Sunday, December 11, 2011

Seasonal Reflections (with recipes)

There are a great many things to give some thought to at this time of year.  I'm a college professor, so the end of the term provides some space (well, once the mountain of grading is completed) for looking back and forward, wondering where all the time went, and if you'll have a chance to make amends in the weeks to come. Here's to hoping.

First up, I must note that I've been a lapsed blogger and a wayward chartcutiere. I didn't keep up with all of the challenges for this year's Charcutepalooza, although, as I hope to demonstrate forthwith, I do have samples of most of the challenges to offer.  I had made many of the required challenges in months past, so why not offer them now (strictly for entertainment purposes, as the Ruhls/Rules have already been violated)

I left you, gentle reader, with the August challenge, a full-throttle rendition of Headcheese to demonstrate my skillz at "Binding".  This blog about said headcheese is the most widely read of all my charcutepalooza entries (which isn't saying much, but hey, it's true).  The September challenge called for Packing, and the preparation of paté. Well, in point of fact, I began my charcuterie efforts with a pork liver paté back in November of 2010.  While I certainly can't take credit for it as part of the "competition", I'll take full credit for having made it way back when. Indeed, it served as an inspiration of sorts for the folks who read about it, and even (especially!) some that ate it.  I made a pork liver paté, following Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall's recipe for Ray's Liver Paté, for a very specific purpose. I wanted to feature offal from Cane Creek Farm to sample at the Carrboro Farmer's market in order to sell some liver.  So here's how it worked:

I made this gorgeous slurry of liver and the requisite seasonings, plus some fresh bread crumbs for binding.  The whole thing is whizzed together, popped in a lined loaf pan, baked for an hour, and then cooled in the fridge (keeping the paté under weight, in order to preserve the requisite uniform shape) and then popped out the next day - looking like this:

Just as cool were the homemade crackers on which I served it:

Sampling the paté at the market did the trick.  We sold a ton of liver.  Paté is one of those dishes that both attracts a ravenous horde, and repels a squeamish throng.  This loaf was gone pretty quick. My favorite part of the story is that my friend, Kevin Callaghan the chef at ACME, tried some, bought us out of liver, and put it (or, of course, his own delectable version of it) on the menu that week! Triumph! And tasty, too.

So much for September.  October's Challenge called for Stretching - making a confit, and (perhaps) whipping it into rilletes  Well, I have some confit way back here and also here, as I made both pork belly confit and duck breast confit in January.  They are both dead simple- I won't recap the whole procedure here (ok, here's a photo of the brining pork belly)  

but will say, "make some!"  Once pork is confited, you can crisp some up to sprinkle on a salad, cube and stir-fry with vinegary greens, or whip in the food processor into rilletes (to be spread next to the paté on some of those homemade crackers!)

October down, what of November?  Curing. Ok, I must admit, I haven't given this a shot yet. In spite of my predilection for preserved meats of all stripes, I don't feel I have the right tools (yet!!) for keeping a fresh sausage hanging at 70% humidity and a temperature of 55º.  I'm loving my guanciale, which is a lot more forgiving hunk of fatty jowl.  But for a proper Tuscan salami (or, some day, my own prosciutto from an Ossabaw ham - a boy can dream) I need to jerry-rig that old fridge. 

If I can't muster November, I shall plough on through to December - which is simply a challenge to EAT! How hard is that?? Take some of the many meats prepared over the year, and serve them up for a festive event. Which, again, I HAVE done - way back in late February.  Check it out:

Here's some pork belly confit cubes, fried in their own preserved lard, duck confit fried in the same fat, and my all-time favorite go-to simple-yet-fancy hors d'oeuvres: Devils on Horseback.  Pitted dates, stuffed with grated parmesan, wrapped with bacon- or better, your own cured guanciale - and baked in the oven til the pork is crisp.  Grown men will weep.

The whole pretty feast included a platter with duck prosciutto, homemade pickle okra, and a crock of liver paté, as well.  Can't get much more Charcutepalicious than that!


On Further Reflection

I want to add a note of personal history here. A reflection on cooking, friendship, and untimely loss.  What I have been thinking of most these last three months is the death of my good friend, John Svatek.  Just my age, John and I had been friends since my graduate school days in Chicago.  We shared a healthy (also perhaps not so healthy) and hearty attachment to the delectable pleasures of our adopted urban home.  The chicken fried steak at Heaven on 7th, the rib tips at Hecky's in Evanston, many a platter of Harold's fried chicken. Italian ice and sorbets in every flavor and in every season were a special passion of John's.  My wife, Julie,  always enjoyed a bag of roasted pepitas with her Italian ice, salty, tart and sweet - both available at Mario's Italian Lemonade across from Al's Italian Beef.  John also made his own frozen treats, suitable for palate cleansing at his big deal dinners.

Beyond our treasure hunting through the touristic pleasures of Chicago cuisine, John made some most memorable meals for his many friends, and honored me by eating some of those I made for him and his wife, Misty.  He proudly told the crowd assembled in their festive flat that the roux he made that afternoon for the cauldron of gumbo on the buffet turned out perfectly.  John had so expertly and painstakingly blackened the stuff that "it was like pouring motor oil into the stock" to thicken the soup.  It was an apt description, indeed.  I invited John and Misty to the maiden voyage of the bricolage backporch smoker I fabricated from an anodized aluminum garbage can, several coat hangers, and a bucket that held smoldering charcoal.  As we ate the first order of spareribs I pulled from the rig, John noted that I ate more pork than any three gentiles he knew.  He had a point, and he wasn’t complaining.

All students leave the locales of their graduate schools (at least they almost always do), and we four were no exceptions.  But we had been fortunate to remain close across the years and miles. Always John and Misty, and Brad and Julie. In a recent few years, we had the great good fortune of sharing our Thanksgiving holidays in our home in North Carolina.  John and I had often (though it will forever seem far too infrequently) cooked together, and it was always an unlikely success.  As a cook, John was exacting and fastidious. We always waited for the moment he would point out that some element of the meal had not turned out exactly the way he had expected it to, and that he was really, really sorry, but he hoped we would eat it any way.  Even the most discerning diner had no clue about what he was bemoaning, and ate every bite.  For my own sins, I can be a bear in the kitchen, cursing like a whole fleet of sailors, and sending friends and family scurrying for cover.  Yet, when John and I cooked together we were always generous and deferential, accommodating one another’s preferences, happy to both play sous chef to the other's virtuoso.  Some how, it always worked out, easy as pie. Mmmmm, pie. 

And our Thanksgivings were like that. John would show up with a cooler full of the specialty items he had procured from the Lancaster Central Market – thumbnail size Brussels sprouts, beyond-organically grown celery stalks, some special oddity (salsify!).  And in a mere few hours on a Thursday morning we’d assemble an awfully fine repast for the many who would assemble for the meal, and the mountains of leftovers.

Those of us who knew John well are still reeling from his passing, entirely unexpected and unimaginably too soon.  Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Both his presence and absence were deeply felt, and will be for days and months to come. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good cook. John was both.


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