Charcuterie refines the art of preserving meat
We've been eating meat for far longer than we've had the ability to refrigerate it.
Cultures around the world found different ways to preserve meats: by curing, brining or smoking it, cooking it in fat or drying it out.
In the 15th century, the French were the first to give it a name and turn it into a respectable trade. Charcuterie (shar-COO-turh-ree) once referred mainly to pork, but the word now describes an array of processed or cured meats, including sausage, prosciutto, foie gras and pâté and even bacon, beef jerky and lox.
Cookbook author Michael Ruhlman makes the case in his 2005 book 'Charcuterie' that preserving meats has been a 'foundation of human survival.' Thousands of years ago, 'it allowed societies to maintain a food surplus and therefore helped turn early peoples from nomads into clusters of homebodies.' Even as
modern refrigeration evolved and spread, people continued to smoke, cure and salt meat not out of necessity but because the flavor yielded with these techniques cannot be replicated otherwise.
In the past 10 years or so, restaurants started offering small bites of charcuterie, accompanied by pickles, olives, mustard, marmalades, crackers or bread. Just like cheese plates, charcuterie offered diners something to nibble on while they sipped on wine or awaited their main courses.
In Austin, charcuterie plates are showing up at places ranging from the high-end bowling-alley eatery the Highball to the sweet-and-petite Euro bistro Fabi and Rosi to the East Side buzz factory called Justine's.
On a recent Friday, the South Austin bistro Olivia offered house prosciutto, fromage de téte (head cheese) and chicken liver mousse with pear butter. At East Side Show Room, candied bacon lent crunch and sweetness to balance a bourbon liver mousse. At Justine's, rabbit terrine with a mosaic of peppercorns anchored chef Josh Lopez's housemade plate with garlic-rich duck liver mousse and an aromatic rillette of rough-shredded pork, served simply with cornichons, olives and sliced baguette.
But restaurants aren't the only place to enjoy a platter of processed pig. Grocery stores including Central Market, Whole Foods Market and Spec's Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods carry both imported and housemade charcuterie. At Spec's on Brodie Lane and U.S. 290, Adam Hernandez, head of the cheese and deli department, says he's assembling more charcuterie plates now than ever, mainly for customers who are hosting parties.
Although the majority of the store's sausages, foie gras and pâtés are shipped in, chef George Petri makes meat products like duck pâté using skills he learned from fellow meat geeks in the charcuterie club at his Oregon culinary school. Are spreadable meats a hard sell? "We eat hot dogs and bologna," he says, which are basically pâté-like puréed meats packed in a casing.
In the past year, vendors at local farmers markets have started offering charcuterie made from local meats. "Charcuterie started out as a rustic, peasant style of making stuff that people would have just thrown away," says Larry Kocurek of Kocurek Family Charcuterie, which uses only meats from Central Texas to make pâtés, rillettes, sausages, lard and stock. Kocurek upholds that tradition: "The only thing left of a duck when I'm done with it is the beak, feet and bones," he says, which he uses to make stock.
After graduating top of his class from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Kocurek moved back to his hometown of Austin to lead the kitchen at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine downtown. "I'd buy expensive products from Hawaii, Japan, Virginia. Now it's Bastrop, Rockdale and the Hill Country," he says.
He's serving fewer items in a less glamorous setting, but he couldn't be happier. Despite the 13-hour days it requires to make 100 pounds of sausage and a dozen other products a week, he says it doesn't feel like work. "It's an extension of home life," which as of three weeks ago now includes a baby boy named after his dad. (It'll still be a few years before he can grow his dad's signature handlebar moustache, however.)
Like many chefs who rely on local farmers for ingredients, Kocurek can't always get what he needs. "I'm at the mercy of my farmer for the first time in my career," he says, but it's not just because every chef in town is fighting for Richardson Farm pork belly or duck from Sebastien Bonneu of Countryside Farm. With charcuterie, there's often another hurdle: health inspectors.
Unlike in Europe, where it's easy to find legs of curing ham and sausage hanging from the ceilings in many restaurants and bars, it's much harder to get the permits to age meat in this country, Kocurek says. Inspectors also often won't let many ingredients such as blood or caul fat, the fatty membrane that holds internal organs of pigs and cows together, leave the processing plant. "Health inspectors are getting a huge education because so many people are doing it now," says Kocurek, who along with his wife, LeeAnn, also spends a lot of time at the markets explaining charcuterie to customers. (Twice a month, the Kocureks offer charcuterie-making classes. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the mailing list and get more information on the classes.)
Kocurek sees Austin's interest in charcuterie as proof that the city is blossoming into a "young, beautiful culinary community." Chefs are pushing themselves to learn more about the charcuterie craft and diners are willing to try meat made from centuries-old traditions, even if they've never heard of them. "Twentysomething chefs who are now thirtysomethings like me have been around the block, but we see where we want to be."
Additional material from restaurant critic Mike Sutter.
Common types of charcuterie
Any meat that has been salted, smoked or cured in any way - often with a combination of techniques - can be considered charcuterie, including well-known foods like corned beef, pastrami, beef jerky, lox and bacon.
Here's a guide to some of the other meats that fall into the charcuterie category:
• Smooth pâté. Ground meat (pork, veal, liver or ham are usually used) that is combined until smooth with fat and poached in a water bath. Served cold.
• Country pâté. A rustic version of smooth pâté that has a course texture. Served cold.
• Rillettes. Pork or duck slow-cooked in their own fat and then pounded or pulverized with some of the fat. Usually served in a jar. Served warm or cold.
• Confit. Cured meat, usually duck, that is poached in its own fat. Served warm or cold.
• Sausages. Ground meat combined with seasonings, often stuffed in a casing. From Cajun andouille to the German blood sausage Zungernwurst, nearly every cuisine has its own specialty sausage. Can be cured, such as Spanish chorizo, or smoked. Served hot or cold.
• Ham. Like sausages, many cultures have different ways of preserving whole cuts of ham. Jamon serrano and prosciutto, two of the best known examples, are salt-cured and air-dried. Served hot or cold.
• Foie gras. A rich, delicate meat spread made from liver. Served cold or warm.
• Terrine. Although many terrines are similar to pâté, the name comes from the earthenware vessel in which the meat, usually forcemeat, is prepared, not the food itself.
Serving charcuterie at home
When creating a charcuterie plate at home, serve a mix of cured and air-dried meats. You'll need a few ounces of meat per person, Kocurek says, as well as crackers and bread. To break up the heaviness of the meat, add olives, pickled cucumbers or other brined vegetables, as well as mustard and maybe even a jam or marmalade. Kocurek likes to include cheese on a charcuterie plate, too. LeeAnn Kocurek, a sommelier who used to work at Austin Wine Merchant before she and her husband started the charcuterie business, says acidic, earthy wines, such as those from cold regions such as Northern France and Northern Italy, generally pair well because "there's so much good fat in chatcuterie and cheese." But don't forget the beer, Larry Kocurek notes. "A pinot noir is good, but a pilsner or full-body wheat beer goes well, too," he says.
If you have leftovers, use the dried meats on a sandwich or spread rillettes or pâté like you would mayonnaise. Duck confit is divine on salads or served with potatoes. 'I've pan-fried country pâté and made sandwiches that would put any Spam to shame,' he says.
Onion Apple Marmalade
10 onions, cut into fine rings
4 apples, cut into small chunks
3 star anise
1 tsp. cardamom
1 cup port wine
2 cups brown sugar
Dash of apple cider vinegar
Molasses to taste
Cook all ingredients on low heat for six to eight hours, stirring occasionally. Mixture should be dark brown and caramelized. Let cool and store in a jar in the refrigerator.
Pâté de Maison
3 lb. chicken livers
3 lb. duck livers
1/2 finely diced onion
1/2 bunch thyme
8 oz. butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup of Brandy
1 Tbsp. Quatre Epices (combination of black pepper, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg in this order, with slightly more black pepper than the other spices.)
In a large pot, cook all ingredients together until livers are medium to medium well. Let cool slightly. In small batches, blend mixture in a food processor until smooth. Careful not to add to much liquid to the processor as you are blending in small batches. Pass this blended mixture through a fine chinois. Let set in fridge overnight. Serve chilled.
- Larry Kocurek of Kocurek Family Charcuterie
2 Tbsp. Colman's dry mustard
6 Tbsp. beer (preferably a dark beer such as a porter or stout)
11/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. caraway seeds, toasted and crushed
3 oz. malt vinegar
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3 large egg yolks
1/2 tsp. sugar
In a double boiler, cook ingredients over simmering water, whisking gently until thick. (If you don't have a double boiler, combine ingredients in a metal bowl on top of a pot of simmering water.) Stir carefully as not to make the mixture frothy. Remove from heat and cool. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Adapted from 'Charcuterie' by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (W.W. Norton, 2005)