Friday, February 17, 2012

Make-Your-Own-Rilletes: An Adventure in & Rant on Preserving Meat

my homemade pork rilletes
 Valentine's Day this year was fantastic.  Matt treated me to dinner and drinks at a couple of local Portland establishments that we'd never been to.  The first was an amazing restaurant called Grace where we had an aperitif in what is a converted decommissioned Methodist church from the 1850s.  We didn't have any food there but I can highly recommend their bar as having very interesting and delicious cocktails as well as fabulous and out-of-the-norm ambiance.  After a drink we headed to our final destination: a tiny restaurant called Figa that I'd been eyeing for months, on Congress Street, toward's the Mujoy Hill end of the city. 

Matt and I are happy and dedicated consumers of preserved meats (especially Matt).  As such, we were very excited to see a fantasmagoric charcuterie plate available as a starter at Figa.  Matt always gets the charcuterie plate or the antipasto plate (if we're doing Italian).  It's his thing.  And I always sit there and pretend I prefer my appetizers (in this case roasted bone marrow with an oxtail ragu and caper berry gremolata served with crazy delicious bread).  But I inevitably break down and beg for a couple of bites of this and that.  This and that, in this case, was cured pork jowl, duck pastrami, chicken neck & rabbit terrine (among several others), served with homemade pickles and melba toasts.  It was a reminder of just how much I enjoy cured meats and preserved meats in general and how much it annoys me when people act like they are "gross" or "unnatural."  Yes, people do that.

In fact, just last week I got into a semi-heated-conversation with a rather opinionated and ill-informed lady over whether aged meat was "gross" or not.  She was howling about how disgusting it is that in Japan Kobe beef is "just hung out to dry" in the open and how it is unsanitary and revolting.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine - when people a) are overly vocal about personal opinions to a large group (except on blogs, of course :)) and b) when they are actually kind of wrong about said-vocal-opinions.  This woman truly believed with all her heart that there was an inherent difference between dry-aging beef and aging things like cheese or salami.  And that the former was also, by virtue of being aged, a disgusting and "wrong" thing to eat.  I can understand that argument if it's based on not liking the flavor of aged beef, but to brazenly proclaim that something is just "gross" without having eaten it or knowing how it's made is beyond my tolerance level.  Argh.

I bought this fantastic postcard for Roman this Christmas
at the Fort Worth Science & History Museum

I got roped in.  When I pointed out to this woman that she eats mold all the time if she likes aged cheeses or salami she got flustered and annoyed and proclaimed that "well, salami is not the same thing - there's a PROCESS to it."  As if people in Japan just randomly hung cow carcasses out in the open for 28 days and then ate them!  There is a process to all of it, lady.  And most of those processes are well-established and closely regulated (thanks to our sometimes overzealous but necessary USDA and thousands of years of collective meat-curing experience!).  Go read up before you start proclaiming (at least in front of me). 

And so, having simmered down slightly, I valiantly ask the following as rhetorical pieces of intellectual stimulation:

What is it about preserving food that freaks modern-day-eaters out?  (I clearly recall the shreaks of horror that came from the chefs on Chopped when they were given whole-chicken-in-a-can as one of the secret ingredients; does look kind of gross but once one of the chefs explained how and why his grandmother used to can whole chickens on their farm, it no longer seemed wrong.) 

Why is it that people so hate (and demonize) canned foods?  (It has become a line of demarcation for those horrible food snobs out there.  I think I'll scream if I hear one more person say how gross canned food is.  I even had a guy who worked at an Italian deli tell me he thought preserving tuna in olive oil was "unnatural.") 

What is SO disgusting about dry-aged beef?!  Granted, it's not my favorite either but...just sayin'.

ALL that aging, curing and preserving means is that the meats were preserved, aged, sealed and saved -  so that in a time when refrigeration wasn't as prolific people could still have meat all year round.  Is that wrong or gross somehow?  We are very lucky to live in a time of 24/7 refrigeration and utter convenience, but that doesn't mean that there's no value in understanding the art of food preservation.  Apart from being practical it is a different, tasty and vastly interesting way to prepare foods that also allows for a completely different level of availability, economy, and nose-to-tail eating.

* * * 

Anyway, now that my horrifically-long introduction-rant is over with, let's get to the whole point behind it: I mentioned briefly back in November that I was making Pork Rilletes as one of the appetizers I was serving at Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws.  It was my foray into the world of homemade preserved and cured meats and it was a smashing success.  Not only were the rilletes amazingly delicious but they opened my eyes to a whole world of lesser-cuts-made-magical.  And best of all, through all of my research for the best rilletes recipe available, I came across some awesome websites and books on the subject that I feel compelled to share.

My Top 5 Books / Websites on Preserved & Cured Meats
yes, I do know this is a hate-me or love-me post :)

Thyme & bay pork rilletes

I used this as a visual guide for my adventure in pork rilletes.  I am still in awe that the Paupered Chef actually made pork rilletes for his entire wedding (!).  I found this the most pragmatic visual guide to homemade rilletes online.
4. Charcutepalooza & Michael Ruhlman
This is a giant, year-long blog challenge.  Every month there's a new charcuterie-challenge - everything from duck prosciutto to homemade salami using Michael Ruhlman's book (link above).  Very cool.

This blog is a focused study on home-curing.  Highly informative, simple, and delicious-looking.2. 
I am kind of overwhelmed by this website but I utterly love it.  I totally aspire to that holistic approach to food - eaten, appreciated, grown and prepared with appreciation from every angle.

The original recipe I followed was an overly simplistic one written by Stéphane Reynaud of Pork & Sons in an article promoting his book for an Australian magazine.  And it had been sitting in my recipe book for close to 3 years before I managed to fish it out again.  It was an inspiration more than a guide, but it truly made this burgeoning pork devotee want to buy this "definitive guide to pork."

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