This cookbook was reviewed by Carol a staff member of The Daring Kitchen. Carol also interviewed Chef Brian Polcyn. The interview can be found directly following the book review.
The food culture in America is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Consumers are demanding a better selection of fresh, pesticide free, organic, free-range, grass fed natural products. Farmers’ markets and community supported agricultural organizations (CSAs) have grown dramatically over the last decade as more Americans seek to engage with farmers for the foodstuffs to feed their families. The push may have started with restaurant chefs and local 100-Mile Clubs, groups that seek to prepare meals using ingredients sourced “locally” within 100 miles, but it is slowly moving into the mainstream. The growing online internet food blogger phenomena has contributed to this as has the recession, which sent home chefs returning to managing food budgets with cheaper cuts of meat and a return to comfort foods such as homey stews with local meats and vegetables.
It is against this backdrop, that Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn realized that American households were one generation away from losing their ability to preserve meat as their fathers did and as a result decided to collaborate and write about how to do exactly that – Charcuterie: The Salting, Smoking and Curing of Meat published in 2005 by W.W. Norton. I had an opportunity to interview Brian Polcyn, one of the co-authors. Polcyn told me that originally the book was turned down by five publishers as being too niche until it was finally accepted by Norton Publishers– the fair turnaround is that the book continues to be in print today with over 120,000 copies sold.
Charcuterie was embraced by chef and home chef alike as a modern bible for meat preservation. It inspired a yearlong Charcutapoolza - challenge where a number of food bloggers challenged each other to try and test charcuterie recipes.
Ruhlman and Polcyn realized that they were on to something given the tremendous, though unexpected success of Charcuterie. Their readers were demanding more information. Internet forums were devoted to successes and failures of the recipes from Charcuterie. Polcyn said the largest number of inquiries came from the Salami chapter. And so, Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing (published by W.W. Norton), the long awaited follow up to Charcuterie, is an in-depth exploration of the Italian techniques used to dry cure meat.
If Charcuterie inspired chefs to try meat preservation using French traditional methods of curing and confit-ing them, then Salumi definitely takes it’s up a notch! Charcuterie presented recipes that built upon each other and progressed to more and more difficult recipes. Ruhlman and Polcyn note that “Salumi is a narrower, more focused and more difficult craft, one that should be approached the way one might hunt a wild boar: with knowledge, respect, the proper tools, and the recognition that you might have a good day and might not, you might catch something and you might come back empty-handed - and that is part of the thrill of it.”
The book begins with a detail instructions on how to butcher a whole hog, both Italian style and American, followed by dry curing basics including food safety and how to make your own dry-curing chamber. Of note, it is the Italian cuts of pork that sets the stage for the salumi discussion that follows - the Big Eight – guanciale (jowl), coppa (neck), spalla (shoulder), lardo (back fat), lonza (loin), pancetta (belly), prosciutto (ham) and salami (ground meat). And it truly does simplify the discussion and allows to reader to easily categorize it. Each category is discussed along with basic curing recipes and instructions. So armed with these basic methods, Ruhlman and Polycn take the reader “Deeper into the Craft of Dry Curing and Preserving Meats” and provide a wide variety of techniques, recipes and cures for dry cured whole muscle and ground meat salami. These include Porcini Salami and Salami Picante, whole cured muscles such as Spicy Guanciale and Speck and cooked versions such as Mortadella and Tuscan Soppressata. The final section of the book discusses a variety of ways to serve and use salami, such as cutting board presentation, crostini, pizza, pasta, soup and salads, and classic combinations.
Salumi is well written and handles the difficult and complex subject of dry curing deftly and expertly. As you read through the recipes, the repetition of some of the steps seems to be wearisome but each recipe stands on its own. The classic combinations are a little basic given that chefs and home chefs who are prepared to work at this level probably have figured out the basics as well but it does provide the chef fodder to come up with their own take on combinations. Like Charcuterie, Salumi provides hand drawings of the hog cuts and sausage preparation. These illustrations are beautifully done and provide detail in the muscle cuts that you wouldn’t think possible with a simple hand drawing. Salumi does have some color photography - and they are beautiful pictures but are more on about styling and plate presentation than any instruction.
But be warned: Salumi is not for the faint of heart! While Charcuterie provided for an opportunity to test the waters as far as meat preservation went, Salumi asks you to jump in with both feet. The authors have abandoned recommending using your Kitchen Aid attachment to grind meat (which they did in Charcuterie), and instead recommend dedicated meat grinders and stuffers.
While I decided not to purchase a meat grinder…yet…I chose to make four recipes from Salumi including Pancetta Arrolata, Peppered-Cured Lonza and Basic Salumi and Duck Prosciutto. All recipes were very straightforward and “easy” to prepare.
The Duck Prosciutto or you may use goose, is probably the easiest to prepare – a basic salt cure with aromatics and time to dry. It is delicious and Duck Prosciutto pizza on the grill is to die for. If you are even a little bit hesitant about grinding meat and sausage making, try this recipe and it is sure to be a success.
The Pancetta Arrolata was fantastic – the smell of the aromatics of the cure was incredible and I used some of the pancetta to prepare, what I called, “Pasta a la Polcyn” – and the for remainder of the pork belly, I rolled it in the traditional method of Italian bacon to dry cure. Polcyn beautifully described a simple angel hair pasta dish that included a pancetta and heirloom tomato sauce. I salivated as he told me the recipe and I knew I had to make it! It absolutely delivered – the rendering of the pancetta was a truly a religious experience as my kitchen filled with the beautiful aromas of the garlic and pepper from the cured pork belly!
I am still in the process of curing a 5lb pork loin, lonza – trimmed, cured and then rolled in pepper and cheesecloth – which is now hanging to dry cure in my basement. I hope to have it for our Canadian Thanksgiving in October.
And finally, making the Basic Salami is somewhat akin to rehearsing and performing in a concert or theatre. You work hard on the preparation – finding the ingredients, chilling and grinding the meats and fat, stuffing the beef middles, weighing and then drying. And then, at the curtain call, with some trepidation, you slice into the salami, smell it and then taste it – tangy, salty with just a hint of peppery spice – delicious. A bow, applause perhaps a standing ovation…or just a happy dance in your kitchen that you did it!
I will confess that until I read Twenty last year, I had no interest in meat preservation. But Twenty had a curing recipes for Bacon and Salmon that made me curious. I decided to purchase Charcuterie and so my latest foray into salting and curing my own meat began – and it’s addictive. Salumi has helped me continue to grow as a home chef and for a Daring Kitchen member, I can think of no greater challenge than taking raw meat and without cooking it, turning it into something edible and delicious!
Telephone interview with Brian Polcyn – August 27, 2012
Please tell me a little about your career as a chef – how and why did you decide to become a chef?
I started cooking when I was 14 – 36 years ago. I found that it was something that came natural and easy to me and I found that if it was something that I was going to do for the rest of my life, it had to be something I enjoyed. It was a journey of self-discovery as cooking is a perpetual learning experience. I own two restaurants now; I built and opened five restaurants; I won the Restaurant of the Year, and nominated for the James Beard Award – but nothing compares to the satisfaction of making great food and paying attention to what nature provides. My career has taken many paths but most importantly, I really respect what nature gives us.
How did you track towards the craft of charcuterie?
I was trained by a Master Chef European. We made our sausages, pates and terrines and I found it really interesting. I always have had charcuterie on my menu. I find it to be an ancient and honorable tradition of preserving food and it’s magical. If you think about the recipes in Charcuterie and in Salumi, I think that this subject matter should never die in American cooking. We are basically only a generation away from not practicing this craft. We have kids who do not understand that meat can come from somewhere else besides a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic from a grocery store. So I looked at this and thought pate, sausage making, salami, salumi, prosciutto – people just don’t know how to make these things and in two generations we could lose it – our grandparents used to make all this stuff out of necessity. The refrigerator only has been around 120 years but food has been on the planet a little bit longer than that and there had to be techniques developed to preserve food before spoilage and that’s what Charcuterie and Salumi is all about.
Tell me a little about your relationship with Michael Ruhlman. How did you two meet?
Ruhlman wrote a magazine article about me and won a James Beard Award for it and then he wrote Soul of a Chef highlighting Thomas Keller, Michael Symon and myself and our different career paths to become successful. So we got to be friends through these interview processes. I was teaching at the time, as well, and the school demanded that we have a lab manual to give to the students, and I had to write a lab manual for Charcuterie. And I thought to myself - I am half chef creative guy and half chef business man – so I did the lab manual but I spoke to Ruhlman about it and he said let’s do a Charcuterie book. We were turned down by five publishers - no one wanted it; it was a narrow subject; no one could pronounce it; and who would want to make sausage at home and we finally got Norton to do it with no advance money – nothing like the celebrity stuff that Ruhlman has done with Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert. But we did it out of passion and we did it out of the belief that this is a subject that should not go away in American cooking and nobody knows how to do it. Everybody loves pates and sausages and hams, but no one knows how to make it anymore or they don’t practice it. So we wrote the book 6 years ago and it’s been a phenomena and it’s unbelievable. I get emails from all over the world – even a guy on a research station in Antarctica curing his own meat!
Did you anticipate the success of Charcuterie/Salumi? Why do you think it is so successful?
From a personal standpoint, if you think about that type of food its chef food. Any real chef you talk to and you mention charcuterie - pates, blood sausages, using underutilized cuts of meat to make fantastic, food that is what the heart and soul of a chef is. Take the shank and turn it into something fantastic, this is chef’s food. So from a professional standpoint it was very popular for that reason. A lot of today’s American chefs were not trained by Europeans, they were trained by Americans and they don’t have that culture from Europe where they practice charcuterie all the time. For the serious home cook, it’s a magical subject that they don’t know a lot about – they look at this subject and say, I know it, as I order it in restaurants, but I don’t know how to make it. They ask what is principle behind the forcemeat, how do you emulsify the fat into the protein, what is the proper ratio for fat and seasoning, how do you make the perfect terrine – that is what we covered in Charcuterie.
In Salumi, we attack the dry cure method. It’s a simple concept but it’s very complicated if you don’t know what you are doing. It demystifies the subject – in France, it’s called charcuterie and in Italy, it’s called salumi.
How/Why did you arrive at deciding to write Salumi as the follow-up to Charcuterie? How long did it take to research, and write the book? Who is the book intended for – the intended audience?
The smallest chapter in Charcuterie was called The Artist and the Sausage and it was about making salami and it fielded the most questions and interest was from the book – so we looked at it and said that people wanted to know more about dry curing. So 2 ½ years later and numerous trips to Italy to research it, we developed the concept of the book for the serious home chef and professional alike. The first half of the book covers butchery because that where it all starts. You have to know which cuts of meat to use for what type of salumi. Then it discusses the solid meats - the guanciale, the coppa, the pancetta, prosciutto etc - then it discusses the ground meats – the salami, the sausages – and then the technique for natural fermentation of sausage, salami.
How long did it take to develop the recipes for Salumi?
Some of the recipes take a year - start to finish the some of the prosciutto hams took almost 400 days. I went 3 years in a row for a month each in Italy. I worked with various salumerias. It’s not so easy to get a Midwestern boy from American who doesn’t have Italian relatives to go to work in someone’s salumeria shop. It was about feeling the culture and history. I did not invent the recipes in this book – these recipes have been around a thousand years. What I did was demystify them, make them more modern and explain them in a fashion that applies to the technology that we have today. I have made probably every mistake that anyone could ever make doing Charcuterie and Salumi and what I did was take that knowledge and put it into words for everyone to learn from.
Where would you suggest home chefs start with Salumi?
Whole muscle is the easiest – the coppa, the lonza, the pancetta – these are the easiest, most pedestrian recipes – the meats are easily available from a good butcher shop or your farmers market.
Let’s say you make a pancetta, cured Italian bacon - the cured belly – and a simple pasta dish. To make your own pancetta it will take between 7 days and 3 months. So let’s say you make one in 7 days, cure it, rinse it off and its ready to be use. Dice that belly up, put it in a sauté pan, with a little bit olive oil and allow the fat to render out until that meat of the belly starts to get crispy, then throw a little bit of chopped garlic in there, then take some beautiful heirloom tomatoes that are diced up and add it to the pan and the heat of pan will start to make a sauce out of it. Then take some fresh pasta, like a angel hair pasta that doesn’t take long to cook and cook it to boiling water. Then just as the noodles are done, take them hot from the boiling water, don’t rinse it and put them right into that tomato sauce, put a tablespoon of the boiling pasta water, toss it around, season it with salt and cracked black pepper and a chiffonade of fresh basil. I am telling you that you gotta meal that is absolutely fantastic and delicious and that pancetta puts a layer of flavor in that dish that is incomparable – it just makes the difference.
Any personal tips to share with our blog followers?
From a Charcuterie/Salumi standpoint, sanitation is critical because you are making something today that won’t be eaten for 3 months probably. Clean tools, clean work environment, sound sanitation practices is my advice to everybody.
What is next?
I own two restaurants, I teach culinary charcuterie full time, I got five children, I write cookbooks, so I am a little bit busy. My publisher wants to know what the next book is – I don’t know – I can’t write about a subject that I haven’t fallen in love with. So I am not going to do another book just to do it but I can guarantee you that if I do another one, it will be at the same level as Charcuterie and Salumi, because I believe in it, I live it, I practice it and I think that its important in American cooking so whatever falls into that category will be the next book but I don’t know what it is yet.
Note from Lisa:
Normally we don't announce future challenges as we like the element of surprise around The Daring Kitchen. But I felt that this future Daring Cooks challenge should be let out of the bag for anyone who might be interested.. The January 2013 (which starts on December 17th and ends on January 14th) Daring Cooks challenge will be Salumi! Yes we are going to make our own delicious cured meats! There will also be a contest during the challenge and three participants will win a copy of Salumi for their very own. So if you aren't already a member of The Daring Cooks and think you'll want to get in on this challenge, please register and check the box next to Daring Cooks to apply for the role (check out our FAQ for lots of fun and important information). Thanks!