This time of year I usually really enjoy getting into cooking. What else are you going to do when it is 10 degrees outside in Wisconsin? Unfortunately, like everyone else, my budget this winter is in a recession and I’m having trouble getting excited about being creative with chicken. One of my guilty pleasures is reading food blogs and as you can see from my blogroll, I have several favorites and am always on the hunt for new ones, looking for ideas.
Early in January, I was looking for something creative to do with pork I acquired during a Butchering Class last summer at Balzano. I stumbled upon these two bloggers who were getting worked up about ‘making meat’ using Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlmans book Charcuterie. I bought this book a couple of years ago and have even given it as a gift on a few occasions, but haven’t done much with it myself. I’ve followed Ruhlman’s blog for a few years and have a few of his other books. He is an Ohioan, like myself, and he writes with a perspective that I enjoy, however, Charcuterie has been too intimidating, so far, for me to attempt on my own.
As I was watching the Meat Making Bloggers, Yummy Mummy, and Mrs. Wheelbarrow, from a far, the excitement quickly developed in to a real contest with monthly challenges and support from the author Ruhlman, sponsors like D’Artagnan, and Food 52 even a grand prize. I mentioned the contest to a few meat loving friends, hoping I could live vicariously through their meat making because lately, the meat in my budget was not worth preserving. Then a chef friend of mine surprised me with 20 lbs of pork belly so that I could jump in to the challenge myself. So much for watching from a far.
The first Charcutepalooza challenge issued in January was preserving duck breast by making duck prosciutto. Fortunately, because it evolved so quickly, they are allowing latecomers like myself, to catch up with our duck later, and I will share it when it unfolds. Right now, I have to figure out what to do with all this pork belly. February’s challenge was a dry cure and included an Apprentice Challenge and a Charcuterie Challenge. The Apprentice Challenge was making fresh bacon. One of the critical ingredients in this dry cure process (but not all, as you will see with the Duck Prosciutto) is salt with nitrate (Pink Salt). It is not something you find in the grocery store and there are several sources on-line but since my pork was not sourced locally (who can be particular about a gift?), and because I was in a hurry, I wanted to try to find a local source for the ingredients I used in the curing process. I consulted a Milwaukee food blogger I also found early in January, PorkDrunk, because I noticed he had also made some fresh bacon from the Charcuterie book sometime last year. Unfortunately, although I learned about a good local meat source and saw some great Pork Stuff on his site, like most everyone else, he gets his Pink salt online from a sausage and meat curing specialty house. Ever determined, I checked TheSpice House located in the Milwaukee Public Market and on 3rd Street in Milwaukee they had everything I needed and more. In addition to the Pink Salt and every kind of spice you could imagine they also have some of their own blends. There were a couple that I’ve used in the past that I thought might be good for bacon. Since I have so much pork belly I decided to make two different kinds of bacon (and maybe trying to overcompensate for being late to the party. It is a contest after all). I wanted to have a sweet one and a savory one, so I used a maple spice blend and added little brown sugar to it along with the basic pink salt cure. The savory one I cured with a blend called Quebec Beef Spice (my pork is from Canada so that made sense) and the blend is white and black pepper, sugar, garlic and coriander and although I don’t know how those spices relate to Quebec, I thought that would make some good fresh bacon. I added some additional peppercorn and coriander and toasted it to warm up the oils before I crushed and added to the blend.
I decided to divide my belly up into 4 -5lb pieces and I divided one of those in half for the bacon so I would have 2-2.5 slabs of finished product. I mean really, how much pork belly do you think a single girl in Milwaukee can eat? Don’t answer that. I do have lots of friends to share with but, honestly, since it is my first time, I figured if I screwed it up, there would be less to throw away.
The entire Charcutepalooza contest includes blogging about your experience and hopefully sharing some recipes using your preserved bounty. This fresh bacon takes 7 days to cure in the refrigerator it also takes a few hours in the oven to cook. Today is the 7th day and I already have my bellies in the oven. The typical next step for bacon after it is cured is smoking and I gave my smoker away last fall because I hadn’t used it in 10 years. I am sure that I could negotiate some smoking time on it in trade for some bacon but I am excited to taste the fresh bacon (un-smoked) first. Later today to be exact. Ironically, Anne Burrell featured Porkbelly and Mustard greens this week on her show and I happen to have some Mustard greens in my fridge…..
The Charcuterie Challenge will take a bit longer. For that challenge I made Pancetta. Before you call me an over achiever, remember, I have 20 lbs of pork belly and really tiny freezer. Besides, this is a CONTEST and there are PRIZES! Can you say “Bonjour Francez Vous”? (my sister, with a MA in French Translation, is having a french cow right now:) Sorry, Boo, none of it rubbed off on me). I am usually the type who feels comfortable improvising with recipes; either adjusting according to what I have on hand, or to my own individual taste buds. However, I believe that ‘food to die for’ should remain a figure of speech and while I felt comfortable adjusting the spice blends for the bacon, I followed the Pancetta recipe to the letter. My mise en place (see sis, I get some of it right) included juniper berries, coriander, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and some other stuff from my trip to the Spice House.
Too late. I spent a bout an hour wrapping it and trussing it but I think I might have some issues. I have some ‘bulging’ areas that might be big fat welcome signs for that bad mold. I am sending pictures to a meat specialist and getting a second opinion. I have a feeling he will tell me to re-wrap but I think it is worth the consultation.