Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tasso Time

Next up in the Charcutepalooza for April: Tasso.  Tasso is more or less a condiment, a bit of smoky meat that is added to gumbos and jambalayas in classic New Orleans dishes.  I've never made any, or even purchased any. If I've eaten it, it's only because it's been cooked into some of the fine gumbos I've eaten across Nawlins.

So here's how I did it:

This is the curing mixture I used. On the plate is a cinnamon stick then (clockwise) some thyme- not the usual thing, but thyme is a nice flavor with pork - a good dose of paprika, a bigger dose of cayenne, then some onion powder and garlic powder.  These are my new "go to" ingredients- they add a super depth of flavor, and they pervade the taste of whatever dish you use them to season.  In a pot of braised greens, fantastic. 

In addition to these spices you need, of course, a goodly amount of salt, and some black pepper.  Almost every recipe I've read for tasso uses white pepper, as well, but I didn't have any.  But, I went out later in the day, did get some white pepper, and added that to the mix.

Note that I also show some pink salt here.  Lots of folks think this is necessary, since you're curing the "ham", and nitrates are necessary for curing. But, you're also hot smoking the tasso, which I think kills anything that needs killing, and I'm not committed to the pretty pink hue of my hot smoked pork. So I didn't actually put any in my cure. 

Here's the pork I decided to use for tasso. Traditionally, tasso is made from a Boston butt, sliced into boneless steaks; actually, I think it's even more traditional to use trim from a cajun boucherie, which is approximated by the highly marbled (and usually cheap) shoulder meat. But I couldn't find a small Boston butt - we had a huge run on shoulders at the Carrboro Farmers' Market last Saturday - so, instead, I'm using a ham steak.  A ham steak is a cross-sectioned cut of a ham - which is to say, the rear leg of a porker.  This pasture-raised beauty is so well marbled (look at at it up close!) that I'm not at all worried about reducing the fattiness that I'd find in a shoulder.  

I cut the ham steak into strips (and trimmed off some of the exterior fat, to use for cooking later) and . . .

 . . . threw the cure into a large ziploc bog, added the ham, and shook it up to coat the whole thing.  This  bag o' ham stayed in my fridge for 4 days - which is maybe too much, but probably fine.

This morning, I got my smoking rig set up.  I use a method that's been hailed in any number of DIY media, an electric hot plate in an old grill bucket (a really old Weber kettle grill that I bought from my neighbor for $3), with a metal pan for the wood set right on top of the burner.

Here's how it looks when it's ready to go: hot plate, wood pan, grill rack, and oven thermometer. 

We're here in North Carolina, so of course I'm using hickory for smoking.  Pecan is the wood you'd use in Louisiana, but they're both nut woods, so the flavor should be similar.  Nobody ever objected to hickory smoked pork shoulder...

 Here's the pile of ham after it's half-week cure in the ziploc.

And here it is laid out in the smoking kettle.  

This contraption will smoke away on the porch for, oh four hours, or so.  I was surprised to find that the hot plate doesn't generate all that much heat. I've got it cranked to high under a pan full of hickory, and the thermometer just cracks 200º.  Which, in fact, is perfect, because you don't want to get the fire above 225º for the length of the smoking process.

And here it is! A little less than 4 hours smoking - which, alas, was a tad too much.  Not way too much, but I don't think I needed to keep it going that long.  But, I'm not eating a slab of tasso for dinner, so the fact that it's a bit dry will be countered by the fact that it will get thrown into nice juicy gumbos and etoufées.

A tinge of a smoke ring here, if you look close, but a really nice crust, and the flavor is pretty great.  Hot! But complex, and actually tender meat.  Ready to gumbo!!

I'm on my way to this Meat Conference over the weekend - including a butchery program headed up by the Butcher's Guild, which will make a major contribution to my research (he said optimistically), and should be of interest to the charcuterie minions.  Report to come!

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