Sometimes, you take up a pretty hard project. You have determination, sure. You have confidence. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve had some previous success that has bolstered your bravado so much that you think everything will go according to your plan. I mean, it should all be so effortless with a flawless finale, right?
Unfortunately for me, this was not my month, nor was it my best challenge. Earlier in the year, I thought I was the man – I made my own bacon (and it was awesome), I put 30 lbs of pork butt and 20 lbs of pork fat through a meat grinder and made tons of really, really tasty sausage. Hog jowls were expertly butchered and simmered slowly in their own fat for the better part of a day, before being pounded into rillettes. My own hot dogs? That was a cinch. But at some point, the charcuterie gods saw fit to strike down my hubris and leave me with a few strings of porky mold.
I was a bit heartbroken. And to be honest, I was too scared that I was going to get the plague if I even attempted to take a bite.
You see, dried cured sausage is one of my favorite things on the planet. Aged Spanish chorizo entices me with the smoky heat of paprika and garlic. Italian Finocchiona, redolent of black pepper and fennel seed is perfect on a small slice of baguette and some extra virgin olive oil. And don’t even get me started on how much I love, nay adore pepperoni – ubiquitous on pizza slices all around the world, but a truly extraordinary product when done the old fashioned way.
Pepperoni was what I sought to make. The spicy cured sausage would be fantastic just thinly sliced before dinner, or cooked in tomatoes to adorn pasta, as a thick chunky sauce to sit below a roast chicken, and yes, even on some of my homemade pizza. This is what I had been waiting for.
As I got all my spices together and mixed them with the meat, put it through the grinder, and stuffed everything into casings, my mouth was literally watering. It was going to take some time, but dammit I wanted some pepperoni (or peperone as Ruhlman calls it).
The sausage links were there…ready to be hung. I don’t really have any fancy curing room, or one of those cool wine fridges. The garage in our old house was perfect, but since we moved, I had never let anything cure and dry at our new house. I put those gorgeous links up in a corner of the garage.
The first few days, they looked amazing. But soon to come was tragedy. Utter tragedy. Humiliation! Failure! Oh, the horror!
We had to go out of town. That means, I couldn’t check on my project for 2 entire days, to eliminate any mold, had it occurred. And on that weekend, the schizophrenic nature of Tennessee’s weather proved itself worthy of messing up everything. 75 degrees one day, 40 degrees at night, 50 degrees the other day and almost freezing the next night. And, it rained.
Long story short, when we got back home on Sunday night, I anxiously ran to the garage to check on the sausages. And there it was. My beautiful pepperoni covered in a blue-ish, green mold. I tried the tricks – I tried to scrape it off, I added vinegar. But, alas, it was beyond repair. It was ruined.
My dad even came to the garage, saw what had happened, and had the audacity to laugh and then leave shaking his head. At first, I was pretty mad. Like, about to punch the garage wall mad. I had put a ton of work into this sausage and the freakin’ weather killed it.
But after a day or two, and as I started writing this post, I came to the realization that I can’t expect everything to always work out. Sometimes, things like this happen. Sometimes, you just have one really big &%&-up. You just have to move on.
Because isn’t that really what Charcutepalooza is all about? It’s about getting out of your comfort zone. (Please remember, my first effort at making duck prosciutto was a MISERABLE failure). It’s about trying something – whether you succeed or fail. Everything doesn’t always have to work out perfectly. Because when you fail, you learn from your mistakes (or simply, pony up $200 to get a wine fridge).
You are humbled. I was humbled. And even though I failed at this one challenge, at least I tried. I (almost) made something that I would have never in my wildest dreams imagined. This whole Charcutepalooza thing has CHANGED the way I cook, the way I see ingredients. Hell, I even charcutepalooza’ed my turkey for Thanksgiving this year! I’ve learned so much that even a small set back, like my failed pepperoni, can’t take away all of the great things I’ve learned and all the amazing relationships I’ve made.
So even though I really tanked this one, I wanted to share a story that really was something that took me out of my comfort zone – a true epicurean adventure, that has something to do with that picture at the top of this post.
Chef Jeremy Barlow about to take the power tools out!
This year, I’ve met and developed friendships with a lot of local chefs. One of them happens to be Jeremy Barlow. Jeremy is the chef/owner of Nashville’s first and only green certified restaurant, Tayst. He also, recently, cooked at the James Beard Foundation house this summer (and that’s a pretty big deal). He’s such a supporter of the local food movement, that if you go into his walk in cooler at Tayst, he can not only tell you what farm every ingredient came from, but how it is grown, and who grew it. His commitment to sustainability and improving our local food economy is inspiring.
Jeremy opened up a new sandwich shop called Sloco. Everything here is made from scratch – the smoked ham, home cured bacon, the bread, EVERYTHING. It’s my kind of sandwich shop. But, Jeremy and his staff also bring in a whole pig almost every week and butcher it in front of a huge window that looks out at the street. You always see these kids walking by and glaring at a pig’s head. Some people will walk by and be so intrigued – it’s a conversation starter, it shocks you a little bit, but most importantly, it tells you where your food comes from. And that’s really something that is part of Charcutepalooza’s mission.
I asked Jeremy when he opened up the new shop if I could ever come in and see him butcher a pig. So one lucky day, I got the call. The pig was in the shop and Chef Jeremy was going to wait for me. I was pretty excited when I got there. THe shop was about to close up for the day, so I grabbed myself a sandwich and just dug in. Jeremy is also quite playful and had prepared a “McRib” special – slow cooked pork ribs that had been deboned, topped with a homemade BBQ sauce, and sauteed onions and pickles. It was AMAZING. And for all you Charcutepaloozer’s, there was also a headcheese sandwich!
Once everything died down, I washed up, put on an apron, got a knife and was ready to go. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take pictures while dismembering this beautiful animal, as my hands got quite porky and his staff (who I’m sure found me to be quite the nuissance) was busy prepping for the next day.
It was a great experience and I have to thank Jeremy for allowing me to really do a good majority of the work. He showed me a few cuts at the beginning, helped me with the power tools, and got more involved towards the end, because I apparently “work slower than a grandmother” at some of these tasks. Regardless, for most of the time, Jeremy was pretty patient with me and let me do most of the work, while he sat back and relaxed. The shop was closed, he turned up the music, and grabbed a beer…and then proceeded to let me have at it.
To the untrained eye, this is pretty daunting. But it really surprised me how simple it was. In the forefront, you have the pork shoulder (Boston Butt). All the way down the right side, you have the pork loin, where your pork chops and roasts come from. All the way down the left, you have the ribs. Underneath the ribs, you have pork belly (my favorite cut of meat…ever). And in the back, you have the ham. I knew a good amount of where things come from on a pig, but I learned a lot by finally experiencing it.
After about 2 and a half hours, we broke down the entire pig, skinned them, and put everything for storage. The pork belly was quickly put into a cure for bacon. The loin and tenderloins where cut and taken to Tayst. The ham was going to be smoked and ready for the incredible ham and cheese sandwiches. And all the bones and trotters were put in the stock pot.
Not a single ounce of that pig was wasted. Every part was used. That is the glory of going whole animal. If we are to know where our food comes from, to support these great local farmers, we must be able to think in a way that broadens our horizons. To use different items. At the very least, you should know what you are eating, instead of some hunk of indistinguishable meat.
And if you’ve never used it before, just try it. You may fail – the dish might really suck. But keep at it, because there are only a few things holding you back. Be careful. Pay attention to detail. Have respect for the ingredients that you are using. These are the things that I’ve learned on this journey.
You can be damn sure I will try dried sausages again – there is no doubt about that in my mind. I may get a wine fridge, through!
But this month, I really came back down to earth. I went back to basics and learned things about butchery I had never known before. I came back with a renewed spirit, a new notch on my experience, and with more respect for these great local and organically raised ingredients.
That ole pile of porky mold, predestined to be pepperoni, will always remain in my memory. However, it’s no longer a memory that conveys sadness. It’s a memory that will remind me of rejuvenation, redemption, and respect.
So, on to the next one!