Charcutepalooza: The good news, it won’t kill you

After two months of avoiding it, the time had come. Saying “just let me have one more day with them” wasn’t going to change the reality staring me in the face. She stayed silent, as she’d done all along, knowing how much I cared and not having the heart to say the words I didn’t want to hear. So I made preparations.  One last email to Bob del Grosso, the respected culinary counselor who probably regretted ever having answered my first Facebook message. He replied with words that didn’t do much to lighten my mood: “The good news is…[it] won’t kill you.” I walked into the living room and told her I was ready.  She watched me disappear out the back door with the knife in my hand.

It was  the best day of the year to that point, bright and crisp, but the wind was carrying something not quite right. Only I knew what it was. I walked to the back of the yard, just past the Ossabaw hams hanging in muslin, and raised the knife. Eight precise cuts and the job was done.

Only someone completely out of their mind with sausage dementia would write something that dramatic about throwing home cured spanish chorizo away. But what can I say? Pimenton de la vera (smoked paprika), garlic, spices, and pork shoulder make up the highest form of charcuterie for me. There may not be a food in the world I like more. Just look at the two chori-photos below by John Barlow, an author who chronicled his pork adventure through Galicia in Everything but the Squeal. It’s been years since I read it, but without a doubt the most memorable vignette in the book has Barlow at a chorizo festival being elbowed out of the way by elderly women lunging at the deeply fragrant and red sausages, grilled in this case.

My batch was an elbow to the nose in its own right.  It was forged lovingly from farm nearly to table, undoubtedly the main thing on my mind when I decided I wanted to slaughter and butcher two pastured pigs last December at Blue-Green Farms in Virginia. I’d cured it successfuly before in a small wine fridge at home, so how could I go wrong? Answer: massively. The curing salts and fermentation culture didn’t take hold. The beef middle casings were wrong for the too confined curing space. The humidity in the wine fridge was off-kilter. The sausage developed a weird slime on the outside, which a handle of vinegar couldn’t counteract. And for weeks, every time I opened that little fridge, the house filled with a smell that she knew wasn’t right. But she let me go with it. She’s a saint.

Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s cure-all book – simply titled Charcuterie – is the inspiration behind Charcutepalooza, a 200+ person curing competition being driven on Twitter and the websites of its two food bloggin founders, Cathy Barrow and Kim Foster.  I keep Ruhlman’s book in the basket near my bed, which I think scares her a bit because the pages are stained with lard and spice. Funny to think of it now, because she once expressed alarm about a condo I wanted to buy because it had a balcony off the bedroom, which of course meant I would constantly be “bringing sausages and meat from the grill through her pristine bedroom.” She was probably right. We bought the next place we saw.

The only complaint I have about Ruhlman’s book is that it lacks a “Coping” section alongside the treatises on mold and the manifestos about fermentation. Even though he had the chance, the author didn’t cover it in his most recent post on safety and common sense for the Charcutepalooza faithful.

I was lost, so I did what any food nerd would do.  I pulled down the Charcutepalooza pancetta hanging in my kitchen and gave it a ride.

My plan wasn’t ambitious, but I wanted to do something that would make it impossible to miss the salty goodness of the pancetta. I boiled 1.5 lbs of brussels sprouts (cut in half if they are big). Sliced four shallots thin and sauteed them in medium low heat olive oil in a large pan until they were light brown, about ten minutes.  After I removed them from the pan into a bowl, I added more oil and sliced asparagus, sauteeing it for eight minutes before removing. Then in went the brussell sprouts and two ounces of sliced pancetta. Ten minutes later, I threw the other ingredients in the pan with some sliced peppadew peppers and let it marry for a few minutes. A little salt and pepper to taste, and I had a pretty good meal. The pancetta was undoubtedly the star.

I didn’t stop there. I was feeling the resurrection, so I pulled some of the applewood smoked bacon I made from the December hogs out of the freezer. It was way too salty when I first tried it, but after a minute of parboiling, a quick dry, and a frizzle fry, I had outrageously good rashers. Then I got home this evening and found that she was painting my bathroom pink. I guess we all cope in different ways.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Charcutepalooza: The good news, it won’t kill you

  1. Sam,
    I appreciate your chorizo predicament. I have made kilos of the stuff, but have always stop short of eating it raw. I have always cooked it. But I have also always put it in hog middles. The regions I have traveled in, it is rarely thicker than a good brat. On this trip to Gascony I have found a new found confidence in making Chorizo. The real thing. I in a short week I have eaten a lot of it. All cured with nothing more than salt, pepper & spices—sometimes Pimente de Espelette, sometimes with the more common smoked piment. The only other ingredient has been time, air movement & a good dose of technical know-how. The bloom of a good saucisse, I have found, comes from a culture, a history. The only short cut here is a good & clever one. Get hold of a saucisse whose culture & flavor you like and swab it, then spray the culture on your curing room. Magic happens.

  2. Wonderful–just plain wonderful. I cannot tell you how I empathize with your disappointment! Well done.

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