Sitting outside this week, enjoying the seasonally early warm evening temperatures, I had a moment of reflection in the same spot I used to sit early in the mornings before I went off to work at my kitchen job that I had while I was waiting on the construction of my restaurant. I remember those days vividly, watching the dawn unfold into daylight, drinking coffee and saying to myself, “Am I going to succeed in getting this restaurant off the ground?” They were exciting, but fear-filled days. I had never done this before, and I was leading my family down a road untraveled. Would this road lead anywhere? If so, would it be anything more than a dead end street?
Fast forward to today. Those previous questions now have answers. And they are all positive. But the questions that are now resolved only give way to brand new ones. Just when you think you’ve solved the puzzle, a new section is introduced. We never truly arrive at our destination without curiosity for what’s next. This is why chefs expand their operation or why they quit altogether and do something different. Call it boredom or just coming to your wits end; the human spirit must always keep growing.
One aspect of my new life as a chef is the chance to continue to learn and grow as a professional. I think back three and a half years ago to what little I knew about the food business, of owning a restaurant, and even cooking. I’m embarrassed at my naiveté. But our little spot on the corner of 8Th & S streets has become my laboratory, my proving ground, to allow me the permission to continue to learn and grow as a man in his late forties.
So what does this have to do with charcuterie?
Cooking is a very broad category, and when you decide to open a restaurant, your menu needs focus, else your food won’t make a lot of sense. Sure, these days you see a lot of fusion, deconstructing, reimagining, putting a new twist, and the most overused term, thinking outside the box when it comes to food trends and expressions of ideas. But I think the reason you see this is simply put, chefs become bored and restless and need something new to challenge their creativity. Yet some of the ideas that pass for food are a far stretch for me, even as an early adopter. Molecular gastronomy has its place, for which I substitute the phrase “food theatre.” Not the way I want to eat every day, but on occasion, I’ll be game and bite.
Before I move forward, I want to look backward. I want to see all that I have missed. The classics are classic for a reason. The Old World techniques that have survived the test of time have done so because they are sound, stable and profoundly fundamental. You don’t see a lot of liquid nitrogen called for in Julia Child’s work or The Joy of Cooking because it didn’t exist. Instead, tools like fire, salt and a sharp edged tool transformed meat, game and plant material into stable food that would both sustain and bring pleasure.
Thus my interest in preserving and curing meat.
Charcuterie has been a hobby horse of mine for about a year now. Ruhlman and Polcyn’s book is just about all you need to learn the basics of a wide variety of styles and techniques, with one of the easiest, and yet immediately rewarding being Tasso Ham.
Modern food preparation removes so many steps from the process that it’s easy to forget how much effort it used to take to get food to the table. Since I can’t raise the hog myself, I can start with the whole butchered beast and work from there. Here you see a whole hind leg on the worktable that will get used for at least 3 applications. For the Tasso, I cut out a section along the leg bone as seen in the photo From there, I divide the cut into three smaller parts for easier, quicker curing
The simplicity of this technique involves a short curing portion, following by a session in the smoker
I do the smoking on the stove so I can get the temperature higher than the cabinet smoker I typically use. After an hour or so of hickory smoke, you get a great smoky crust. The end result shows up on our menu in a handful of ways. Tonight we put it in a dish with fresh pasta. Linguini Fini with Tasso Ham
- Shaved Tasso Ham
- Artichoke Hearts
- Roasted Red Peppers
- Kalamata Olives
Gently heat in a sauté pan with good olive oil. Add al dente linguini fini and toss together. We top it with grana padano cheese and a few micro greens seen in the top of the photo.
Food like this feeds my creativity as well as my soul. I realized that I started this restaurant for me, because I needed it foremost. I needed new ideas, new energy and new creativity, and the food I am making allows me all of that. I’m glad that you can benefit and come along for the ride.