This month’s Charcutepalooza challenge involved dry salt curing, and I had a number of projects in mind. I knew that I needed to start another guanciale because I was halfway finished eating the first one I’d made back in December, and a house without guanciale, I decided, was not really a home. I also wanted to make a several flavors of bacon, and I was especially eager to make an Italian pancetta.
I chose to make a very plain fresh bacon so that I had a nice straightforward porky bacon to compare and contrast with the others, and a maple-sweet bacon which I would cure over hickory smoke, a riotous air-cured pancetta with savory and spicy flavors, and finally a good savory fresh bacon. Here they have just started to cure:
I used a belly from Tamworth/Old Spot pig procured from North Hollow Farm, and I met my butcher mentor Cole up in South Hero, Vermont to break the pig down. After trimming the belly into four pieces, I followed the instructions in Ruhlman & Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, but the flavoring for the savory bacon and the pancetta I fashioned myself. Once cured and bagged, into the ‘fridge they went for just over a week. I roasted the plain fresh bacon first, and my first taste was fantastic: perfectly salty, sweet, and porky. This fresh bacon is delicious sliced thick and fried gently, and it goes particularly well with sautéed greens such as spinach or kale.
Pork bellies will vary from pig to pig of course, but there is also variation depending on which section of the belly you’re using. In this case, the piece I used for the plain fresh bacon was from the meatier ham-end, and the piece used for the savory bacon was from the thinner and streakier part nearer the shoulder. This worked out great as the savory bacon tastes really good sliced pretty thin and fried just crisp, while the plain bacon is most like salt-pork, good for braises and stews.
The first project planned for the savory bacon was a pâté de tête or pig’s head paté which utilized a half pig’s head in addition to the bacon.
I followed the brief instruction for this paté included in Jane Grigson’s excellent Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, which I cannot recommend enough. While it is a small book, it is dense with recipes, really great recipes which will keep me busy for years. This particular recipe is more of a sketch and she uses it as an example of how a paté need not be complicated nor full of expensive ingredients like truffles or fois gras in order to be utterly delicious and fine.
I happen to love the pig’s head as an ingredient; it is full of flavorful meat and sweet fat, and preparing the head –whether for soup or brawn or a paté like this– is as much a science project as a cooking exercise, and I find the insight I gain into my own cranium’s composition to be fascinating and deeply satisfying. Granted, the eyeball removal was a slight concern, but in fact was no worse than any of the rest of the work. I never lose sight (ha!) of the basic fact that this food I’m preparing has its beginning as a live beast, and I find that this is comforting and a bit humbling as well, which seems appropriate.
I think one of the reasons that the pig’s head has never been in great demand as an ingredient is not because it isn’t potentially delicious, but rather that making use of it takes a serious investment of time and energy. A perfectly good paté can be made from pork butt or picnic roast, but I don’t think the shoulder is nearly as flavorful as the meat from the head. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that trimming the skull, with all its curves and protuberances and hidden pockets, is a good deal of work. But fun work!
Once all the trimming was finished, I prepared the forcemeat. I ran the approximately 2 lbs of meat and fat through my meat grinder using the small plate. If you are using a comparatively runty meat grinder such as my KitchenAid meat grinder attachment, be careful that you don’t include any skin. I suspect that a sturdier grinder would handle bits of skin just fine, but mine balked. I hadn’t included much anyway, and so I just left those bits out. I also ran 2 ounces of my savory bacon and a half-pound of roughly chopped and sweated-in-butter onions through the grinder, and finally a tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs, which serves to bind the forcemeat as well as clean any bits of meat and onion out of the grinder.
To the minced forcemeat, onions, and breadcrumbs I added one large egg, a tablespoon of flour, a generous half teaspoon of my own quatre-épices spice blend, a scant two tablespoons of salt, a generous teaspoon of black pepper, a half teaspoon of garlic powder, approximately 2 ounces of a dryish Madeira, and a pinch of dried marjoram. I mixed this well with a fork until the forcemeat became a bit tacky, and then I formed a little rissole, a small flattened meatball, and fried it to check for seasoning.
Remember that whenever you’re preparing any dish which will be eaten cold or at room temperature, to make sure it’s well seasoned as salt and other seasonings are less pronounced in cold food.
In this case, I felt that a bit more salt and quatre-épices and pepper was called for, so I mixed that in thoroughly before filling a terrine mold with the forcemeat. Some more of the savory bacon was sliced, and then cut them into long lardons.
Now I applied the lardons in a lattice over the top of the forcemeat:
..and then baked it in a 315°F oven in a bain marie with water halfway up the side of the terrine mold for an hour with the lid on. I took the terrine mold lid off at this point and let the paté cook for another 30 minutes or so, until it had shrunk substantially and seemed to float in a pool of liquid fat. At this point I Very Carefully removed the terrine from the oven and let it cool to room temperature.
Once the paté was thoroughly cool, I placed a piece of cling-film over the paté, then a cling-film wrapped piece of stiff cardboard, and then a few medium-sized cans to compress the paté a bit, and finally slid the whole shebang into the ‘fridge. In the morning, the paté had compressed just enough to give it a lovely firm texture when I cut my first slice.
The taste and texture are fantastic: dense and meaty with sweet pork, perfectly salty, and the savory spice blend adds complexity and richness.
Today was unseasonably warm outdoors, practically balmy despite the deep snow, so I took a fat slice of my pâté de tête, a little bowl of cornichon pickles, some of my own green-peppercorn mustard, a fresh loaf of pain d’epi bread, a bit of mom’s spicy chevre, a glass of Malbec, and two Butcher’s Treat hazelnut cookies out to the back porch, propped my boot on the stone wall, and munched happily while watching handsome construction workers carry lumber back and forth across the yard. Delicious.
Coming soon: Hickory-smoked maple bacon, fiery nuggets of bacony goodness on sticks, Mangalitsa guanciale, and The Pancetta.