CHARCUTEPALOOZA’S FINAL CHAPTER: NERO WOULD’VE BEEN PROUD
As Charcutepalooza concluded with a call for showing off all we’ve learned, I couldn’t help but feel a small amount of glee for the bad decisions I was about to make. Looking at the contest as a whole, there was a lot that went into it: a push to encourage local and more sustainable consumption, an affirmation of home craft and preservation techniques that looked to be nearly lost to the ages and a broadening of our own culinary horizons as participants. But at the vary base level, at least for me, it was an excuse to eat an assload of meat. Something that I love to do. And something that isn’t the best thing in the world for me– which is something that only makes it more enjoyable. In every challenge, hard work and sometimes laborious tasks were accomplished with the promise of carnivorous binging at the end of them. And this month, that binge was turned up to 270 (my probable cholesterol count at the end of a certain Monday night).
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the gluttonous. The drunkards. The men of excess. Those unquestionable brilliants who can’t help but let their uncontrollable appetites get in their own way. From Shane Macgowan to Townes Van Zandt to Earnest Hemingway to William Faulkner to Brendan Behan, I’ve always had a bit of a morbid fixation on those who seem to be able to snatch (or imbibe) defeat from the jaws of victory time and again.
The people who pissed their lives away and danced while their beds or even empires burned are cautionary tales to be sure. But they are unquestionably more interesting than any of the usually more successful, cautious moderates that surround them. In what could be the opposite of a public service, I’d like to go ahead and say that it’s the bad decisions, the overly consumptive, hedonistic debauchery, and the behaviors that make authority frown that make us better (or at least more interesting) people.
Here that kids? Get out there and make some poor choices. Wake up a little bleary. Wake up someplace you don’t recognize. Do something you shouldn’t. At the very least eat an inappropriate amount of pork. Which is what I did, because I have a wife, a baby, a mortgage and a job– and that’s about as crazy as I get anymore.
But damned if it wasn’t thrilling. An entire year of meat simply couldn’t end in a single dish. It had to end in a free for all of gluttony, a survivor series of pork, a steel cage battle royal of consumptive powers that could’ve made George Jones blush in the 70s.
It all centered around porchetta: that millennia old Roman preparation of roasted, heavily spiced and stuffed pig that was a supposed favorite of certain habitually feasting, Christian-persecuting Roman emperors. I recently sourced a really outstanding bone-in, skin-on shoulder from a pig that was a crossbreed between a Mangalitsa and a Red Wattle (I bought it at Revival Market down in Houston—a fantastic brick and mortar farmer’s grocery of sorts). And I knew that the only proper thing to do with it, moreover the only proper way to finish a year of meat, was to make a really big ass porcine exclamation point.
After that, it was simply a matter of reverse engineering a meal around it. I made an early decision to stay true to the pig for this meal—every meat-containing course had pork in it. No duck or goose or chicken. If we were gonna feast like fat Marlin Brando, it was going to be on the pig and all of its artery clogging gifts. I invited a few people over who have been exceptionally helpful throughout the year: a friend who has been instrumental in improving my photography skills, a chef buddy who has always indulged my sometimes half brained and nearly continuous food ramblings and a couple friends who have been my Charcutepalooza guinea pigs on more than one occasion (one of them even a vegetarian—except on the occasional full moon when he comes to my house and consumes an obscene amount of beast). Here’s the menu:
Antipasto: Arancini balls of both smoked loin and confited Mangalitsa neck
Primo: Ravioli with pancetta, gorgonzola and apples
Contorno: Rapini and potatoes (roasted in rendered pork fat, of course)
Dulce: Fruit tart (no more pig here, which is good because my heart would’ve exploded)
What ensued was 2 days of quiet prep in my kitchen, lots of picture taking and then a fine, fine meal that happened to be on my birthday. A meal that also happened to contain so much pork it could have been it’s own episode of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.”
“Little Oranges,” I love these things, they’re a great use of leftovers and scraps and they always taste damn good. They’re basically little risotto fritters than you can stuff with anything you like. I made two varieties: one stuffed with the confited scraps trimmed from a Mangalitsa neck that I was dry curing for coppa, and other stuffed with smoked pork loin, goat cheese and arugula. I created them by making the Mangalitsa confit about a week in advance, making a simple risotto with meat broth and Parmigiano the day before and then brining and smoking a few pork loins in the interim. I shredded and mixed the cooled smoked pork with goat cheese and added finely diced arugula to half the risotto, forming little balls around bits of the stuffing. For the confit, I brought it up to a deep frying temp in its own rendered fat to lightly crisp the outsides and provide a little better textural definition. The pork-fat-cooked, pork-fat-stored, pork-fat-fried fatty pork went then into the remaining unadorned risotto and formed into balls. Both were lightly hit with an egg wash, crumbed, deep-fried and served with a little room temp arrabbiata sauce.
We enjoyed them with a sampling of local and seasonal micro brews. They were outstanding. Crispy outside. Firm but yielding rice and a Tootsie Pop-like pig center. The confit was some of the porkiest pork I’ve ever tasted, pure distilled heritage pig flavor. The smoked loin, goat cheese and arugula offered balanced tastes of cool creamy cheese and intense smoke and black pepper as well as some spicy bright green flavors to set it all off. Both the sauce and the “sauce” washed everything down perfectly. So perfectly that we enjoyed two courses of them.
It was still early in the evening. We had enjoyed pork confit and smoked pork but also quite a lot of rice, tomato sauce and other non-pig items. We were merely at Lindsay Lohan levels of pork abuse, beginner stuff really. It was time for course number two.
Primo: Pancetta, Gorgonzola and Apple Ravioli served in Browned Butter with Apples and Pecans
I’ve always been a sucker for eating something that tastes and smells of the air outside my window in any given season. In the spring it’s fava beans, fiddleheads and asparagus. In the summer it’s peaches. And after making this, in the fall it’s ravioli. These things literally tasted like a falling leaf– if that leaf was made of cured pork.
I wanted a smooth texture for the filling so I ground the pancetta and processed it with some dehydrated apple. That all got browned together and cooled. Then I mixed it with gorgonzola dulce, ricotta cheese and more diced dehydrated apple. All in a little fresh pasta of AP and 00 flour. For the sauce, I browned off some unsalted butter, sprinkled in more dehydrated apple and pecan pieces then added a good splash of pasta water. I then finished the plating with a few more plabs of the gorgonzola—you know, because the pork belly and cheese stuffed ravioli dressed in butter weren’t rich enough. The finished product was a phenomenal little bit of pig autumn.
A little after this came out some birthday presents: some great stuff from my family and Speaker Pig, a gift from my wife that was literally a little white pig with a speaker in it. Poor Speaker Pig, he was immediately put into the service of playing Taps for his fallen brothers as we gorged ourselves on them. In this case Taps sounded a lot like Townes Van Zandt, The Rolling Stones and probably a little David Allen Coe thrown in for good measure. Speaker Pig requested a somber rendition of “The wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” but was denied.
A largish tray of cured pork filled ravioli downed, we were starting to pig out. At this point the swine binge was approaching Boris Yeltson/ early Kerouac levels… we knew we were getting into dangerous territory but the pig hadn’t jumped the shark yet. But the porchetta was lurking on the horizon.
Secondo: Porchetta, the exclamation point of the pig
Alright, there’s pig and then there’s pig. Holy sweet goddamn sonofabitch this thing was good. It’s what the lotus eaters would have enjoyed had they not been such candyasses. I mean it’s so good it’s like pig heroin, you just want to lock yourself in a room with it and watch yourself going downhill with each bite, staring into the abyss and feeling that it’s all somehow worth it.
Before my porchetta was porchetta, it was a super heritage 11lb pork shoulder with bone and skin still in tact. Before I could do anything, I needed to de-fur it, and being a Mangalitsa half breed it had a lot of the stubborn stuff still on it that had managed to elude the scalder. When I called a professional pork-loving buddy of mine for advice he just laughed and said, “I hope you have a good pair of tweezers. Sorry.” So the tweezers came out and my wife, my brother and I each spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon acting like porcine manicurists. When I could tweeze no more the disposable lady Bic came out and gave my piggy an even smoother feel and freshly shorn look.
I boned out the shoulder joint and trimmed a good 2 lb portion of meat fat and skin away. I ground this into a sausage seasoned with salt, pepper, red pepper, fennel seed, garlic and rosemary. Before stuffing and rolling it into the deboned, butterflied shoulder, I seasoned the interior of the roast heavily with salt, pepper, fennel pollen, garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage. I then scored the skin, stuffed the sausage inside, added some sweated read onion and rolled the entire thing, tying it off with twine. For cooking, I gave it a quick 45 minute cold smoke as I had the smoker going anyway for the arancini loins. Then I rubbed the skin with some olive oil and popped the behemoth into the oven at 350 for a few hours. By the time dinner rolled around the smells coming off the porchetta were that of Brother Swine preaching from his oven pulpit and we were ready to start speaking in pig tongues—which we would have devoured as well had I made some.
What transpired was something unholy. It had to be. Nothing that tastes this good can be the work of angels, it has to be straight from the devil because I’d sell my soul for it. The crispy skin and custard-like fat underneath was like a cross between pig crème-brulee, skin potato chips and salty caramel corn. The flesh was that of an ultimate porker, extremely moist, extremely porky and texturally varied between the ground sausage inside, the fatty moist shoulder surrounding it and then of course the pig-candy shell coating of the skin. One bite was like drinking the bong water after Willy Nelson and Snoop Dog enjoyed a long night with Cheech and Chong. An entire piece was so excessive it was like Gram Parsons, Keith Richards, and Dylan Thomas were playing pork fat drinking games with Hank Williams inside your gullet. Two pieces was like Nero playing fiddle while your arteries burned. And if you had three, well, you just would have died. I may have had three pieces. Speaker Pig said it reminded him of early Christians burning to light a heathen Roman feast… but then again I may have hallucinated that, I had eaten a lot of pork and felt like I was sweating bacon fat.
We served the porchetta with rapini sautéed with garlic and pepperoncino as well as some roasted potatoes. All cooked in the “clarified pig butter” that had rendered out of the porchetta as it roasted. Both were brilliant accompaniments—faintly porky but still vegetable and starch in their own right. Also brilliant was the Amarone some friends brought over to enjoy—big, bright fruit that cut through the fat beautifully. Although it did nothing to assuage the feeling that my kitchen had become the pork version of a meth lab.
Porchetta dismantled, pancetta raviolis taken down, deep fried balls of deep fried and smoked pork dispatched, we finished with a light and clean fruit tart… and maybe a couple of glasses of beer just to wash it all down. Like a pork addled swino limping his way into a recovery center, we finally had had enough.
The meal in it’s entirety was a fine finish, a sort of New Year’s eve party for the year of meat. It was a truly fitting end to Charcutepalooza: a project that got me making things in my kitchen that I wouldn’t have attempted otherwise, that got me spending more time with friends and family over various meaty morsels and that actually got me started on writing this blog. It was also captured in timelapse by a GoPro camera that we set up, nearly all three-plus meaty hours of it.
I want to say a quick thanks to all of my friends who have helped me over the past year: from those who gave me photography tips and amazing artwork, to those who were willing tasters of the work I’ve done on this, to those who helped source some truly weird food requests and listened to ideas. To my wife who tolerated a lot. And to Kathy and Kim who conceived the whole thing. Down the line when I post about a life size statue of Hunter S. Thompson made completely out of sausage, you’ll know who it’s dedicated to. I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun working on Charcutepalooza and I’m more than a little sad to see it end. My cardiologist however, couldn’t be more ecstatic.