CHARCUTEPALOOZA CHALLENGE #7: THE ART OF MAKING HOT DOGS, IN WHICH I BATTLE A DEAD POSSUM
A brief primer: I am a writer at an ad agency. That means I’m one of the people who makes up and writes the TV ads, billboards and magazine pages that people do their best to ignore. I work with a variety of clients, and over the years, the people I’ve written ads for have included a few food and/or beverage companies. To a one, they all carry a sensitive eye to what they like to call “appetite appeal” or more commonly appetite appeal “issues.” Basically they like to make sure that there’s no possible way the advertisement supposedly enticing you to eat their chips or drink their beer could possibly contain any subject matter that could turn you off doing so. In short, food clients never, ever want to gross you out. For instance a billboard for chips that featured a triangular, chip-shaped scab would have appetite appeal “issues.” A script for snack cakes featuring a smelly old hobo urinating in a dumpster would carry similar “issues.” And a posting on a blog about food, like this one, featuring lengthy dissertations on dispatching rigor mortised vermin definitely has appetite appeal issues out the ass—a phrase which, in itself, carries appetite appeal issues…
I’ve been a father for all of about 6 weeks. In light of this short duration, I don’t pretend to have troves of fatherly wisdom or plenty of deep insights into the role of a man in parenting. But that said, there are a few things I’ve encountered that are unquestionably in the realm of dad. One of them is preparing dinner (at least in my house) and the other is dead critter duty. Both of which collided unmercifully the evening I started the project of making my own hot dogs for the first time.
Creating a good dog by the Ruhlman recipe is a few step, multi-day process. The first step is grinding your meat and salting it to cure for a couple days in the fridge. On the day I was to start this I had a plan: get home from work, grill a little dinner, spend some family time and then grind the meat for the dogs before putting my little girl down for the night, enjoying a beer and feeling over all pretty Ward Cleaver-y.
This is not how the plan went.
Yes, I got home. Yes, I got the grill fired up, the chicken spatchcocked and the accouterments laid out. Everything was feeling great. That is until my wife came outside to check in on the grilling and stopped short. “Umm… did you not notice the dead animal hanging out of our house?”
My only honest answer was, no I hadn’t.
It turned out that what I had missed was a very large, very dead possum. Moreover, it was a dead possum that was sort of hanging halfway out of an old vent that lead to underneath our house. Yet even more moreover, it was currently about 100 degrees in my backyard and the presence of dead critter just sort of immediately made it hotter.
Immediately I had a few decisions to make, all of which now had nothing to do with dinner and everything to do with the dead possum. The issue wasn’t so much that I was going to take care of it—calling animal control or asking my wife to grapple of such a thing just wasn’t something a dad would do. The issue was more when to begin the dead possum dalliance. At that moment, I was in the process of handling something that I, along with my family, was going to eat. Manhandling a decomposing critter in the middle of dinner prep seemed like a scripted beginning to Outbreak 2: Possum Kingdom Tragedy. So, the possum would have to wait awhile.
I think it’s also important to note that when my relationship with the possum began, I had barely placed an entire bird on the grill. The next hour involved something of a stare down in the Texas heat with me always blinking first. Low and slow is an outstanding way to grill. I cannot say the same for low, slow and dead possum.
Then we ate. Inside, away from the backyard’s furry tragedy. This introduced me to another fatherly skill: namely putting images of a desiccated possum out of my head so I could gnaw some chicken off the bone and enjoy a little family time with my wife and new daughter.
Chatting over dinner, we figured it was bath day. Decision time again: dead possum wrangling prior to scrubbing down my newborn put flashes in my head of being the dumb bastard on the news who gave his kid Ebola. It looked like the possum was waiting again…keep in mind I still needed to hand grind beef into a fine, salted paste
Baby bathed and dried and swaddled, I looked to the backyard. 9pm: It was nut cuttin’ time for a certain dead possum. As it was dark, I equipped myself with a headlamp I use for grilling, some yard gloves and a trash bag. The plan being to place the bag over the body and effortlessly scoop it up. Think of a dog walker scooping poop, if the dog had pooped a dead possum.
This plan did not work. Somehow the dead little guy had wedged himself pretty firmly in this vent and he wasn’t going anywhere without a good deal of effort. At this point smarter men may have called animal control, but leaving the critter till the city got to it the next morning, next afternoon or next week didn’t strike me as very fatherly. More thoughtful men may have come up with a well-reasoned plan of possum extraction—this didn’t strike me at all. No, what did strike me was to search the area immediately around me for a suitable possum gettin’ implement, which turned out to be a stick.
About 40 stick-levering, possum-fur-tuft-pulling minutes later I returned inside. Possum extracted. Corpse dispatched. Fatherhood in tact. It was time to scrub the bits of dead possum fur from my hands and make some hot dogs.
It was at this point that I realized my very young daughter was sleeping in the next room and a loud growling meat grinder was out of the question… It was later that night, at 2 in the morning, finishing up the last of the five pounds of teeny-tiny mincing knife work that I realized this, or something involving this, was fatherhood—a labor of at times dead possum staring, fur tuft lifting, tiny beef mincing, love so my tiny daughter wouldn’t have to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of life.
After the hand mincing of the short ribs, I altered the dog recipe slightly. I added some milk powder to the mix (about 70grams per 5lbs) to stabilize the emulsion during smoking. I also blanched the garlic for a few seconds before adding it to the recipe. I did this on my second batch to avoid the several hours of garlic belching I endured after eating the otherwise delicious un-garlic-blanched dogs. Both tweeks worked beautifully. As did smoking the raw wieners over a mix of pecan and oak, which gave them a smoky complexity that elevated the dogs even further.
After making them and eating several test links, I decided the thing to do with homemade dogs was wiener wraps/ pigs in a blanket. The somewhat repulsive version made with Lil’ Smokies and Pillsbury Crescent dough has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Guilty enough to consume several pounds of them at once with some sweet-hot mustard over the course of a football game, or a conversation or a breakfast.
In order to create a suitably noble wrap to live up to the dog’s fatherhood confirming hand cut (then later pureed to paste in a Cuisinart) recipe. I decided that my wraps would be wrapped in a mustard seed brioche. It was a good decision. While the mustard seeds didn’t come through as loudly as I might have liked, the brioche was buttery, flakey and rich enough to thoroughly erase any lingering dead possum memories and the snap and smoky flavor of the all beef dog really was an elevation of something I’d taken for granted, even after several years of making other non-emulsified sausages.
Other’s reviews were similarly glowing. My 10 year old niece said they were the best hot dogs ever. My brother grunted audibly upon his first bite. My chef buddy raved about them and one of my other friends took a bite and paused, saying, “Wait, are hot dogs meant to taste this real?”
Yes they are. And they’re definitely meant to be dipped in a little Beaver Brand Sweet Hot mustard, wrapped in a little brioche and enjoyed after a little dead critter wrangling. Because for the first time ever, I ate hot dogs that I can definitively say were free of cow asses, pig balls or found newly dead possums… although, in its defense, the dead possum was locally sourced.
All Beef Pigs Wrapped in Brioche Blankets
1 recipe of Michael Ruhlman’s Hot Dogs from Charcutery, linked in 3 1/2 inch sections, with 35 grams powdered dry milk added and garlic blanched
1 recipe of Middle Class Brioche from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (with an optional small handful of mustard seeds thrown into the dough), proofed, and refrigerated over night
Divide the dough in equal portions, equal in amount to the number of dogs you’re wrapping—about 3 ounces each. Roll the brioche into thin ropes and wrap them around the dogs. Leave out to rise for about 2 hours then bake at 400 for about 20 minutes. Dip in sweet hot mustard and enjoy.