Thursday, March 28, 2013

Prosciutto- Whole Hog Butchery Act Three

Prosciutto Crudo is the Italian word for the salted and dry cured hind leg of pork, or ham in English.  The word prosciutto basically translates to ham in English.  The Italians also make a baked or boiled ham, similar to the typical ham in any American deli, and it is called Prosciutto Cotto, or "cooked ham."  Prosciutto Crudo, or "raw ham," in Italy is what we Americans call Prosciutto.

The most famous prosciutto in Italy comes from around the city of Parma in the province
of Emilia Romagna in north central Italy.  Prosciutto di Parma is a government regulated regional product in Italy and is one of the most highly prized dry cured hams in the world.  Prosciutto is, however, made all throughout Italy and throughout Europe using basically the same process.  The famous jamon serrano of Spain, and the Bayonne ham of France are also produced using the same procedures.  The only main difference between these famous dry cured hams is the breed and diet of the pig used, as well as the geographic location where the hams are produced.

As I mentioned, Prosciutto is made from the hind leg of a pig.  Here is a half of a hog carcass, the ham is in the foreground.  As mentioned above the quality of pork used is one of the only defining characteristics separating the famous dry cured hams of the world.  In Spain the famous Iberian black pigs who feed on
chestnuts make the finest hams.  The famous Smithfield hams of Virginia were famous for the quality of their peanut fed hogs.  This hog was partially grass fed at Lover's Leap Farm inKinderhook, New York.  The size is important as well, with larger hams going into the production of Prosciutto.  This hog weighed well over 300 lbs and yielded two very large hams.

The trimming of the ham is important in giving the Prosciutto its characteristic guitar shape.  More of the hock on the shank end must be left intact to allow for secure tying of the Prosciutto as it ages.  More of the sirloin is left attached to the ham as well leaving more meat and giving
the prosciutto its rounded shape.  The pelvis bone is removed exposing the rounded end of the femur and the entire exposed surface of meat is trimmed.  The skin is left completely intact.  

The first step in creating a dry cured Prosciutto from a raw ham is salting.  Sea salt is the preferred salt for Prosciutto in Italy.  During salting the meat is completely penetrated with salt killing any bacteria or pathogens that would eventually cause the ham to spoil.  Salt is only applied to the surface and allowed to slowly penetrate the Prosciutto.  This process is usually done under refrigeration and requires a long time, up to 40 days.  For this reason the freshness of the raw ham prior to processing is very important.  These particular hams were under salt less than 24 hours after slaughter.

The amount of salt is determined as a fraction of the total trimmed weight of the raw ham before salting.  Between 3 and 6% by weight of salt is added over a 40 day period.  The Prosciutti are sometimes weighted down during the salting phase.  After this period the Prosciutti are brushed of excess surface salt, sometimes washed with water or white wine, and moved to a drying room.  Here the Prosciutti dry for about a year, sometimes more.  The great dry cured ham producing regions of the world also points to the quality of their air as and important factor in the quality of their hams.  During drying the Prosciutti will lose about 30% of its original weight.

After an initial drying stage, the exposed surface of the Prosciutto is rubbed with a mixture of pork fat and rice or semolina flour and sometimes a little black pepper.  This seals the exposed surface a protects against over drying.  As with all dry cured meats and cheese, certain molds are allowed to grow on the surface to enhance the flavor and further protect from over drying.  To check the Prosciutto during aging, a small bone needle is inserted into the center of the Prosciutto.  The aroma is absorbed by the bone needle and checked by a trained nose.  Basically it should smell like good prosciutto and if not the entire Prosciutto is discarded.

This ham here had been hanging for 18 months in this picture before taking down and slicing.  On the surface it may look rustic and a little unappetizing, however after brushing off and trimming of the surface the inside reveals the wonderfully heady aroma and delicately salty, nutty flavor of some of the best Prosciutto I have ever tasted.  It was almost two years in the making, a truly amazing process.

So go to your local Importer of fine food and get some Prosciutto.  Serve it as an appetizer with your favorite seasonal fruit like melon, figs, or strawberries; or make a sandwich on some crusty bread with a little oil and vinegar and some sharp cheese.

Buon Appetito


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Salami- Whole Hog Butchery Act Two

Some of the greatest triumphs in human history have involved improvements in food production and preservation.  The knowledge to produce, process, and store food was and is a necessity for all human civilizations past and present.  Bread, cheese, beer, wine, the list goes on, all revolutionized human history and forever changed our dinner tables.  European and specifically Italian salami is a fascinating exploration into the ingenuity of our ancestors to survive while at the same time expanding our culinary horizons.  And you thought it was just an Italian Mix Sub.

The process of creating a dry cured salami from raw meat is magical.  The salami maker is like an alchemist mysteriously harnessing forces of nature to produce a product unique and quite different from its raw material, the raw meat.  Here I will outline the basic process of dry cured sausages.  

First we start with Pork meat.  Pork lends itself to dry curing more than any other meat.  A blend of lean meat and fat, usually around 75% lean, are ground separately.  Everything must be kept very cold to ensure a proper distinction between the lean and the fat.  One can think of a good slice of salami with its reddish pink meat and white flecks of fat.  As always meat from a local small farm is your first choice from a flavor and sustainability standpoint.  This pork is pasture raised by my friend Curt at Lover's Leap Farm in Kinderhook, NY.  This meat comes from the shoulder or butt, a cut that will usually give you the perfect ratio of lean to fat, and is the preferred cut for sausage.  The meat is trimmed and cut into small pieces then ground.

The meat is then ground, seasoned and mixed well.  Salt is the most important ingredient to preserving the salami.  Usually regular table salt, or sodium chloride is blended with a tiny portion of curing salt, or sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite.  The curing salts are particularly good at killing certain pathogens, like those that cause botulism, that may grow in the salami as it ages.  The proper salinity is the first step in the curing process, creating an environment within the salami that is inhospitable to bacteria.  In Italy salami is usually lightly seasoned with spices like black pepper, hot pepper, fennel seeds, or coriander to name a few.  Sometimes wine is also added which adds flavor as well as helping the meat to bind during mixing.  Some sort of sugar is also added to the curing salt-spice blend.  The purpose of the sugar is not as a sweetener.  The sugar is added to allow for fermentation of the salami which is the next step in the curing process.

During mixing of the seasoned ground meat mixture a Lactic acid starter culture is added.  After mixing the meat is tightly stuffed into sausage casings and hung to ferment.  During fermentation the Lactic acid starter culture eats the sugar in the salami, producing lactic acid and lowering the pH of the meat (increasing the acidity) to a level sufficiently acidic to kill most dangerous bacteria that may have been present in the raw meat.  This fermentation is important in curing the meat and also gives the meat its reddish hue, and pleasantly tangy flavor.  After fermentation this the meat is put in a drying chamber to slowly dry until it has lost 30-40% of its original weight.  This is the final step in the curing process, producing a finished dry cured, fermented salami.  The entire process takes between 4 weeks and a couple of months depending on the size of the casing, with most of the time spent in the drying chamber.

We are increasingly lucky to have many options for good quality cured meats produced locally as well a nationally.  For anybody interested in learning more about the whole process I would recommend a few books.  Charcuterie and Salumi, two separate books by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn; and Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertoli.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Porchetta- Cooking and Serving

Now we have a beautiful skin on pork roast rolled and tied and ready for the fire.  The question what is the best way to cook something like this?  At both restaurants, Cafe Capriccio in Albany, and Capriccio Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York; we have wood burning ovens.  This is the best way to cook skin on pig, hands down.  The heat radiates from all directions making the skin wonderfully crisp and delicious.  The wood oven loses heat as the cooking progresses which first seals and helps crisp up the roast then slowly roasts the tender juicy meat within.

Most of us home cooks are not lucky enough to have a wood burning oven in our kitchen so we have to use our conventional ovens and try to replicate the conditions in the wood oven.  It will never be the same, but your porchetta roasted at home will be almost equally delicious.  First I would preheat your oven to 500 degrees.  I do not add anything to the outside of the porchetta.  There is enough flavor and fat in the skin already, oil, salt, or pepper is superfluous.
Put the porchetta in a heavy roasting pan, with some chopped onions, carrots, potatoes, rosemary, if you wish to facilitate a pan sauce; and put in the hot oven.  Allow to roast for 15 minutes then turn the heat down to 350 degrees.  If your oven is very hot, you may need to turn the heat down as soon as you put the porchetta in the oven.  Roast until the internal temperature is 140 degrees, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 20-30 minutes, carve and serve.  This will give you a tender juicy, medium-well Porchetta.  If you want a tender, fall apart, juicy Porchetta allow to roast even longer until the internal temperature is close to 200 degrees.  Cooking times will vary between depending on the size of your roast, your oven, and the degree of doneness you choose.  If you do not have a meat thermometer go buy one.  They are cheap, readily available at your grocery store, and indispensable for properly cooking any king of meat!

Serve with Tuscan style white beans.  Simply soak a pound of dry white beans overnight.  Drain, cover just barely with fresh water, add one bay leaf, a pinch of black pepper, a sprig of rosemary and some good olive oil.  NO SALT at this point.  Bring to a boil gently and reduce to a simmer.  You may have to add a splash of water if it become dry.  The beans should be barely covered the entire cooking time.  Salt when almost done.  Cooking time will be 20-40 minutes depending on the age of the beans. Remove from the heat until ready to serve, Do not drain.

Another wonderful contorno is Tuscan Kale.  Aka Dinosaur Kale, Black Kale, or Lacinato Kale.  As with all dark greens, Tuscan Kale is a super food filled with many nutrients, and delicious at that.  It is also a great plant to try if you like vegetable gardening.  It easily grows from seed, and is a great late season crop.  I have had Tuscan Kale plants live into January in upstate New York.  They say the cold actually improves the flavor as well.

To prepare, cut the stem ends of by an inch or two and steam or blanch for 5 minutes or so until just tender but not soggy.  Drain, allow to cool slightly, Then roughly chop.  Heat some good olive oil in a pan, add some sliced garlic and cook gently until fragrant but not brown, then add the chopped kale.  Saute, seasoning lightly with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper for 5-10 minutes.  Cover and set aside until needed.

When ready to carve the porchetta you may slice thinly and chop up the crisp cracklins of skin,  or cut into thick steaks with the skin attached.  Serve with a spoon of the white beans, the sauteed kale, and some of the juice from the roasting pan.   Some roasted potatoes wouldn't hurt but are by no means necessary.  Drizzle everything with a great olive oil, preferably Tuscan new oil with its peppery pungent flavor.  Don't forget a sturdy Tuscan red wine.

Buon Appetito

Monday, March 18, 2013

Porchetta- Whole Hog Butchery Act One

Pork is king.  Hands down there is no other meat so versatile, lending itself to so many preparations.  From the sublime whole roasted pig, to the juicy pork chop, to the magic of the Italian salumeria no other animal offers us so much delight.  I am going to discuss Tuscan Porchetta.  To demonstrate I have included pictures from a whole hog that I procured from my friend a local farmer, and processed and preserved in a totally traditionally Italian manner.

Porchetta in Tuscany is ordinary street food sold in autostada rest areas, and in small cafes on narrow ancient streets.  Here in the states Tuscan Porchetta is gaining a sort of cult following, and for good reason, with entire restaurants and food trucks devoted to its preparation.  Luckily for us cooks,  both professional and amateur alike, it is very easy to prepare and a great centerpiece for a great meal, not to mention the leftovers.

Tuscan porchetta is essentially a skin-on, boneless pork roast laced with garlic and rosemary, sometimes lemon zest, and slow roasted, usually in a wood burning oven,  until dangerously crispy and delicious on the outside and succulently tender and juicy on the inside.  It is a mini pig roast.

In Tuscany porchetta is the skin on, loin of the pig with part of the belly attached.  The ribs are removed, sometimes roasted along with the porchetta, and the entire package is seasoned rolled and tied.  Here I am breaking down a hog that my good friend Curt brought me over from Lover's Leap Farm in Kinderhood, NY.  You can see the loin still attached to the belly, the cut that usually becomes bacon.  I cut most of the belly off leaving just enough to roll around the meat completely sealing the meat in skin.

In the USA it is hard to find a pork loin with the skin and belly still attached without buying and processing a whole hog.  I have discovered a way around this that will deliver a almost perfect replica.  You can substitute a boneless-skinless pork loin, seasoned in exactly the same manner, wrapped in a whole pork belly, and tied in the same manner.  It can be hard to find whole pork belly here in upstate New York grocery stores.  Consult your local butcher and you shouldn't have a problem.

Here you can see an entire skin on pork loin with the belly still attached.  Meat from a local small farm is always your best option from a flavor and sustainability standpoint.  This hog was born and raised on a small farm, outside, and allowed to forage for food in the warm months.  That said commercially raised pork prepared in the proper manner can be outstanding.
Here is the same loin trimmed, seasoned and ready to be rolled and tied.  Before seasoning i scored the skin with a sharp knife in a cross hatch pattern to allow slow rendering of the fat,  The loin is the thick lean part on the right side and the belly is on the left side.  The meat has been rubbed generously in extra virgin Olive Oil, salt, ground black pepper, and a mixture of finely chopped garlic and fresh rosemary.  The meat is then rolled and tied with butcher twine.
Here is the Porchetta ready to be cooked.  These two roasts are from the entire loin of one very large hog.  For a home cook you could do a roast half or a third the size of one of these and easily serve a party of 10-15 with plenty of leftovers for sandwiches.  Check in later and I will discuss cooking and serving Porchetta!

Buon Appetito

Welcome to Culinaria Capriccio

Welcome to Culinaria Capriccio, a forum for all things food, family, culture, travel, and living.  My name is Franco Rua.  I work with my father Jim Rua at our restaurant Cafe Capriccio in Albany, and Capriccio Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York.  We have a passion for Italian food and culture that is unmistakeable when visiting our restaurants, yet goes beyond the restaurant business.  Culinaria Capriccio is a place where we can display and discuss our obsession with the authentic Italian experience.