Appetite for Books
The Craft of Salting, Smoking,
and Curing

by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
$35.00, cloth
320 pages

Remarkable. Into a fat-phobic, fast food age, comes a book to guide home cooks in the ancient art of charcuterie. And thank goodness it has. These skills and knowledge should not be lost to the passing of generations or to the hegemony of Oscar Mayer.

Admittedly, you might not ever make some of these recipes or you may have to set aside a weekend to tackle them, but just as likely, you may find yourself a convert, beguiled by this ancient craft and inspired to become an artist in meat. I'll never make Bresaola; there's no clear mountain air to cure the beef for three weeks where I live. But there's no reason not to try a Fresh Garlic Sausage or Fennel-Cured Salmon. 

The authors admit in the first paragraph, that this is a not a book about quick meals for harried cooks, "it is a book for people who love to cook and eat."  Making hand-preserved foods at home  will make you a better cook. You'll face down daunting cuts of meat, learn to be meticulous about preparation and seasoning, and you'll develop a thrifty eye for scraps and leftovers.

The skills and output generated by this book seem to multiply themselves. Once you've made one sausage mixture, you can start to create your own. You'll never again scrape the natural aspic that forms around a weighted terrine into the garbage, but use it to enrich a vinaigrette or soup. And the fat used to poach a confit of duck doesn't get tossed out like a microwave plastic dish, but is used to cook heavenly potatoes.

Chapters begin with salt curing, a powerful technique that the authors describe as turning "the humble into the sublime." The book goes on to cover smoked foods, the simple luxury of  sausages, "individualistic and idiosyncratic" dry cured food, both elegant and grandmotherly pates and terrines, and confits slow cooked in fat, "the perfect cooking environment." The book finishes with recipes for sauces and side dishes from a smoky Carolina style barbecue sauce to a mustardy Sauce Gribiche.

This is not a book to be approached casually. Before undertaking most recipes, you'll want to read the introductory material for tips on timing and technique. And one of the hardest things I've found about homemade charcuterie is finding the cuts of meat you'll need. Not only venison or duck, but cuts like pork shoulder butt or pork back fat that are essential to flavor and texture. Supermarkets where I live carry plenty of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but finding a veal chop is like hitting the lottery. I finally ended where I should have started, at a Korean supermarket, where pork back fat was wrapped, stacked, and ready to go.

This is not cooking that comes naturally to most home cooks. You won't know the shortcuts you've developed to make omelets or layer cakes. So set aside time for prep - trimming cuts of meat (make sure your knife is honed) and measuring and mixing spices and flavorings. Don't rush yourself, and don't be afraid to work at the scale at which the recipes are written. This is work and you might as well do it once and store the extra in the freezer.

I began with Classic Pork Rillettes, which don't require gathering and trimming lots of different meats, just "very fatty" pork butt to be slow-simmered with plenty of aromatic vegetables. "Very fatty" pork qualifies as an exotic ingredient in my suburb, which may explain why my rillettes came out tender and shredded, but without the creaminess of this really irresistible spread. Next time I'll cushion the lean cuts with some of that hard to find fat.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I own a meat grinder. It was my 90-year old grandmother's contribution to our Y2K security. Never mind bank accounts wiped into ether, we would have ground meat. Once I finally marshaled the elusive back fat, I excavated the meat grinder  from the back of the closet and discovered it was just the thing for Turkey Sausage with Dried Tart Cherries. This is the way sausage should taste. Even notoriously bland turkey comes alive when spiced with ginger, sage, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper, each bite sparkling with a bit of tart cherry edged with wine.

After these initial forays, I was ready to tackle with Veal Terrine Gratin. This "classical terrine" is flavored with seared pork and bacon, spiced with cinnamon, coriander and cloves, combined with equal amounts of veal and pork fat, and rounded out with  sautéed and simmered shallots, garlic, Madeira, and brandy (after the butcher, stop at liquor store). After slowly baking in a bain marie, and cooling under weights, the terrine is dense and mellow. 

The authors suggest serving it with another classic, a sweet and winey Cumberland Sauce made on a base of currant jelly mellowed with powdered mustard and Madeira. This and the recipes for vegetable terrines, smoked and cured seafood, tomato and lemon confits will further build your kitchen skills and your larder.

This book is a bit of kitchen alchemy, born of thrifty, seasonal need to preserve food, these are techniques that create transcendent dishes.

© 2006 Claudia Kousoulas
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