The beautiful, beautiful world of pork

When people asked us what we were planning on doing in Barcelona, I always replied: “eat ham”. A funny, jokey response, right? Wrong.  It’s not that I wasn’t interested in seeing Barcelona’s sights, walking along the Ramblas and the narrow, winding, shaded medieval streets of the Gothic quarter, lounging on the beach, seeing the Gaudi buildings and all that, it’s just that I am first and foremost interested in the things you can do to a pig.

I was not to be disappointed.  Anna wrote about the wonderful tomato bread we had on our first night here, but our meal at the excellent Paco Meralgo also consisted of octopus with caramelised onions, cod fritters, asparagus sauteed with wild garlic, a ham and potato salad (Anna was initially skeptical of this, thinking that it was going to be some grocery store-style salad with mayo and cubes of diced ham–look how wrong she was):

and a plate of gorgeous dried sausage:
Our exploration of the fine meats Spain has to offer went on from this exciting start.  The next day we went to the Boqueria Market and bought a small selection of Serrano ham and jamón ibérico to snack on:

The Serrano was excellent, with a deep, rich cured flavour, but the real revelation was the jamón ibérico. This is the famed Spanish ham made from a specific breed of pig raised only in the Iberian peninsula, with the most prized animals fed only on acorns.  As far as I can tell, the hams are simply made–just salt-cured and dried for as long as three years–and they have this incredibly complex and sophisticated flavour: tangy, salty, nutty (Anna thought that the ham reminded her in a way of a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano), sharp, this is the greatest ham I have ever tasted.  This ham haunts my dreams and mocks me with its simple beauty.

The other great discovery was morcón, which we first had as part of an extremely (extremely!) generous mixed charcuterie plate at a tapas bar called Onofre.

It was so good that we went back there on our last night to have it again.  Morcón is the poor country relative of chorizo: the paprika-heavy seasoning is the same, but the morcón uses fattier, less expensive cuts of meat (my Spanish language comprehension is next to zero, so I believe that the server said that it is made from back meat…but I could be totally wrong about that) that are diced instead of ground.  If you have any doubts about how delicious fat is and the difference it can make in food, do a side-by-side comparison of morcón and chorizo.  The chorizo is excellent, yes, but I will take morcón over it any day.

Look at that beautiful fat!

When we got back I called my parents to let them know how the trip was and that we made it back safely, and my mom–who had been following Facebook updates about the vast quantities of ham and sausage we were eating–asked why we kept talking about ham and weren’t eating seafood.  We did eat seafood, delicious seafood, and that’s perhaps for a future post, but who can resist eating excessive amounts of cured meats when ones this good are on offer?

Sweet Italian Sausage


There was an annoying moment a couple of weeks ago in Top Chef Canada during the supermarket challenge when the smarmy prick Rob made a disparaging comment about Connie making sausages for the challenge.  He said something to the effect of why would people make sausages at home when they can just buy hot dogs.  Now, Rob is full of stupid kneejerk comments and it isn’t worth dwelling on them, and it seems like the problem with her puff pastry-wrapped chicken sausages was that they simply weren’t good enough to convince home cooks to attempt such a dish, but there was the general sense in the episode that homemade sausages maybe weren’t the most appropriate dish for people to cook at home.

Michael Pollan has written at length about the way in which food television has become about the spectacle of cooking rather than about cooking itself, and that it has lost the instructional and educational quality that early TV cookery shows, like Julia Child’s, had.  And isn’t this in part what was going on in that episode of Top Chef Canada?  That sausage, which isn’t an especially difficult food to prepare if you have the time and right equipment, was condescendingly seen to be beyond the grasp of the average supermarket dweller.  Or what about the way in which charcuterie plates have become trendy at upscale restaurants?  I have nothing against this, and there are few things more pleasing and satisfying than well-prepared and expertly seasoned cured or otherwise processed meats, but it does show the way in which charcuterie has travelled far away from its humble origins.

I started making sausage from scratch about a year and a half ago after my parents and Anna conspired to get me a meat grinder and a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie as a gift for Christmas. If you’re thinking of making sausages at home, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.  They cover the vast array of ways you can prepare charcuterie–curing, smoking, dry-curing, confit, sausage-making, and so on–all in a way that is practical for the home cook.  I have really only scratched the surface of the book and made sausage and pâté from it, but there’s easily enough material in here for years of exploration and experimentation. The book is beautifully illustrated and the step-by-step instructions are clear, easy to follow, and will have you making excellent sausage on your first attempt.

Making truly great sausage is the reason why this is worth doing at home.  There are some fine sausages available to buy in this city, but I prefer mine.  They’re much more flavourful, and as a nice bonus, they’re inexpensive to make.  Twelve or so feet of sausage usually costs around twenty dollars to make, and the quality of them is unmatched.  I know that the meat in them is great and isn’t just the sweepings from a butcher’s floor, I can adjust the flavourings and seasonings to exactly my taste, and best of all, they’re super fresh.  They take a bit of effort–it usually takes me about an hour and a half to make a batch of them–but because you’re making them in quantity, that effort will feed you for several meals.

My most recent batch was the sweet Italian sausages from Charcuterie.  I’d made the spicy version a couple of times and they’re great for putting into sauces or baking with pasta, or just frying up and eating, but I thought that I would try the sweet ones for a change.  I might even like them more than the spicy ones: unlike a supermarket-style “mild” Italian sausage which is mainly just bland, these sausages have a beautiful depth of flavour. They grill well and I used some of the leftover loose meat in a lasagne which turned out super well.

Sweet Italian Sausage
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie.
Makes 5 pounds of sausage

Ingredients:
4 pounds/1800g boneless pork shoulder butt, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 pound/450g pork back fat, diced into 1-inch cubes
1.5 oz/40g kosher salt
2 tbsp/32g granulated sugar
2 tsp/12g minced garlic
2 tbsp/16g fennel seeds, toasted (I like to coarsely crush these in a mortar and pestle to better distribute the fennel throughout the sausage)
2 tsp/6g coarsely ground black pepper
2 tbsp/16g sweet Spanish paprika
0.75 cup/185 ml ice water
0.25 cup/60 ml red wine vinegar, chilled

12 feet/4 meters hog casings, soaked in tepid water for at least 30 minutes and rinsed

Instructions:
Note: these are the basic instructions given in the book, though it deals with the steps in a much greater depth in the book.  Making sausage isn’t especially difficult, but it does require an understanding of the process if you are to make great sausage.

1. Combine all the ingredients except the water and the vinegar and toss to distribute the seasonings. Chill until ready to grind.
2. Grind the mixture through the small die into a bowl set in ice.
3. Add the water and vinegar to the meat mixture and mix with the paddle attachment (or sturdy spoon) until the liquids are incorporated and the mixture has developed a uniform, sticky appearance, about 1 minute on medium speed.
4. Sauté a small portion of the sausage, taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
5. Stuff the sausage into the hog casings, and twist into 6-inch/15-centimeter links. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.
6. Gently sauté or roast the sausage to an internal temperature of 150 degrees F./65 degrees C.

Sometimes Hipsters Get it Right

In this post, I will begrudgingly admit that there is some awesome food to be had in Toronto. Obviously as a stereotypical Montrealer, it pains me to say this, but there you go. (I am just kidding, folks, please do not take my Toronto ribbing too seriously.)

We all know that charcuterie is very hip right now, which is both awesome, because charcuterie is awesome, and makes me suspicious that it will lead to a lot of mediocre sausages out there in the world. It is without a doubt a wonderful thing that so many people are embracing previously marginalized ways of preparing often difficult cuts of meat; charcuterie is truly an art form at its best, while retaining a certain rustic humility that makes it simultaneously transcendent and comforting. It is also at the heart of current discussions of food ethics, particularly because charcuterie makes use of a lot of offal, which allows us to be thrifty in our meat consumption, and less wasteful. So we are big, big fans, but as I have expressed previously, I do worry about the fancification (if I may be allowed to invent a word) of what is, effectively, “peasant food”. I have found, though, that my dividing line between what “works” and what doesn’t seems to be how good a job people are actually doing with these foods and methods. Make it tasty, and I will have a lot less anxiety about it.

In that vein, there is a running theme on this blog where some “next hot foodie thing” is super hyped and I am skeptical of it, until I actually taste said source of hype and come around. See my post on the Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre , for example. This probably says a lot more about me, and my grumpiness, than anything else. In any case, this weekend I had a similar experience in the great Canadian metropolis of Toronto, where I spent a little over 24 hours on a work trip. Most of my time in the city was therefore spent in a windowless room staring at powerpoint slides, but I found the time to venture into the city first to meet up with my sister and her family, and then to meet up with my college roommate, the inimitable Kevin. Kevin is a dear friend who lived with me back when I was still a vegetarian, and who looks a lot like Captain Highliner these days. For real. Check it:

Apparently Captain Highliner was wringing his hands for weeks as to where to take me for dinner during my one evening in Toronto, because he thinks I’m scary. I’m not really scary, I’m just kind of a jerk to Kevin. He finally took me to The Black Hoof, a new-ish restaurant specializing in offal and charcuterie, which he loves, but he was worried that I would dismiss it as overly trendy. Indeed, The Black Hoof is, as far as I can tell, a current hotspot in the T-Dot, full of well-dressed young things with perfectly tousled hair and expensive clothes meant to look cheap. The Black Hoof folks make all of their own charctuerie and serve it in a”small plates” format, which is also very trendy right now, but like with charcuterie, I kind of love it because I love family style meals, for all their sociability and because they allow you to try lots of different things. (I have a problem with indecisive ordering.) So I was down with some small plates gluttony.

So here you had a place that seemed to have every current food trend all rolled in to one. Of course I wanted to hate it. And of course, I actually loved it. Say what you will about the “hipness” of the restaurant, they make some damn good food, and that overshadows any pretentiousness. To be fair, the actual space felt far less pretentious than what I had expected given their website, which is a little bit precious for my tastes. The service was excellent, friendly, and not too “quirky”, and the portions were perfect (enough but not too much) for a small plates menu. The space is very cool, but not so cool that it will look dated in six months. The whole restaurant felt much more effortless than I had expected, which was nice.

And then there was the food. We had a very hard time deciding, but eventually we shared, while sipping pints of Beau’s Lager (which was good, but not nearly as good, in my opinion, as their ales that we’ve tried):

A plate of pickled vegetables, and their insanely velvety and perfect duck liver mousse, which you can see here just under Kevin’s smiling mug, served with an applesauce that complemented the mousse so awesomely that it made me really reflect on the possibilities of food pairings. I love eating stuff that makes me feel like I’m learning in a way that will enhance my own cooking at home. My only complaint about this mousse is that, as you can see in the photo, the presentation, in my opinion, looked a bit like a turd. The presentation on the rest of the dishes we tried was beautiful, so I am not sure what was up with this one. We seriously ate every bite of this mousse despite a fairly generous portion. It was silky and delicious, as was the bone marrow that we ate next, which was served with a sort of gremolata (I don’t think that’s what they called it), toast and Maldon sea salt, which is pictured at the start of this post. The marrow was melt-in your mouth and addictive as soon as you added a couple of flakes of salt to it. I have never eaten marrow like that and I feel like I could seriously eat it every day. We even mopped up its juices with our bread.

We then shared a pig’s tail pozole, which was a much meatier soup than I expected from, you know, a pig’s tail. With cilantro and lime it was really lovely, although probably the least memorable part of the meal (which is hardly a diss, the rest of it was just so good.)

And finally, we ended the meal with two smoky dishes: the smoked sweetbreads, with fiddleheads and other veggies (left) and beef tartare, with toast, egg yolk, parmesan, horseradish, and other goodness (right, and I have to admit that while the presentation of that dish is lovely, I wish it didn’t hide the meat!). Kevin had warned me that the sweetbreads had been controversial the last time he’d eaten there, as some folks found them too smoky, but we both agreed that while the smoky flavour is certainly strong in them, we love that kind of thing and it was delicious. This is probably one of the only times I’ve met a fiddlehead that I adored as well; generally I find them pretty underwhelming. My only complaint about the sweetbreads was that they could have been fried better; they were not as crispy as one might have hoped, and that would have really knocked them out of the park. But they were otherwise delicious, and had that awesome complex texture that I love so much from sweetbreads and that have made them an obsession for me as of late. The tartare was possibly my favourite dish of the evening; all the elements on the plate worked perfectly together, and I loved the gooeyness of the yolk with the crunch of the bread with the subtle spiciness of the horseradish. It really highlighted how great tartare can be. I was only sorry that it was the last thing we ate because I was so full already by that point. We still managed to devour the whole damn thing though.

Beyond some minor quibbles, my only real complaint came at the end of our meal, when the waiter asked us if we wanted a dessert or drink. I tried to order a mint tea (seriously, after a meal like that one needs to digest!) and was informed that they did not serve tea or coffee. What? It was not explained to me if this was a temporary state of affairs or not, but I hope that it is, because it is pretty unacceptable for a restaurant not to serve such standard drinks, and if it is a deliberate decision then this is the kind of “different for the sake of being different” that I find so irritating about trendy restaurants. Please, hipsters, put some tea and coffee on your menu and I will be loyal to you forever. Don’t try to mix things up when it comes to these sorts of dining expectations. Please.

So there you go. The moral of this story is that I should perhaps learn to be more open-minded about trendiness than I  have been in the past; whatever the “hipster” factor at The Black Hoof, these are folks that clearly take their meat very seriously and do absolutely beautiful things with it. They are clearly very talented and are cooking thoughtful, precise food. It is a really lovely place to eat, both in terms of food and atmosphere, and it was a great space in which to catch up with an old friend. All of that stuff is more important than how cool a place is or isn’t, so good for them. And now I have to go learn how to cook me some bone marrow.

On Adventurousness and Galantine de Canard

Growing up in a house full of Polish and Russian food meant a lot of proteins cooked in jelly. My grandparents’ old world gefilte fish is served surrounded by jelly, and one of my mom’s most raved about delicacies is a Polish dish consisting of boiled chicken suspended in jelly. I could never bring myself to touch any of these wobbling creations. While I pride myself on generally being an adventurous eater, savoury jellies are still terrifying to me.

As always, though, I am coming to realize that you miss out on a lot when you irrationally reject a type of food. The first time that I discovered that a jellied meat dish could actually be delicious was at Montreal’s beloved POP! a couple of years ago, where we were served an excellent charcuterie plate that included the dreaded… head cheese. Yes, that perennial Eastern European favourite that was often in my parents’ fridge growing up, and that I made a face about any time it was trotted out. (Pun intended.) I am ashamed that it took a fancy restaurant to convince me of the possibilities of what is effectively a peasant dish, especially one that I grew up around. But this head cheese in particular was generous on the meat front and not too jelly-ish, making it a great entry level aspic for a wuss like me. I shocked myself by loving it, and going back for seconds and thirds.

It has been a couple of years since my aspic revelation, though, and despite having my eyes opened, I have hardly sought out these delicacies. Actually, my terrible confession is that until recently, I kind of didn’t get pates, terrines, aspics and the like; most of them just tasted like mushy fat to me. However, as Graeme has gotten into making his own charcuterie, and as I’ve learned more about traditional cuisines and cooking methods, I have really come to love these approaches to cooking and eating meat. It helps to have recently tried some truly fantastic versions of them; I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t like pate, for example, it was just that there is a lot of mediocre, bland pate out there. The recent trendiness of charcuterie has been awesome in terms of offering a lot of cool stuff to try; between that and watching Graeme’s efforts at home, I have started to appreciate the diversity and possibilities of these techniques. It has especially been a pleasure to learn about a kind of cooking that brings me so close to Quebecois cuisine and the incredible work done by local producers. There was this transcendent duck terrine that I gorged myself on at Brasserie t! last summer, not to mention Graeme’s amazing first effort at a pate de campagne, which we served as an appetizer last Thanksgiving, made according to Michael Ruhlman‘s recipe in his incredibly informative book, Charcuterie.

But while the past couple of years have had me do a total 180 on the charcuterie front, I still was not sold on aspics. Until yesterday afternoon, when I browsed the Fromagerie Atwater, thinking that it would be nice to pick up a little something indulgent to eat with some matzah (augh) for dinner. I emerged with some lovely manchego cheese on special, and the above galantine de canard, made by Le Canard Goulu, a farm and artisan charcuterie company based in Saint-Apollinaire that specializes in duck products. I did not know what a galantine was, I just thought it looked intriguing.

It was only after I tasted it, that I googled “galantine” and discovered that it is, indeed, an aspic, specifically one in which the meat is stuffed with forcemeat, and then spiced/garnished and jellied.  I am very pleased that I only looked this up afterward, to give me time to truly taste it without allowing myself to be prejudiced about what I was eating. Because it was RIDICULOUSLY delicious. The jelly was subtle, and didn’t take too much of my attention, and the galantine tasted like duck. That’s it, it just tasted like the duckiest duck that ever ducked, which is precisely what I love about this kind of  food. It was unpretentious and very lightly seasoned, and possibly one of the most simple tasting bits of charcuterie that I have tried in recent years. I finished off over a third of the container in one sitting. I have to say that my newfound love of charcuterie has left me with very conservative tastes; all of the wacky flavour combinations that folks are producing are fun and all, but at the end of the day, these techniques are about bringing out the best from otherwise difficult to work with parts of an animal, and the absolutely tastiest thing you can do with a duck is not to make it taste like candied orange and lemongrass or whatever, but to make it taste like DUCK. That was what made this galantine so delicious, and yes, the jellied bit of it absolutely contributed to the overall ducky experience of it. I get it now, you guys. I get it.

Aaaaaaaaaaand now I might just have to raid the fridge and polish off another third of that tempting little jar.

[Edited to add: this jar was d-o-n-e within 24 hours. Yup.]