola anyone?

The capicola was a bit too salty.  I suspect that came from too liberal a use of the curing mix.  Again, the pork loin was smaller and leaner than a pork butt,  I think that usinge a larger, fattier piece of meat, along with a more judicious hand on the curing mix, would mitigate the saltiness somewhat.


Capicola sliced and ready to eat.


I will definintely work on finding a way to increase the humidity level in the curing area for the next round of experiments.

Making do

December 23, 2009
Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan.
That doesn’t mean all is lost.  In cooking, as in life, adapting and adjusting is key to success.
For instance: A couple of weeks back, I got an email from Bobolink Dairy an artisinal bread and cheese making operation in Vernon, NJ announcing the availability of some whey-fed pork for sale.  Besides the bread and raw milk cheeses (of which their traditional cave aged cheddar is a favorite in this house), Bobolink also raises grass-fed beef cattle and pigs fed on the whey leftover from the dairy operation. (check out their online store here)
I’ve previously tried some of their pork chops and found them quite tasty.  When I saw that they had some fresh pork belly and pork jowls available, I thought I’d order some.  The belly was either going to be bacon or pancetta.  The jowl would be my first attempt at guanciale…a traditional Italian cured meat used for seasoning pasta sauces and such. 

Guanciale in the making

My enthusiasm was attenuated somewhat by the fact that the pieces of meat I ordered were smaller than I had hoped.  No matter, I thought, I’ll adjust my plans to fit what arrives.  The jowl I did cure for the guanciale.  It’s currently hanging to dry for anywhere between one and three weeks.
The two pieces of pork belly are about three-quarters of pound each.  Too small to turn into pancetta but the right size for testing the recipe for sweeter cure that included some maple syrup.  The plan, was to smoke the cured pieces over some maple wood to enhance the maple character.  Alas, when the day came to smoke the pork, we were in the middle of a snowstorm and the thought of tending the grill for even a couple of hours in the winter weather was unappealing. 
The cured meat would hold for up to three days in the fridge, but I was going to have to do something with it. I opted to finish the bellies in a 200 degree oven.  It’s essentially the same process (low and slow) as the smoking…minus the smoke.  The finished product won’t be quite as tasty as the smoked version, but it will give me a better chance to evaluate the flavor of the cure itself.

Working on the cure

December 12, 2009

A brief update on my adventures in charcuterie.

The duck breasts I cured early in the fall turned out ok (not great, but ok). 

And pancetta, version 2 was just a little less ok. (see my entry on Bacon! for more information)

In both cases, I think I let them hang a little too long and so they dried out a little more than necessary.

In the case of the duck breasts, I was looking for that 30% loss of weight.  The product never quite hit that mark and was a little dry and chewy…but quite savory.

Similarly, the pancetta seems a little tough but tasty.  It fries up nicely and renders out a savory fat.

Lesson learned…be guided by percentage of original weight lost in the process, but go by touch.  The product should firm up, but still have some “give” to the touch.

We’ll keep working on the cure.


October 12, 2009

It’s gray and chilly in Trenton today; foreshadowing the dark and dreary days to come.

Fortunately, I had off from work and I had some “chores” to attend to that included turning the gas grill into a smoker and finishing the job of making bacon out of a thick piece of pork belly.  It is a perfect day to spend a few hours tending a fire and inhaling the aroma of selected wood chunks as they gave up their essence to flavor the pig.

This was just the latest in my home study of the art of curing meat (and fish and fowl).  The adventure was launched several months ago after buying a piece of pancetta in the supermarket that was just too damn salty for my taste (not that it kept us from using it all up mind you).  I got to wondering if it was possible to make pancetta at home and started searching the internet for advice and information.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with pancetta it is simply cured and seasoned pork belly that is usually rolled tightly and allowed to air dry.  It is, essentially, un-smoked bacon and is used similarly to season beans, greens, sauces and all manor of savory dishes.  Good pancetta is essential for proper pasta carbonara (although we have made it with everyday, common American bacon).

Apparently, I wasn’t the first and only person to want to make pancetta at home.  I found a number of blogs and forums that contained information about making pancetta at home.  One thing that I noticed right away was that many entries referred to the book “Charcuterie,” by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman

I continued my research to the point where I convinced myself that I needed to add a copy of this book to our already overgrown cooking library.

So I did.

In reading through the book, and continuing to read the blogs and forums, it appeared as though there really was nothing more to this meat curing business than having the right ingredients on hand, minding some simple sanitation procedures and using a dose of common sense.  Before I knew it, I was at the local market procuring a half a pork belly (about 6 pounds).  I had already mail-ordered in the more exotic ingredients…some curing salt (sodium chloride with a trace of sodium nitrite added) and some juniper berries.  Everything else, black pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg, brown sugar, etc. I had on hand.

The process, as outlined in the book, is straightforward enough.  Mix up your cure and a2009 08 18_0545pply it to the meat.  Let it rest, refrigerated, for a week; turning it every day and massage it to ensure even distribution of the curing/flavoring mixture.  After seven days, rinse, and dry well.  You can then roll it tightly and tie it or leave it flat and wrap it in cheesecloth.  I opted for the latter because I wasn’t confident enough in the process and my skill to challenge the botulism bug that can show up in too loosely rolled pancett2009 08 18_0547a.  And somewhere along the way I picked up the tidbit that the traditional Florentine method of making pancetta was to hang the “flat.”  That was good enough for me.

I won’t go into the whole song and dance here, but I sort of screwed up that attempt at pancetta.  First of all, I picked the hottest, most humid week of the summer to hang the dang thing in the cellar.  This gave me cause to worry.  When the suggested amount of hanging time was up, I unwrapped the meat only to find several spots of mold on it.

Into the trash it went.  And I was a little disappointed. (Several weeks later I was reading the FAQ on Ruhlman’s website and discovered that mold is not uncommon.  The procedure is to cut/scrape it off and wipe the meat down with vinegar or wine.  And then proceed.   Oh well. Live; Learn!)

Fortunately, at the same time I started the pancetta, I also brined a bepastramief brisket according to the recipe in Charcuterie.  Once the brisket was cured, I smoked it and then steamed it for a very successful pastrami dinner with friends.  This, despite being a little heavy handed with the peppercorn and coriander seed for the crust, kept my confidence intact.

Chalking the failed pancetta experiment up to bad timing, I went on to try the gravlax (cured, but not smoked salmon) recipe from the book and bided my time for the onset of autumn and cooler weather.

October came and I could bear it no longer.  I ran off to the Food Bazaar and dashed to the meat service counter.  Scanning the case, I was a little worried because there were no hunks of pork belly in the customary spot.  This market, part of a small regional chain, caters to the various ethnic groups found in urban areas and actually sells fresh pork belly on a regular basis (take that Whole F***s and W*****’s!).  It took a little finagling to get them to sell me 1/2 of a whole pork belly back in August so I was prepared to persevere!

When the counterman asked what he could do for me I stated I wanted some pork belly.  He looked puzzled at first, glanced at the case and then back at me.

How much?” he asked.

A whole one,” I answered.

There was another pause and a confused glance before he dutifully trotted off to the walk in. 

Returning a moment later he “thunked” a large slab of skin on pork belly onto the scale.  17.78 pounds of pig heaven were mine to play with!

The next day I made up two batches of cure.  One, the basic dry cure that can be used for any number of preparations and the second a specific blend of salt, sugar and spices for the pancetta.  Then I set about assembling my mise en place: knives, cutting boards, extra large freezer bags, scale, etc.  I took the cryovac packaged pork belly out of the fridge and over to the sink.  I slit open the plastic, removed the doubled over pork belly and unfolded it. 

Surprise!  There was still a rack of spareribs attached to the belly!  BONUS!

I successfully, if not deftly, removed the rack from the rest of the belly (Hey! I am not schooled in meat cutting!).  I trimmed and cut the belly until I had two nice slabs of meat, one for pancetta and one for bacon.  The trimmings I later cut into large cubes and cured for salt pork.

I removed the skin from a section of belly, applied the cure for the pancetta, slipped the pork into a plastic bag and popped it into the fridge.  Next came the bacon-to-be.

The basic dry cure was applied and it too was slipped into a bag and placed in the refrigerator.

This morning, seven and a half days after starting “the cure,” I rinsed both slabs of meat and dried them off.  The piece destined for the smoker was placed on a rack in the fridge for a few hours to form a pellicle (a sort of tacky skin that helps hold the smoke flavor).  The piece designated for the pancetta was given a dusting of crushed black pepper on the meat side, swaddled in cheesecloth and hung in the cellar to dry for another week or so.

By noon, I had fired up the smoking burner of the grill and applied some chunks of apple, maple and oak that I’d soaked for the purpose.  The slab of soon-to-be-bacon was set on the grate next to the wood box and the smoking commenced.  Keeping the temp at right around 200 degrees F, I fed more chunks of wood into the smoker as needed.  Just a tad over three hours later the pork had achieved the target temp of 150 degrees F.  I brought it in from the grill and, while the fat was still warm and soft, removed the rind (skin).

I trimmed off the edges of the slab and tentatively tasted one of the pieces.  I’d followed the directions carefully; the meat looked like a slab of bacon; it smelled like bacon.baconslice

SCORE! It tasted like bacon!  I quickly put the rest of the trimmings into a small frying pan and browned them off.  Yup. Bacon!

Let’s hope pancetta version two works out as well!