Sunday, March 6, 2011
I haven't any idea how I'm going to break it to my friend Tiziano, from whom I normally purchase pancetta, that I will no longer include it in my standard order. Or any order, ever again, for that matter.
How standard is this order, you may ask? Well, the last time I was at my favorite Italian market - where Tiziano works - interspersed with chatter about career, school, and his wife's soon-to-be-bestowed degree, he gathered up my order, and just as I turned to walk away, my "grazie" half-formed and out into the air, he glanced at the deli case, then quickly back at me, and said, "Pancetta?"
I was a bit surprised. I looked into my basket, Tiziano was right. There was no pancetta in my stack of deli items. Then I looked at my shopping list, and was reminded. "Oh, no. No thanks. I have some in the freezer."
And I did have some in the freezer. Some that I had purchased from Tiziano. But well over a month later - perhaps it's even two now - this pancetta still sits in my freezer, wrapped in quarter-pound packages, neglected. And I'm afraid that it will remain so, as I started the cure for our second homemade pancetta over this past weekend.
The recipe is, of course, from Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie (and if you've been reading about this Charcutepalooza thing, and wondering, where are the recipes?, we've all agreed not to publish them on our sites. However, if you're interested in charcuterie, it's worth checking the book out from your local library and/or making the purchase).
In my typical fashion for this winter, as I have been commuting to Boston for work and seem never to have the time to become organized for cooking, much less curing, our maiden voyage into pancetta involved some modifications to Mr. Ruhlman's recipe, most notably, the substitution of fennel seed for the called-for juniper berries.
I'm not sure if it's the fennel seed alone that is responsible, but JR and I are enamored of the pancetta. Truly enamored. The fat is silky, and a pristine white. I could admit to caressing the fat, but that would just seem weird. So, no, I do not caress the fat. At least not as far as anyone outside of our house knows.
We cut thick rounds, then carve them smaller, into cubes, and rectangles, and sometimes odd triangular shapes with thin tails of pork (should I name them? They're a little pet-like a la Ugly Dolls.), then saute them with shallots and crushed red pepper flakes - the pancetta hitting the pan first, then a few minutes into it, the shallots and crushed red pepper flakes are added. Sometimes we add peas, sometimes we toss the mix with pasta carbonara. Sometimes with potatoes. And this is all in the course of a week and a half. Ahhh, there are so many more foodstuffs that would benefit from the addition of our homemade pancetta. So, so many.
I've cooked a lot of pancetta in my time. It's one of the items that I always have in the kitchen (please note the mention of the now lonely and neglected pancetta parcels in our freezer. There is always a pancetta stash here to help with lazy weeknight dinners), and this - this is the most aromatic pancetta that I have ever had the pleasure of smelling. This is part of the allure - part of what keeps us reaching for the rolled belly, and adding it to every dinner.
For my 36th birthday, JR and I went to Italy. It rained on The Day, and between espresso macchiato in the morning and an overwrought and overly expensive birthday dinner at 8pm (more on this another time), we stopped in the medieval hill town of Pienza to grab lunch. A lunch of porchetta sandwiches, eaten under the arch of what I presume was the employee entrance door for the Museo Sinese - the doorbell of which I kept ringing with my shoulder as I leaned back to dodge the raindrops while chewing on the slow-roasted pork.
The smells from the surroundings of that circa 1458 street, the rain on the cobblestones, the porchetta, the warm bread, and the salumi and pecorino cheese ubiquitous to the gaggle of tourist-centric storefronts on Corso Il Rossellino, every one intertwined, as I chewed, intermittently - and accidentally - harassing visitors and museum workers alike with the ringing bell. This combination of scents has been, to this point, the most appealingly porky aroma I have ever encountered.
When you are obsessed with food, things like appealingly porky aromas take on special significance. As I'm sure you know. Maybe for you, it isn't pork. Or it isn't Italy. And the special day that a favorite aroma invokes isn't your not-quite-a-major-milestone birthday. For me, that smell conjures up my favorite place, with the love of my life, on a less than monumental birthday, with less than ideal weather, but still, a perfect, singular day.
And now, now I can have its equal. Its counterpart. An evocative, happy-memories porky aroma in our home. Any time that we desire it. And for that, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Charcutepalooza.
And thank you, Cathy and Kim for dreaming it up.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
This morning, JR caught me glancing out the kitchen window at him as he returned to the house, having finished shoveling a path to the barn, then to the cars, then down the driveway for the - ahhh, one thousandth time this year. Okay, fine. You're right. One thousand shovel-outs are not possible, as winter is technically only 89 days in length, and we're still 22 days away from its merciful (oh, please, I beg of you, Mother Nature, do be merciful, won't you?) end.
Answering my glance, he threw down the shovel, threw up his hands, and said, "I am DONE. DONE with this. All of this," waving his arms around to be sure that I understand that every last flake on the planet had rankled him this Sunday morning.
"You and every other person in the northeast," I replied.
"But me first. I want to be done first."
It occurred to me that the only thing to help lessen the sting of another 3 inches of snow was something decidedly bright - tangy, and citrus-y, yet sweet and with some forbidden - or, more accurately, completely out of season - fruit.
Ideally, this forbidden fruit would come to you as mine had, from the neighbor's blueberry bushes, frozen for just this sort of late-winter mood-enhancing emergency, but if not - while we're using lemons that don't exactly grow wild in Massachusetts - a bag of frozen blueberries from your market's freezer case will do. I know, I know. Sacrilege. But maybe next year we'll all plan ahead and have a couple bags of local blueberries in our freezers for just this sort of emergency.
With this plan for next year now in mind, we still need to act to alleviate our winter doldrums. And act now. So let's move quickly to the pantry, gather up the flour and sugar, then get ourselves to our respective fridges for butter, eggs, cream cheese, and a lemon, and finally pull that bag of berries out of the freezer, and get to work on these bad boys. Twelve muffins being just enough to inspire glee for a few days as we roar into March.
Makes 12 muffins
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 large eggs
the zest and juice of one lemon (approximately 1/4 cup of juice)
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 /2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries (one 10-ounce bag if using frozen berries)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the sugar and butter until it is creamed. Add the cream cheese until it is completely blended with the sugar and butter mixture. Add the eggs, one at a time, until they are incorporated into the batter, then add the zest and pour in the lemon juice. Mix until zest and juice are also incorporated.
Meanwhile, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium mixing bowl so that the baking powder and salt are evenly distributed, then add the dry ingredients to the wet. Mix until the flour mixture has just been incorporated into the wet, then gently fold in the frozen blueberries. Folding in is just as it sounds: pour the berries into the mixing bowl, then, using a spoon or a spatula, move batter from the bottom of the mixing bowl to the top to cover the berries, mixing those batter-covered berries into the rest of the batter, and repeat until the berries are evenly distributed throughout the batter.
Using two spoons - one to scoop from the mixing bowl, and one to scrape into the muffin liners (as we have ourselves a very sticky batter) - transfer approximately equal amounts of batter to each of the 12 muffin liners.
Bake until the muffins are golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin emerges batter-free, 32 to 35 minutes. Allow the muffins to cool in the muffin pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack until they are completely cooled.
These muffins are good warm, but their true lemony character shines most brightly once they've cooled completely. No harm in trying 'em both ways just to be sure, though.
Estimated cost for 12 muffins: $7.05. A bargain for a winter bright spot and reminder that berry-growing days will be soon be upon us. Hey, JR and I even spotted a daffodil shoot against the chicken coop this afternoon, so it really is right around the corner, this warm weather of which we've been so cruelly deprived (I know, I know. I live in the northeast. It's not exactly news that winter is cold and, yeah, brutal here. But I don't want to let the truthful expectation of what winter is like get in the way of a good, overly dramatic moment. Thank you for indulging me).
Okay, now back to the pricing: The sugar costs 16-cents for 1 1/2 cup. The butter has gone up in price recently, and is now 83-cents per stick for Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value store brand. The 365 cream cheese has also increased in price, and is now $1.69 (up 40 cents!) for 8 ounces, so our 6 ounces cost $1.28. I used a lemon from a bag of 8 that cost $3.99, so roughly 50-cents each, but if you were to buy one lone organic lemon, it's going to cost you around 99-cents, so I went with that for this math. The flour costs $4.49 for 19 cups, so 28.5-cents for our lemon-blueberry muffins - we'll call it 29-cents (I did see King Arthur Flour for $3.44 at Target this week, fyi, but we'll go with the higher price to be on the safe side). Baking powder costs less than 1-cent for the quantity used here, but we'll call it 1-cent, and the blueberries that I bought from my neighbor cost $3.50. 365 brand wild blueberries cost $2.99, so you can save 51-cents if you go that route. Not too shabby for a baked treat that (possibly) staves off the last round of winter depression for 59-cents per each citrusy, sweet, forbidden-fruit laden muffin.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Gauguin's painting The Ham has hung on our refrigerator for years. Seven years, 6 months, and 10 days to be precise, as it was a souvenir from our honeymoon sojourn to the great master's studio on a hill overlooking Aix-en-Provence.
Aix's noble lineage is clear as one walks its shade- and cafe-lined streets; stylish and chic, yet casual and relaxed all at once. After a leisurely lunch at one of those cafes, the specifics of our meal sadly now forgotten - but certainly consisting, at least in part, of a glass of rosé - JR and I began the walk to Gaguin's studio. A fabulous idea if the new bride isn't wearing borrowed flip flops (borrowed from JR's niece, so no need to "ewwww", but borrowed nonetheless).
The walk is a bit of a challenge for the flip-flop clad, as it is entirely uphill. At least, this is the borrowed flip-flop wearing bride's memory of the trek seven years, six months, and 10-plus days later.
That summer, 2003, was the summer of the deadly European heatwave, discouraging all but a dozen or so tourists from visiting Gauguin's studio that afternoon. His studio, the brochure informed us, was just as he had left it. His easel, the furnishings, his palette and brushes, even a cape and a hat - as though he had just vacated the premises.
The oranges used for his many still life paintings also appeared to be just as he had left them, as their skins were quite shriveled, and alas (or thankfully) there was no ham, 100-plus years old or otherwise.
Thanks to the dearth of visitors that June day, JR and I were able to spend a quiet 15 minutes in Gauguin's atelier, imagining the artist setting up the then plump fruit, rearranging, until finally, it was just right, then settling in to paint.
I wonder if Gauguin loved fruit, or if it was simply the practice of painting the sphere that led him to paint it so frequently.
Today, while shooting bacon and pancetta for this post, JR called out from the living room, "You don't need to shoot every nuance of the bacon, you know." There was a pause and then, "No bacon is safe around you."
It was true, no slab, no slice, no crisped bit of bacon was spared a look through the lens. Not one.
The bacon-making process is, just as the duck prosciutto process was, as simple as simple can be. Once we received our pink salt from sausagemaker.com, we spent 15 or so minutes making the cure for both pork bellies - one to become bacon and one to become pancetta - sealed each of them up in their own gallon storage bags, and each night, JR flipped them to distribute the cure.
Wednesday morning before work, I rinsed and patted dry the soon-to-be-bacon slab o' pork, then placed it back in the refrigerator in a clean storage bag. We had 3 days before which we had to roast the bacon (it can be done immediately upon rinsing if you have the time, or have properly scheduled your Charcutepalooza activities. If not, you have a 3-day grace period. For which I was quite thankful.), so on Saturday morning, I arose, set the oven to 200, placed the pork belly into the oven on a roasting rack set on a sheet pan, and let it slowly roast for 2 hours.
As Michael Ruhlman instructs in Charcuterie, the pig skin was sliced off while the bacon was still warm. I sliced a bit of the warm bacon to taste test (as Mr. Ruhlman also instructs. I am so very by-the-letter, I am), then left the bacon slab alone (as in, did not eat any additional warm slab bacon) to cool.
Late Saturday afternoon, once the cooling was complete, I fried four slices. Four slices of the best bacon I have ever had.
The fat from those four afternoon bacon slices was upcycled (yep. I think that's a pretty appropriate use of "upcycled") to roast our potatoes and carrots for dinner. Then, not content with rendered bacon fat alone, we diced four more slices of bacon to add to the potato-carrot mix.
When the last bit of crisp bacon was gone (oh, and the potatoes and carrots, too. They were a part of the dish after all), I began planning Sunday breakfast. Bacon and egg sandwiches on wheat. And when the breakfast sandwiches had been devoured, I plotted out the fennel, potato, and bacon pizza we'd have for dinner.
The two pounds of bacon we made is unlikely to last very long at this rate, so pork belly is back on the grocery list. And perhaps the obsessive photography sessions will eventually lose their luster. Odds are against it, though. I sure do love me some bacon.
(Oh, and I'd be on the lookout for obsessively photographed pancetta in the near future, too. Just sayin'.)