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A week before Christmas I was looking in my spice cupboard for some specific ingredients that I might need to make my annual homemade Christmas gifts. I hated to give the same thing year after year – after all, how much homemade jam can people use? – and I had decided that this would be the year of the spiced nuts. The annual activity, now nearly a decade long, was perhaps inspired by the delicious box of baked goods my pastry-chef step-sister would send along every year. I’m not much of a baker, but I started to can my meager harvest of strawberries and tomatoes and was proud enough to give a jar to each of my parents and my grandmother. I expanded to pickles the next year and then experimented with jelly: the least successful was wine-flavored (or perhaps I should say, the least versatile), the most sought after was my strawberry balsamic black pepper. This year, inspired by a recent trip to Morocco where a shop’s excellence might be measured in the depth of their ras al hanout and the entire country seemed to smell like the inside of an herboriste, I wanted to use spices, and lots of them.
I decided upon three versions of nuts – New England, Italian and Spicy – and started searching for the appropriate spices in my cupboard. The cupboard is in the corner, near the sink, which means that it goes back at least two feet – farther than I can reach without perching on the counter. I thought I had a pretty good mental inventory of what was in the cupboard, but was taken aback by some of what I found. Memories from past dishes and travels were defined through my spices, much as I had recently seen the history of the country of Morocco defined their food.
Digging around in the cupboard, while sitting next to the rack of drying dishes and row of olive oils and vinegars, I started pulling out jars. First there was the homemade pate spice, thoughtfully labeled as such, just one souvenir from my year-long charcuterie adventure. Next I pulled out a large jar, half-filled with dark orange spices, and smelling of heat and flavor. It had to be chili spice or something with cayenne and cumin and ground hot peppers, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. It had to be recent, judging by the shiny lid and location at the front of the shelf, and I swore to be better in the new year about labeling my concoctions. Behind the chili spice were a few jars of homemade spices purchased on a trip to Florida for a friend’s wedding: Florida fish rub, Thai seasoning and lemon pepper, all made from mostly locally grown (to the purveyor in Florida) ingredients. These brought back memories of how happy my friend was, nearly bounding down the aisle to meet her husband to be at the altar; of the afternoon on the beach when my husband first saw dolphins in the wild; of the morning before the wedding when we sought out our favorite tourist destination – a farmer’s market – to buy distinctly local delicacies that we could not find back in the northeast.
I set aside some rosemary and thyme, both picked from the raised bed in my tiny urban back yard, and dried in the dehydrator for my own use. Behind that I found the jar of ground hot peppers – truly the spiciest and most flavorful blend I have ever used – given to us by an old friend of my husband’s.
On the next shelf up I found a container with pink salt – clearly labeled as curing salt, not for normal consumption – an ingredient I had only recently discovered and learned to use. This reminded me of what I had learned in the past year as a cook and of the family and friends, virtual and in-person, who helped me with encouragement, stories of success, taste-testing and sous chef-ing. I found a jar of za’atar spice, a few years old now, that a friend gave us when she and her husband moved overseas. I thought of her and her little daughter, whom I had only met once, and thought to make a point to send her an email. I also found a jar of whole nutmeg, a gift from a high school friend’s mother for my wedding, now nearly four years old. She had sent us a box of spices after the wedding, and this was all that remained. I doubt she knew I was much of a cook – I wasn’t much use in the kitchen back when her daughter and I snuck rum from the liquor cabinet and blasted Pearl Jam in her bedroom – but her small gift was one of my favorites.
I gathered the spices I would be needing to make my homemade Christmas gifts, and put the rest back into the cupboard, trying to bring a few forward to encourage their use. I knew that spices lost their pungency, especially after a year or two, but I couldn’t bring myself to toss the za’atar – especially because I only recently was inspired to use spices from this part of the world – or a few others that reminded me of dishes I had attempted or friends with whom I had shared a kitchen or a meal.
I wondered what other shelf in my life contained such memories, such a ledger of times shared with others or skills learned. I vowed in the coming year to revisit this shelf more often, to try new dishes, label old spice mixes and toss those that lost their flavor. If I could do this on one little shelf in my life, I could only image the possibilities elsewhere.
Italian Spiced Nuts
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a separate bowl, whisk 1 egg white until frothy
Toss a pound of nuts (your choice – maybe mixed or all cashews or almonds) in the egg white until coated. Toss the nuts with the spice mixture and roast in a single layer in 325 degree oven (on a silpat, greased cookie sheet or parchment paper) until lightly brown, ten minutes or less.
Take out of oven and immediately toss with a half cup (or more!) or grated parmesan (or grated pecorino would also be delicious). Package up for gifts or just serve at room temp.
For, perhaps, the first time in this year of charcuterie, I did not know what to expect. I was sure I had confit at one point or another in my culinary life. I spent seven years (albeit all during my naive twenties) with an expense account, after all, have traveled internationally, have written about food. But for the first time I approached a recipe truly not being able to picture the end result. I had pork confit once – the chef claimed to have spent all afternoon making it and was very proud. But I found it unremarkable; just room temperature fatty shredded meat to spread, awkwardly, on toast.
But still, I read and re-read the recipes. I plotted my path to obtain the ingredients (this being my first charcuterie effort as a part-time resident of the city of New York). I did a little research.
Hmmm…. did you know that confit is simply a term that means immersing meat or produce in a substance for preservation or flavor. Fruit can be confit-ed by cooking in sugar or honey, vinegar and water, similar to a jam. I have unknowingly confit-ed roasted peppers and tomatoes in olive oil to preserve them for a bit longer than their brief shelf life in raw form. And now, I can say, I have confit-ed duck.
It was so easy. And tasty.
I figured that the most time intensive part of this effort – which simply involved mostly passive cooking – would be finding the ingredients. I hoped to source my protein from the Union Square Farmer’s Market but figured that I might have to venture further afield for the fat. In the spirit of confit, I planned to buy whatever meat looked good – and was not extravagantly expensive. However, that I would be making duck confit was decided as soon as I walked into the square and met Matthew from Hudson Valley Duck Farm. I told him of my confit aspirations and asked his advice. It was easy he said, just cook the legs low and slow in the smallest pot in which they would fit in a single layer.
“I don’t need extra fat?” I asked.
“You’ll end up with more than enough when you are done cooking these legs,” he assured. He also added that I could salt and season them at least overnight – but if I wanted to let them sit in the fridge for up to a week, tightly wrapped in plastic, the flavor would only improve.
In the end I seasoned the two legs I purchased from Matthew with about a tablespoon each of salt and herbes de provence and wrapped them in plastic for three days.
On day three I washed and patted the legs dry, and then arranged them skin side down in a smallish oven-proof sauce pan. I baked them for about three hours at 200 degrees, and then took the top off and finished it off for another twenty minutes or so. The fat was beautiful, golden-tinged and clear while the meat was beginning to roast, but was still tender. The fat was not completely covering the meat, as I imagined it might by the recipe instructions. Was this still confit, I wondered?
I poured the fat into a half quart canning jar, and then, when the legs were cool enough to handle, I separated them and added them to the fat. They meat fell apart in my hands and I couldn’t resist taking a taste. It was fatty and unctuous, perfectly roasted and tender. The two legs, including the rendered fat, but after discarding the rest of the skin, perfectly filled one canning jar. I made sure the meat was covered in fat and then let it sit on the counter for the next two hours before dinner.
For dinner, I picked up a strong semi-soft cheese that I thought would go well with the confit, and a loaf of fig bread from a local artisanal bakery. At home, I had perfectly ripe tomatoes from a previous farmer’s market excursion that needed to be eaten, and made a salad of them with basil from my front patio. My husband, Steve, opened a bottle of a bordeaux-style red wine. And we ate.
It was just meat in a mug of fat, as Steve pointed out, but it was delicate and flavorful. The confit held up well to strong cheese and wine, but on its own with just the fig bread, the meat’s sweetness shone. We ate not quite half of the jar, and I capped it and placed the rest in the refrigerator, despite my (relative) comfort that it was shelf-stable. I marveled at the simplicity of preserved meat in a jar, whose roots can be traced to the time of the Renaissance in rustic southern France. I may not have been able to picture confit before that afternoon, but I know to which standard I will hold all others.
I feel there is a reason pate is sold in such small slices. Organ meat – even a small amount – is a powerful thing. And somehow the French (or maybe Americans’ perception of French cuisine) have helped associate that strong flavor with luxury, despite pate’s humble origins. Pate began as a way to utilize all parts of France’s beloved pig – adding strong flavors like herbs and wine to enhance (or mask?) those of liver or other organ meat. The pate I have most often eaten is smooth or almost creamy – ground or processed into something associated with glasses of earthy wine and slivers of stinky cheese. When I think pate, I think fancy picnic or holiday cocktail party.
But I know these associations are very… American. And not at all in the spirit of why pate was created and eaten in the first place. So when I was choosing a recipe for this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge, I decided to go with a version of the original French country-style pate, or Pate de Campagne.
If Pate de Campagne had originated in the United States (and I would venture to guess that some version has been, or is, quite popular in certain regional cultures) it would be called meatloaf. For country-style pate is basically ground or rough chopped pork butt with a bit of liver, flavored with onion, garlic, herbs and wine. My “American” version of this is pretty similar, albeit sans liver, and makes a great Tuesday night dinner.
I consulted a few recipes, and decided to chop and then process about two pounds of fatty pork butt and a half pound of pork liver with homemade pate seasoning, an onion and a few garlic cloves. Instead of tossing in a few eggs and breadcrumbs a la Betty Crocker, I made a panade of eggs, heavy cream and red wine and then mixed the two together until I had a wet consistency that reminded me of some of my sausage-making efforts of the past few months. I lined a loaf pan with plastic wrap and poured in the meat, covered it with foil and then cooked in a water bath (or bain marie) for an hour and a half.
Of the recipes I consulted, one had called for chilling for a day before baking, another for weighting and chilling for a day afterward. A third, from this episode by Jacques and Julia, mention neither. In fact these two venerable chefs start with ground pork and add whole pieces of liver, ham and veal – which seems to be an even easier approach. And pate is supposed to be about ease, right? And rustic preparation? And simplicity?
After baking, I decided to just let my pate cool for a few hours, and then served it along with oil-packed tomatoes, saute-ed mushrooms, dark bread and a glass of cabernet. It was good and quite rich, despite the low liver-to-pork butt ratio. And it crumbled apart a bit – perhaps a finer grind of meat, chilling and/or weighting would have improved the presentation. But in the end I had created a gourmet-feeling meal… on a Tuesday.
Over the next week we picked at it and brought it to a friend’s house for dinner where a few people had a bite or two. “This is great!” everyone exclaimed. And, despite the lack-luster presentation, it was pretty tasty. But what the French have long known and I found out, two and a half pounds of pate is a lot. If this were a an American-style meatloaf it would be gone in days – a quarter pound or more eaten for lunch and dinner until it disappeared. The meat’s flavor – most likely beef and not pork – enhanced, or shall I say overtaken, by ketchup or salt or cheese. Is this version preferable to my French country-style pate sitting half uneaten in the fridge as I type?
In the end I might say that this was my greatest disappointment yet in my Year of Magical Meating, if measured by how quickly my dish was devoured or the likeliness that I might make it again. But in some ways my country pate has taught me the most: charcuterie is meant to be created with patience and skill – a day of chilling, or taking the time to grind the meat finer, might have made a significance difference in its texture and presentation. And perhaps these strong-flavored dishes are best enjoyed from the French approach of moderation, savoring the strong and earthy flavors of high quality ingredients while sharing with community, whether in jeans on a Tuesday or a cocktail dress on a Saturday. I realized that there are no rules for enjoying pate or any charcuterie – but that it is best done with others. From this perspective, perhaps this has been my greatest success.
I am writing this having just driven (ok, my husband drove most of it) from Vermont straight through the night to Brooklyn, where we will be spending half of our time in the coming year. The first half of this month has been an adjustment as we figure out what will stay in our Somerville apartment and what we should bring to our new Brooklyn life. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen items are the most contentious. Will I be dehydrating more in New England or the Big Apple? Where should I keep my counter top composter? My canning pot? As I pack and repack and unpack, I am left thinking about how important food is to my life. It is, in part, my vocation – I have been writing primarily about food for the past year and what it means to me, my culture and my ideals. It is also, I have come to realize through the past seven months of charcutepalooza, through our half-move and through my other gardening, cooking and writing projects, one of the main ways that I connect with others. So, quite literally, where I keep my Cuisinart and All-Clad is where my home is.
I was thinking of all this as I strove to plan ahead for this month’s charcuterie challenge a few weeks ago. I kept bringing my cookbook back and forth to Brooklyn, trying to decide when I could find a few days in one place to finish a terrine, let alone a group of friends with whom I could share it. In truth, it was more about the latter than the former. I could Macgyver a terrine in almost any kitchen, but to me it wouldn’t be worth it if it sat in either of my, now mostly bare, refrigerators. If there was one thing charcutepalooza taught me, it is that connecting with others through the food I make is as important as executing the challenges themselves.
Luckily, my husband was asked to play with a few bands at a music festival in Vermont. Many of our Boston-area friends would be there, camping in quarters even tighter than our tiny lots in Somerville, for three days. We would need a lot of food. We would need a terrine.
So, two days before we were to leave (from Boston, my food processor and heart-shaped molds luckily still at apartment #1), inspired by Michael Ruhlman’s scallop and crab terrine recipe, I bought 3/4 pounds of white fish (cod), 3/4 pounds scallops and a half pound crab. In a food processor I combined the fish and scallops with saffron-infused cream and egg whites and then folded that now-creamy mixture together with flaked crab and fresh chives and then poured that into plastic-wrap-lined molds.
I put foil over the molds and then cooked them in a water bath until their temperature reached 130 degrees. Next I cooled and weighted them in the fridge overnight.
The following day I packed them in our ice-filled cooler and made a quick cucumber and dill salsa to serve alongside.
By the time we made it to Vermont, our tent packed alongside boxes of books and shoes that would be heading to Brooklyn the following week, the sunlight was already starting to wane, and it felt as it summer itself was not long behind. But instead of focusing on what was behind me, or what lay ahead, I decided instead to sit still and enjoy where I was at that moment: a perfect summer evening, surrounded by friends with whom I could share food that, in some small way, expressed exactly that.
Living 500 miles from my home town, I try and plan one long weekend home during the summer to spend some quality time with my dad. Ever since I was young, he has been a major contributor to the family cooking, employing varying degrees of adventure. When I was five or six, I remember him bringing home the strangest fruit he could find at our small-town grocery store: a star fruit, pomegranate or mango. I recall the first time he brought home the latter – it was unripe, but never having before seen a mango, we didn’t know what to expect and its astringent taste dried out our mouths. Now, decades later, my childhood home finally has cable (we lived too far out in the country when I was growing up) and one of my dad’s go-to channels is the Food Network. A physics major in college and a builder by trade, he particularly loves Alton Brown and his scientific explanations and home-built cooking devices.
So nowadays when my dad and I catch up on the phone a few times a week, we often talk food. He was so impressed by my latest charcuterie exploits that I sent him homemade duck proscuitto and a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for Father’s Day. We have since been making plans to build a homemade smoker out of an old mini-fridge.
And then: the emulsion challenge.
The timing was right – I would bring my grinder home and my dad offered to set up a work table in the garage. The local grocery store has expanded since the days that mangoes were considered exotic, and now I figured I could buy almost any ingredient I might need once there. We decided on late morning, on the 4th of July. And what would be more patriotic than homemade hot dogs? Our plans were made.
While my dad’s had made sausage with my grandparents countless times, it had been a few decades, so I took charge of seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard) and chopping the beef stew meat for the first trip through the grinder, along with just a bit of pork fat (fat back).
We ground the meat first through a large die and then again through a smaller die, keeping it as cool as possible in a metal bowl atop ice. Ruhlman and others cite temperature as being a main element in keeping the texture firm and not mealy, so we started with nearly frozen meat and a chilled grinder as well.
I’ll note here that I also skipped the step that called for curing the meat with pink salt overnight. In speaking with the same butcher, a man who owned both a butcher shop and a gun shop side by side in a neighboring town so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, who also refused to sell me pink salt until he quizzed me on my curing experience, he noted that if I was planning to eat the hot dogs in the next few days and didn’t mind a brown versus pink color, then I could skip that step. Again, its about knowing how the ingredients work together. I was learning… In fact, for one of the first times in my memory, my dad – a man who could fix or build anything – was learning alongside me.
Next we cleaned the grinder and put that and the meat back into the freezer while we re-grouped. I must admit, I was a bit worried about the next step. I had asked the butcher from whom I bought the beef and casings if he had any tips, and his response was, “Keep it cold and don’t break the emulsion.” The long directions, according to Ruhlman, included adding liquid, and mixing the meat until it reaches specific temperature points; however the emulsifying step under the hot dog recipe only noted a quick two minute spin in a food processor, with no added liquids. I read the recipe aloud to my dad (neither of us were much on following directions when cooking, preferring to wing it based upon experience and instinct) and we debated what to do. For the first time the two of us – both a bit stubborn – feeling equally comfortable with the same task. Then I realized: we’re cooking. And we’re using ingredients with which we are familiar. While we may never have ground meat into a sticky paste to stuff in a clean pig intestine (I couldn’t find sheep casings), we understood the concept. We decided just to go for it.
So we put the very cold, almost frozen ground meat into the food processor and let it run for two minutes as the recipe indicated. And we both agreed that it just didn’t look paste-y enough. I suggested adding a few ice cubes and a minute later my dad added a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and then a touch of water. Finally, we agreed that it was starting to look like an emulsion. How did we know? I’m not sure; we just trusted our collective instincts.
Finally we could stuff the hot dogs. Admittedly, in the larger pig casings and without the tell tale pink tinge, they did look a lot like sausage. Which I guess a hot dog technically is.
Maybe an hour later, with a pint of my dad’s homemade beer in hand, we threw these on the grill. The texture was right – smooth, with a bite from the casing. But the flavor was garlic-y and mustard-y with just a touch of smoky spice. Either the best hot dog I have ever had – or just a flavorful smooth sausage. But in the end, did it really matter what it was called? I just called it a good afternoon cooking with my dad.
Of all the wisdom I have imparted in the past couple of years, my pickled strawberry recipe has been one of the most consistently popular posts. I recall being inspired to make these after visiting Garden at the Cellar, a particularly tasty farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Chef Will Gilson, where pickled strawberries were featured with one of the daily specials. The next day I basically swapped strawberries for cucumbers in a pickle recipe to see what might happen. And well, they were a tad strange. Certainly interesting and unique, but it was as if they too perfectly straddled the line of sweet and savory. I brought them to a few dinner parties and friends were excited to taste them, but would chew them thoughtfully, perhaps taking just one more to ensure that their flavors were a bit too odd to go back for a third. I still assert that they can make a nice accompaniment for a charcuterie platter or cheese plate, but only for the more adventuresome palate.
So with this year’s batch of fresh-picked strawberries I decided to tweak my own recipe, this time using my grandmother’s bread and butter pickles as a basis. I made two version, one more local than the other. Both turned out well – although the version with honey is a bit sweeter and more complex. These are certainly on the sweet side – the amount of added sweetener ensured that, although in the future if I started with sweeter strawberries I would cut it down even further. As it was, this season’s berries didn’t quite hold up to last season’s. So for all those looking for a pickled strawberry recipe, I ask you to give some feedback on this one. I think that if I were to make this again, I’d stick with honey as a sweetener and add maybe black peppercorns for bite or substitute balsamic vinegar in place of some of the white vinegar. Oh well… maybe next year.
Sweet Pickled Strawberries
*fills about a pint jar of strawberries
In a sauce pan, over medium heat: heat 1 cup vinegar, 3/4 – 1 cup sweetener (depending on sweetness of berries, sweetener used and personal taste) and 2 tablespoons of salt. Perhaps a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract. Heat until the sweetener and salt are dissolved and the liquid reaches a simmer.
Meanwhile, clean and de-stem enough small, ripe, blemish-free berries to fill a clean pint jar. Layer in a few clean and unbruised mint or basil leaves.
Pour the boiling liquid over the strawberries. Once at room temperature, store in the fridge. Let them sit 12 – 24 hours or more before serving.
Yesterday, once the clouds broke, I convinced my husband to go strawberry picking with me. I thought I had missed the season, but the late spring and mix of hot and cool temperatures have kept the strawberry fields in full harvest mode. In fact, I had never seen plants so loaded with fruit! Unfortunately, because of the heavy rains of late, most of the fruit was blemished. Some enough to still pick and eat (I knew I could cut off the soft parts and use them in short cake topping or fresh-sliced on yogurt) while too many others were not. And, unfortunately, the flavor wasn’t what I remembered from seasons past. But still, a short half hour later we had almost ten pounds of fruit among us.
From past experience, I knew these had to be processed as quickly as possible. So today I cleaned them all, dipped them all in boiling water for a few seconds (a recent discovery, as this will keep fresh berries from rotting and molding for a few days longer) and froze many of them. You can watch this process here on my Youtube channel. I also set some fresh berries aside for eating, pickled some (recipe and video to come!) and boiled the rest in a bit of honey water for shortbread topping. I decided against jam this year, in part because I will be picking raspberries with my mom, aunt and cousins next week and anticipate a full-on jam session then.
However, what yesterday’s farm visit really did get me thinking about was the fickleness of nature and the challenges of farming. I saw so many strawberries that would be rotting on the vine. Strawberries that were bad before they were ripe; berries that could not have been saved. As I uncovered more ruined berries than good, I remembered the large swaths of the country (the world, even) that are currently in a drought situation, and perhaps just as many areas that are flooded or experiencing epic rains. There are crops struggling to grow in all of these places, and people much more dependent upon those crops than I am upon my strawberries. I thought of the stereotype of the stoic farmer – one who does not express rage or sadness but resignation over a crop ruined by pests or rain or oppressive heat. And maybe for the first time, in my very tiny way, I could understand why. What could the farmer do but watch the last few weeks of rain come down, unable to alleviate the certain consequences. To be a farmer is to anticipate that nothing can be anticipated and plan for any eventuality. For many, that becomes untenable. And for each farm lost, many people lose a local source of food and large parcels of land that have been cared for by generations of one family.
So yesterday, I picked a bit more than I might have once I thought about the fate of my local farmer. And I remembered as well why I made the trek in the rain earlier in the day to shop the local farmer’s market. I was reminded why I am part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) which requires paying for the season’s worth of produce before the sprouts are even out of the ground. Every year I have experienced an embarrassment of riches from my CSA – weeks so full of gorgeous vegetables that it felt like a full time job to eat and preserve it all. But just as easily my weekly take might have been a quart of mushy strawberries, or worse, nothing. A CSA is a way to invest in a local farm, to help insure them against a rainy spring or drought-filled summer. Because I was reminded yesterday that my life is better when local farms thrive, and of course, so is theirs.