Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bounty in your garbage

About 15 years ago now, I realized that we were throwing a lot of good food straight into the garbage can. When I think back on all the years previous to that, two things come into sharp focus: why did it take me so long to figure things out, and exactly how much perfectly good food did we throw away? That last one is the really shocking thing to me.

What am I talking about? Extra food that we prepared and didn’t eat? No. We’re pretty good about either eating leftovers or not making too much food in the first place. I’m talking about bones, scrapes, and vegetable peelings. If you enjoy cooking good food, it’s amazing how much of the “extras” you produce – and for years we just threw it out with no thought, seldom making use of it except for compost.

When making stews, soups, braises and many other dishes, good stock is needed. One way to get it is to head over to the grocery store. It used to be Campbells and other canned soup makers who supplied those sorts of ingredients. Now it’s possible to get fresh, organic stocks and bases in even the most mundane of supermarkets. You pay for it, though, sometimes quite dearly.

But there is another way, an almost free way to supply all your needs: make all your stocks and bases from food scraps. Best of all, doing this takes very little effort. The only requirements are a freezer, time, and a bit of organization. Here’s what we do in the Blechta Test Kitchens.

The other night, I roasted a chicken. Part of that recipe includes using a covered roasting pan and loading the bottom of it with sliced onion. This gives the bird something to rest on and adds a lot to the flavor of the finished product. [If we want to have a really plush dinner, I also throw a few ounces of brandy into the bottom of the pan.] Once our bird was reduced to a forlorn carcass (saving all the bones from the dinner plates), I broke it up, popped the bottom of the roasting pan under the broiler for a few minutes to brown things up nicely and then went about turning it into stock with a few liters of water. To give my stock a little more color, I threw in a teaspoon of Spanish paprika. With a few hours of gentle simmering, it was distilled into a golden broth. The onions that the chicken was roasted with (still in the stock) added a terrific flavor. I strained the stock, then popped it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, I lifted off the hardened fat (I used a small, 3-inch strainer), at which point the stock went into old yogurt, margarine, sour cream containers we save, was clearly labelled as to type of stock and the date it was made, then it went downstair into our large chest freezer. Next time I need chicken stock, I will nip downstairs, take some out and bring it to boiling. That’s all there is to it. We usually have bags in the freezer of poultry bones and trimmings, red meat bones and trimmings, fish and seafood shells. When we have enough, we make stock. [One word of advice: if you’re having barbecue, don’t bother saving the bones. Take it from me, it’s not a good idea…]

“But what about all those nice vegetable flavors that go into a good stock?” you may ask. “Onions alone won’t cut it!”

We have that taken care of, too.

Whenever we use onions or leeks, peel carrots and parsnips, use garlic or shallots, prep fresh herbs (especially parsley), celery and pepper trimmings, tomato skins (more on this later), in short, any vegetable things that might be good in a soup or stock, the leftover bits get thrown into a plastic bag in our refrigerator’s freezer where they’re handy. When I have a full bag, I take it into the larger chest freezer. When I have 2 or 3 bags, I make vegetable stock.

[Sidebar: Every fall we preserve tomato sauce and chopped tomatoes. All scraps (and there are a lot) get put into large plastic containers (usually 3-cup yogurt ones) and they’re frozen for later use.]

Some things not to use in your general vegetable stock: potato peelings. Save those for distilling vodka if you’re into moonshine. ;) Cabbage and members of the cabbage family should be kept separately for making cabbage-based soups. We don’t generally save these.

When I’m making vegetable stock, I throw the contents of my frozen trimmings bags into a big pot, add filtered water (especially important if you live in an area where your tap water has a distinctive flavor or aroma), and slowly simmer my stock for several hours. Generally, I also add a yogurt container of frozen tomato trimmings for added flavor and color. When done, you shouldn’t have any fat to worry about, so simply strain it, load up your saved containers, label and freeze. We generally freeze our vegetable stock in small containers (1 cup).

Final use: Whenever I make a soup or stew, I take out the appropriate meat stock, and one of those 1-cup vegetable stocks, run them under hot water to loosen them in the container, and then throw the frozen stocks into a saucepan to heat them up. The secret here is that you make your two base components (meat and vegetables) separately, and combine them at the point where you’re going to use them. Doing it this way allows you to control the flavor level of the two components. Want a meatier-flavored stock or soup? Make that the larger component. Want more vegetable flavor (better for some soups), increase the proportion of that. Because you have complete control of the process, you have complete control of the flavors.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to make your own stock, and except for the small amount of energy to make and freeze it, it’s pretty well free. Think how much useable food you’ve been throwing out. Right?

Handling your requirements using this method also makes it possible to produce some rather esoteric stocks to use in future dishes. Recently, I had pheasant stock and duck stock in our freezer. The taste of each was amazing. The pheasant stock went into a double-crust meat pie, and the duck stock was used to add flavor to a cassoulet. Try finding those in even the most trendy of food emporia!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Making guanciale: an adventure in home-curing of meat

In my inaugural posting, I expounded on one of my current interests; the Italian pork delicacy, guanciale. (see posting of Feb. 22).

In searching for sources of it, I ran across some food blogs and recipe websites that actually told how to make the stuff. It looked pretty easy, so I thought, Why not? (Interesting sidebar: one of Toronto’s nicknames is Hogtown. Coincidence? I think not.)

Truth be told, we’re really big on canning and preserving in the Blechta Test Kitchens here in Beautiful Downtown Toronto. Every summer we preserve about 40 liters of tomato sauce, 25 liters of chopped tomatoes, a bushel of roasted red peppers, as well as peach & mango chutney, peaches, currant jelly, and dill pickles. There is something really wonderful about going down to the basement and picking out a jar of sauce that you made, especially in the depths of winter.

So it’s not all that much of a stretch to move into curing meats. We occasionally make duck confit and gravlax, but that didn’t strike me as quite as serious as fooling around with meat. I mean, you can get seriously ill from tainted meat – or so the press would have you believe. It seems like a week can’t go buy without hearing some horror story about illness called by poorly-handled meat.

Reading up on the topic, though, it seemed we could do it safely. Certainly we wouldn’t get botulism from our guanciale because we would be cooking it at the end of the process. Salmonella, e-coli and listeriosis wouldn’t be a problem if our meat came from a reputable source and we handled it carefully. Curing is all about preserving meat so the bad things can’t gain a foothold, isn’t it?

Our decision made, we had to find someone to sell us two pork jowls of reputable origin, because guanciale is made from pig’s cheeks. We also hoped to source our meat from a farm that treated their animals humanely and didn’t feed them all sorts of bad things. Enter Ben Gundy, one of the owners of Olliffe Meat here in Toronto. They recently took over The Sausage King at the St. Lawrence Market which is how I got to know him since we shop there nearly every week. He’s a great butcher and chef, and seriously nice guy. When I inquired about hog jowls, his response was, “How many do you want?”

The next weekend, my son Karel and I picked up two beauties that came from Olliffe’s exclusive Hampshire whey-fed pigs that are antibiotic- and hormone-free, but more importantly, pastured, which means they’d lived as pigs should, not locked in a factory farm barn. And they were surprisingly inexpensive. We were in business!

The next day, we began the curing process which involved salt, sugar as well as herbs and spices. The cure was thoroughly rubbed into the meat, which we then put into large freezer bags. Every day, we’d take them out of the fridge, rub the cure into the meat a bit more, turn them over and back into the fridge they’d go. A week later the curing process was complete. Both jowls had thrown off a considerable amount of water, a very good sign. More importantly, they already smelled lovely, redolent of the herbs and spices with a nice piggy flavor leading the way.

I punched a hole through the top of each jowl and stuck a length of butcher’s twine through. Just before hanging them from a pipe in our basement, I dusted the meat side of each jowl with ground black pepper. Two things you have to monitor during the drying process are the temperature (55º or thereabouts) and humidity (around 75%). As it turned out, with the heating vents down there closed tight, we had ideal conditions. Then we began the waiting game as our guanciale dried.

Eight weeks later, we were rewarded with two beautiful-smelling pieces of guanciale. Fried up, it smelled (and looked) even better, and since my wife Vicki adores spaghetti all’amatriciana, I made that as our first taste of home-cured meat. Delizioso!

Next weekend, Ben provided us with two more (huge!) pork jowls, and they’re now drying in the basement, along with the second of the original two, which we’re aging a bit longer to see how the flavour intensifies. We won’t have a cold enough basement for much longer, so we have to take advantage of conditions now. For the second batch we also changed up the recipe with a bit more thyme and juniper and adding an ounce of white wine to each freezer bag after the first day of curing. We will report on the results as they come in.

The recipe below is (more or less) from Matt Wright’s excellent website and food blog (listed to the right under favorite websites). I like it because it gives proportions based on weight for the two critical ingredients for this recipe: salt and sugar. This way, you can put in exactly the correct amount of salt (critically important) for the amount of meat you’re preparing. You certainly don’t want to put in too little, and if you put in too much, you’ll make your guanciale saltier than it needed to be. (I’ve also amped up the herbs and spices slightly.) His recipe will give you lovely results, as is, and can be found here: Wrightfoods/guanciale. Thanks, Matt, for getting me started!

Special note (Read this!): You’ll notice the recipe given here  uses only kosher salt (don’t use table salt!), and does not include curing salts (or as it’s more commonly known “pink salt” or “Prague powder”). Use these if you must because they’re formulated for more food safety. Since you’re (presumably) going to be making guanciale in small amounts, caring for it personally, and also (presumably) cooking it before eating, most experts I’ve read felt that kosher salt would be more than safe enough. “Curing salt” contains nitrates or nitrites added to salt to control botulism bacteria (a must for sausage or any cured meat that’s been chopped). Nitrates and nitrites also come with their own health concerns, so in the end, pure kosher salt it was for our guanciale. You must make your own decision on this.

Also (and for any air-dried cured meat recipe you try), watch for mold as it’s hanging. White mold, which you often see on the outside of dried sausage such as salami, is just fine. In fact, white mold adds to the flavor and helps your meat cure. Green mold indicates that something is more than likely wrong, and black mold is downright dangerous. If either of these forms and you catch it quickly, just wipe down your guanciale with a cloth soaked in vinegar. If it's extensive, do yourself a favor and just chuck the meat. Too high a temperature in your drying space will encourage the growth of mold. Sunlight doesn’t help, either.

It’s important to know the risks, however slight, and then pay attention and act accordingly. I make it a point to check on my drying meat almost daily. It’s fun, like watching plants coming up in the spring or fruit ripening in the summer!

Makes around 1 1/2 pounds after drying a 2-pound jowl for 4 weeks

1 pork jowl, around 2 pounds
2 1/2 oz kosher salt (or 7% of meat weight)
2 1/2 oz sugar (or 7% of meat weight)
15 black peppercorns
1 large bunch of thyme
2 bay laurel leaves (look for genuine bay laurel)
8-16 juniper berries (depending on how well you like this flavor)
2-4 oz white wine (we use Orvieto or Pinot Grigio)

1. Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine, or grind it the old fashioned way using a mortar and pestle. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discarding the stalks. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.

2. Using a sharp boning knife or paring knife, remove any glands from the underside of the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under the surface of the fat, so poke around thoroughly.

3. In a large zip lock bag, combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Thoroughly rub the cure into the meat on all sides. Seal the bag completely and pop it in the fridge for up to seven days. Every other day, redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again, and when it goes back into the fridge, make sure it’s on the opposite side from what it was when you took it out. It will throw off some water, so make sure those bags remain tightly sealed!

4. After 4-5 days the meat should feel firmer. It could well be done. Just remember: the longer you keep it in the cure, the more salty the meat will become. You certainly want the meat to be thoroughly cured, but you don’t want it to be overly salty, either. The thicker the jowl, the longer it will take to cure. Your first time out, it’s better to err on the side of too salty, rather than under-cured. (Eventually, you’ll be able to tell more clearly when your meat is completely cured.) So if you feel it’s ready, take the jowl out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might stick to the meat and fat, that is fine – just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.

5. Next, wash your jowls in a few ounces of white wine. The reason you do this, is that it helps neutralize the salt used in curing (at least that’s what I’ve been told by those Who Know). Do the job really thoroughly, rubbing the wine into the meat and fat. By the way, doing this also adds a lovely flavor to the finished product!

6. The final step is to heavily coat one or both sides of your guanciale with pepper (see note at bottom). Most use black pepper, but we’ve also seen (and enjoyed) guanciale that had cayenne pepper applied. If you don’t like pepper, leave this step out.

7. Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F/75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two if you want a more intense flavor. Your basement in winter should be just cold enough, but you might have to put out some water and a fan to keep the humidity up. We bought a combination thermometer/humidistat for keeping track of it. Don’t let the temperature go above 60° for any lengthy period of time or mold can more easily form.

8. You will know when your guanciale is ready when it’s lost about 25-35% of its initial weight before hanging. The fat will feel softer than the meat. That is fine.

9. Once dried, it will keep in the fridge easily for many weeks, or vacuum-sealed and frozen, far longer.

Notes: We recommend cutting off the outer skin before curing begins. You could do it after, but why not let the salt penetrate into the meat and fat more easily and speed things up? You will see commercial guanciale with the skin left on. The problem with this is that you’ll probably not want to eat cooked pieces with skin on them. It gets very hard as the guanciale dries and isn’t pleasant. Cutting the skin off after drying is difficult if you’re dealing with a whole piece. Do yourself a favor and do it ahead of time.

Another note: This recipe has been edited a couple of times since the original posting. Curing with the wine added (which I first tried) didn’t work as well as washing each piece thoroughly afterwards with it. There were also a few things that were unclear in the way I originally wrote the recipe. Hopefully, that’s fixed now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There is something about food...

Having been involved in several blogs, I know that this going to start off as a bit of a lecture by me – but that is not how I’m hoping it will finish up. I keenly solicit readers’ views on everything I blog about. I certainly don’t mind being challenged, either! Hit me with your best shot. It’s my goal to see this blog become a very lively forum where all aspects of food are discussed. I also look forward to trying your recipes.

Okay, enough of the introductory BS. Let’s talk food.

Lately, here in the Blechta Test Kitchens in beautiful downtown Toronto, we’ve been taken up with the idea of home-curing of meat. It all started a few years ago, when we were trying to find an Italian salt-cured and air dried specialty, guanciale, which is made from pork jowls. It is a very lovely thing with an intense, buttery pork flavour and aroma. Guanciale is an essential ingredient in spaghetti alla carbonara, all’amatriciana and alla grigia.

For years we’d made carbonara with North American bacon, then switched to pancetta. Problem was, while these were both pretty tasty, it wasn’t real carbonara, as we eventually found out. Even most Italian restaurants don’t serve real carbonara. The reason? They can’t find guanciale. Some of them don’t even know about it!

On a Christmas visit to our family who live in Westchester County just north of the Bronx, we all went out to Lusardi’s, a very fine restaurant in Larchmont, New York. My son Karel, who loves carbonara, asked for it, an off-menu item. No problem. What came out of the kitchen blew the taste buds out of our mouths. It was unlike any carbonara we’d ever experienced, sort of smoky and rich-tasting with an intense porkiness. Stupidly, we forgot to ask what was in the dish (besides eggs and cheese, of course).

Back in Toronto, I set about trying to find out. Eventually, I was led to guanciale (pronounced gwan-chi-al-eh), but it’s hard to find – even in some places in Italy. Fortunately, though, Toronto and area has a rather large community of Italian expats, although most are from the southern part of the country where this bacon-like creation is almost unknown. We in Toronto are lucky, though. I eventually found two companies that make guanciale: Dolce Lucano and Niagara Food Specialties, both very excellent. There are several stores that carry their products. Back home with our booty, we quickly made some carbonara and viola (as we musicians say), we had that taste. From here on, we will not make carbonara without guanciale as one of the ingredients. It just isn’t worth it.

Next time: the Blechta’s decide to make our own guanciale and embark on an expanding exploration of home curing.

The photo above shows two pieces of guanciale that hung in our basement for two months, drying out and intensifying in flavour. The white is the fat side (since it is a fatty cut of meat). The one two its left is the meat side which we dusted with black pepper. It tastes amazing.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Serves 3-4

This dish supposedly appeared in the area around Rome at the end of World War II in response to the fact that bacon and eggs were relatively plentiful (some were traded by the Allied troops), while other foods were not. The Romans came up with a delicious way to enjoy this limited bounty. The word carbonara refers to the specs of black pepper looking like charcoal (carbonara is Italian for charcoal). Guanciale (bacon made from pork cheeks cured in salt with herbs, rinsed afterward with white wine) is what makes this dish special. You should be able to find it wherever real Italians reside.

Carbonara is a special favorite of my son Karel and he makes it quite well. It’s very much a feel type of dish. Using the pasta water to keep the sauce from getting too thick is the key. We always add more pepper and maybe a bit more cheese at the table.

You’ll notice that, unlike other carbonara recipes, this uses whole eggs, no cream, no garlic, and no peas (shudder!). This is the way the dish is made in the Lazio region of Italy where it originated. We occasionally throw in a half cup of dry white wine (Pinot Grigio or Orvieto) to the pan when the guanciale is cooked and heat it through before adding the pasta. In that case, you’ll use a little less pasta water to make the sauce.


1 lb spaghetti
3 eggs, well beaten
¾ cup Parmesan, grated, or half and half Parmesan and pecorino Romano
1½ tsp ground black pepper
4 oz guanciale (if you can find it) or pancetta (more likely), chopped
into ¼" dice. In a pinch, you can use bacon, but we frown on it highly.
2 Tbs olive oil
pasta water

1. Put water on to boil for spaghetti.

2. Add cheese and black pepper to the beaten eggs and stir until well-blended.

3. Meanwhile, fry guanciale in olive oil over low heat. You want to render out the fat and make it nice and crispy. If you’re not ready to make the pasta, remove it from the heat at this time. The recipe can be made ahead until this point.

4. When the water boils, salt it, and add the spaghetti, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. Never overcook pasta!

5. As the spaghetti is approaching being done, mix in about a third of a cup of the pasta water to the guanciale, having gotten it nice and hot again.

6. Drain the spaghetti (saving about a cup more of the pasta water in case you need it) without shaking it, return it to the pot (over very low heat), add the guanciale mixture to the spaghetti, tossing it to get it well coated. Now add the cheese/egg mixture, a splash more water and toss everything rapidly. If the sauce seems to be getting too thick (beginning to look more like scrambled eggs), quickly add a bit more of the pasta water (say another third of a cup) to thin it. Add even more water if needed. If it seems too thin, add a bit more cheese.

7. Serve the carbonara on heated plates with more pepper and eat immediately! Our favourite wine to enjoy with this dish is Orvieto. Include a salad of your favourite greens tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and you’ve got a fantastic meal.

Buon appetito!