Cured Pork

Somewhere in the development of commercial agriculture, the artisanship of food began to deteriorate…. but what remains can still be found holding strong in charcuterie. The best of the best within this category (save for head cheese) lies in all the varieties of cured porks. In this first installment of a series on cured pork and its uses, I will guide you through how its made, where its made, and when to use it and hopefully impart in you a little more of a love for these products, what goes into them and the glory they can create for your plate.

Guanciale

What:
Guanciale is an unsmoked cut of pork cheek or jowl, seasoned with salt and black or red pepper and marinated for 3 weeks to 40 days, then hung to dry.

Where:
Italy, traditionally in Umbria and Lazzo. Known aliases include

When:
Use to lard pork chops (link), spaghetti all’amatriciana, spaghetti alla carbonara. Just like you would bacon, save the fat from frying and use in sauces and other recipes to infuse them with the rich flavor. Fry like bacon or pancetta for pasta sauces, salad toppings etc.

*While it seems to be a popular consensus that you just can’t get Guanciale outside of Italy, its not true. The first Italian deli I asked (which also happens to be my favorite), Lucca Ravioli had it. I tried my next favorite Italian deli, Molinari’s in North Beach, also had it. So, that’s 2 out of 2. Not as rare in the states as it seems, I guess.

Bacon

What: There are several versions of what we all believe to be the true “definition” of bacon. Generally, it’s cut from the sides, belly, or back of a pig, then cured, smoked, or both. The USDA definition, however, is “the cured belly of a swine carcass”; other cuts and characteristics must be separately qualified (e.g., “smoked pork loin bacon”). I’m going to be honest and say that – while I admit it is, indeed, accurate – the use of the word “carcass” in a government approved definition of food is unsettling.

When: just about anytime, I can’t possibly list them all. Always save bacon fat to cook with. Great for pan sauces, cream sauces, wrap meat with it, use it to lard or bard (link) Replace for guanciale in carbonara,

*If you’re a fan of the fun that bacon brings, take a look at the Seattle-based bacon-loving block Iheartbacon.com, or baconunwrapped.com.

Prosciutto

What:
Though literally just the Italian word for “ham”, in English, prosciutto refers to an aged, dry-cured, spiced Italian ham, sliced very thin (the thinner the better) and served raw. In Italian, the equivalent of this would be prosciutto-crudo (raw ham).

Where: Regional varieties come from all over Italy, the most well known from Parma (Prosciutto di Parma), Tuscany and Emilia.

When: Perfect alone just as it is, or very traditionally with blue cheese or wrapped around quartered figs. Though when cooked, prosciutto is touchy, when used right, it can be amazing. It takes on a much stronger, almost gamey flavor when cooked, and so should be used in conjunction with equally rich or aggressive foods – heavy cream sauce, stuffed into pork chops with blue cheese, duck-fat mashed potatoes (link) etc.

Some Known Aliases: Jamon Serrano is the Spanish version, rolled in sea salt and dried for one year to 18 months, usually containing less fat. Culatello is always from Parma, Italy and is created using the best part of the meat from the prosciutto cut. It is salted, spiced and tucked into a pig’s bladder and dried for two to three months, then aged in an humid environment.

Pancetta

What:
Pancetta is similar to American “streaky bacon” (the most common cut in the United States). The belly of a pork is salt cured and spiced (nutmeg, pepper, fennel, dried ground hot peppers and garlic are most commonly used), and dried for three-or-so months and usually not smoked. There are many varieties, and in Italy each region produces its own type.

Where:
Varieties are specific to regions in Italy, Croatia and Spain.

When:
A good replacement for guanciale when unavailable, especially in Spaghetti al Carbonara. Fry with brussel sprouts or creamy polenta on toast, or with goat cheese on a baguette, wrap around leaks and poach, diced in spinach salad with shaved pecorino.

You can look forward to more cured meats, such as coppa, soppressata, lardo and mortadella in the upcoming “Guide to Cured Pork: Part Two”.

Bacon Mashed Potato Pie

This is a simple recipe that is great on multiple levels: It, of course, is delicious and indulgent. It’s also easy to altar to individual sized dishes by using small custard ramekins or baking dishes (see #3 on ”My Favorites”). To do this, simply divide up the bacon and line the custard or baking dishes individually the same way you would the large pie dish. This also lends itself well to experimentation with different mashed potato recipes.

Bacon Mashed Potato Pie

Ingredients:

5 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into small squares
5 medium garlic cloves, peeled & roasted (see below)
1 lb bacon
1/4C. water
1 C. heavy cream
5-6T rendered duck fat (optional)
Salt & Pepper


Process:

Boil potatoes in salted water until tender enough to fall apart when stuck with a fork.

While boiling:
– Pan roast and chop garlic: Heat 2T olive oil in deep sauté pan. When hot, add peeled cloves. Sautee on high until soft and browned on both sides. Chop finely and set aside.

– Fry bacon til medium-crispy

Rinse boiled potatoes in colander and return to pot.

Mash part of the way, then add ½ of the cream, ½ of the water and chopped roasted garlic. Stir and mash, slowly adding the remainder of the water, cream and all duck fat (make sure that the fat is melted, not solid). While stirring and mashing, liberally salt and pepper with fine sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

When finished, line a greased 9” baking dish or 3 4” ramekins with bacon, like a piecrust.

Heap in mashed potatoes
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Cover with remaining bacon.
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Bake at 375 for 10 minutes, and finish at 425 until brown and crisp on top (app 7 minutes, depending on the bacon.)

A Few of My Favorite Things

In effort to introduce myself, my kitchen and my blog, I offer to you a short list of my favorite tools, equipment, indulgences and pantry staples:

1. Salt: The best, standard rule of thumb is never, ever EVER cook anything without salt. Since you should always abide by this, you should also have a strong supply of various gourmet and finishing salts on hand in addition to cooking salts (they’re fun to discover and collect, too!). Some of my favorites include Fume de Sel (a grey salt smoked over Chardonnay Oak), Kala Namak ( aka “Black Salt”; a strongly sulfuric salt from India and my absolute favorite), Bolivian Rose (a slightly sulfuric pink salt, quarried from a dried lake bed in the Andes), and of course the standard Fleur de Sel.

2. Individually sized foods: Individually sized entrees, sides, or desserts are like
tapas in your own home. They encourage people to participate in the greatest
aspect of food: a time to share, talk and interact with each other They’re also a
convenient way to test out multiple recipe variations all at once – just remember to label which is which.
(see #3 and Bacon Mashed Potatoes Pie)

3. My Round 4” Non-stick Baking Dishes and/or 4″ Round Custard Ramekins: Perfect for individually sized anything. (see #2)

4. Truffles: Yes, I know that this is everyone’s favorite, but it can’t be overlooked. Truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle cheese (see below).

5. Al Tartufo StagionatoTruffle Cheese: Since I restrained myself from listing 25 different salts as my favorite things, I deserve two for truffles. This one in particular is a dream come true. A sheep’s milk version of the original Al Tartufo, its harder and dryer. I’ve heard complaints that it doesn’t melt as well as the original cow and sheep blend, but I ignore this because I don’t care to know or understand any kind of lunatic that would manipulate the make up of such a perfect creation by melting it. (I even once saw a recipe for a truffle cheese grilled cheese. Idiots.)

6. Stuffed Foods: Stuffed foods are a really fun way to experiment with the
creativity that goes along with good cooking. It’s also a good way to practice and test your ability to pair tastes and textures with one another. They also are usually easy to make pretty, and make you look like you know what you’re doing, even if you barely do. Some of my favorites: Duck breast stuffed with baked goat cheese (I actually turned a vegetarian with this dish); Pork chops stuffed with brie and pancetta, Roasted bell peppers stuffed with chipotle roasted lime couscous.

7. Liver: The only thing I could imagine being more delicious than truffles, or having a better richness in both flavor and texture than liver could possibly be liver confit in duck fat with truffle oil. Oh, mama.

8. Cameron’s 11″x15″ Stovetop Smoker: I first discovered this while cooking in a restaurant in San Francisco, where we used it for the house smoked bacon. It’s small, but perfect. Tomatillos, heirloom tomatoes (reserve the juice to make a mind-blowing tomato sauce), eggplant, and tofu are only a few in the long list of items that, when smoked, are a tasty way to move vegetarian or vegan dishes from the sides menu to the entrée menu. I also suggest experimenting with pizza toppings.

9. Duck fat: While that truth remains that I was vegan for 12-or-so years, things have changed and I am now a very strong advocate of always having duck fat on hand. A
pound or two goes a long way – makes you look impressively creative in the
kitchen, and isn’t excessively expensive. It’s a simple way to add
richness to anything when you’re happy to indulge in a dish that is well worth
turning a blind eye to saturated fat and calories. And let-me-tell-you …. Some stuffed pork chops browned in duck fat ….. well, I think you get my point. Duck fat is easy to obtain from your local butcher. Even a grocery
store butcher would probably be able to order it (ask ahead), though I strongly (very strongly) suggest going to a butcher, not your grocery store. The quality is incomparable.


This list will surely grow, but for now, for your peace of mind. don’t worry, the dishes mentioned here will all have recipes posted shortly. Take the time between then and now to pick up a few of these items. Especially the duck fat.