In Quartermaster’s Domain, the words “Pellets”, “Electric” or “Gas” are Anathema

When it comes to true, honest barbecue, the surest sign (and only advertising required) that it is the “real deal” is the smoke that announces itself. In culinary terms, the white smoke of barbecue is the “Habemus papam” of carnivores. If you stand outside “Joe Bob’s World Famous Texabamalina BBQ” and do not smell delicious vapors wafting forth somewhere overhead, you have arrived at a den of thieves and house of liars and you should quickly run, run away. 

Since such places are few and far between, and since I live in a state that produces a passable tri-tip but pork not so much, I am my own pit master. But, let’s be fair. There’s the way it has always been done (TM) and then there’s the way to cheat and pretend. 

Exhibit A:

I’ve written of this beast before. I make pizza in it. It’s a mess. I bought it for $200 five years ago and can’t find another one. When it finally falls apart I’ll search for the rough equivalent or move on to a cut open metal barrel. 

There’s two sides for cooking. Doors on the front for adding fuel. No gas, no pellets, no electricity. You start a fire on one side, you tend it, you can fit 4 shoulders on the other side, or 6 racks of ribs. 

Yesterday (Saturday) I started it around 1pm and smoked three racks of ribs for 6 hours. At 8:00pm I put on four pork shoulders, an checked the coals and wood every 90 minutes through the night (well, I check it at three-hour intervals overnight). Twenty hours later (with temps on the meat side ranging 200-225) the shoulders are done. 

Meanwhile, I feel like I’m on vacation. Shortly we’ll eat like (medieval) kings. 



Rome: A Pantheon of Flavor

IMG_1097IMG_1096Adjacent to the ancient Roman Pantheon (now a church consecrated to Our Lady), in the piazza sits a norceria which claims to have been in operation since the middle ages. I’ve made friends with the English-speaking shopkeepers, who are younger than the grizzled fellows who actually operate the slicers. But the young ones tell the old ones what you want, and they always take care of you.

Prosciutto di cinghiale (wild boar), in the dim of the evening light

Prosciutto di cinghiale (wild boar), in the dim of the evening light

Romans dine later than we Americans, and so around 7 pm rolls around and one feels a little peckish. What one needs in such an instance is some prosciutto di cinghale (wild boar), salami from Norcia, and a beer.

Rare and precious are the moments where one may sit in an ancient place and enjoy life in a way that it has been enjoyed for centuries. The prosciutto was incredibly silky with very little of the chewiness so common with conventional ham, bursting with the flavors of what a ruminant might find on a forest floor (nuts, acorns, chewy bits of fungus).

And, coupled with that rare and precious moment came my first opportunity to sample the product of the brewing efforts of the monks of Nursia, which is a relatively new venture in terms of monastic brewing tradition, and at present is not available on this continent. At 10% ABV, it’s in the nature of a tripel, but (judging from a bottle, not ideal) blond. Sweet, but not sticky, smooth without some of the funk you find in abbey ales. Not my favorite style, but an excellent example of the style.


Adventures in Pork: HamRelocation

Now that we have FOUR whole salt-cured “prosciutto” hams to age for the next 12-18 months, and another two expected in the next couple of months, I have run into some capacity issues. In the past, I’ve referred to my CureBrewzer, which is a freezer to which I’ve added a temperature controller, a fan, and some materials for regulating the humidity.

FullSizeRender-1But the CureBrewzer won’t hold four hams, and with the weather changing and getting more wet (Deo Gratias) I am having some issues with moisture in the box anyway.

Part of the Brewhouse is lined in cedar, and there are two closets. I have a dream to convert one of the cedar-lined closets into a curing/food storage area, which I figure could be achieved by installing a “window” A/C unit and maybe amping up the insulation, etc. But that’s a little ways off, and I still need somewhere to hang these hams for the time being.

It turns out that during this time of year, the climate in the Brewhouse is pretty good for hanging. My little digital thermometer/hygrometer is reading temps around 50F, and 60-70% humidity. As long as the humidity doesn’t go above 70% (below 65% is optimal), things are good. At least until Spring.

What now, Vegans?

Because, for consistency’s sake, you’re going to need to Save the Greens, since they have feelings and all. I guess you still have mushrooms, until someone discovers the superintelligence of mold spores. Meanwhile, behold God’s glorious porktastic bounty (28 hickory-smoked-in-bliss hours later):

IMG_0194.JPGHave a blessed Sunday!

China has only one Time Zone…..

Source: Flickr (under Creative Commons license); Author: David Gordillo

Source: Flickr (under Creative Commons license); Author: David Gordillo

Which means that while it’s Five O’Clock somewhere, it’s only that hour once (er, twice, if you count a.m.) per day in the entire country. Still, it doesn’t stop China from achieving the following notable distinction: Since the year 2000, China has reigned supreme as the world’s leader in beer production! In 2012, China produced nearly 440 million hectoliters of beer, versus the nearly 228 million produced by the United States, in second place.

And China might win some barbecue competitions also, because with nearly a half-billion pigs, it raises more pork than the next 43 pork-producing companies combined, seven times more pork than second-place United States.

think that the United States continues to use the most hops in beer worldwide, because of all of us craft beer hophead snobficianados. I’ll have to see if there are any statistics on that. And I have no idea about barbecue sauce either.

Catholic Joy and Adventures in Pork; Prudence and Prosciutto

20140815_092614_AndroidRecently we were happy to invite to dinner a couple who are friends of our friend Fr. A. Since we were meeting them for the first time, all that we knew was that (a) they are both Italian and (b) they are newlyweds and (c) they are visiting California and staying with Fr. A.

I was a little intimidated by the idea of hosting Italians from Rome, but I decided that I would have to take the risk, which included getting the second prosciutto from Salumi ready for cutting and service.

The risk was calculated. At the very least, I’d get an impartial assessment; hopefully they wouldn’t care too much about hurting my feelings and they would know real prosciutto. How could any Italian person not know prosciutto? I’m sure it’s possible, but odds are not at my house.

I would find out if I’m crazy for trying.

If I had known that these newlyweds were also gourmands (the husband works in purchasing and sales for a company that distributes gourmet foods from Italy) I would have understood a bit better the gravity of my risk-taking.

Friday Night Menu

house-cured “prosciutto” with honeydew melon

Spaghetti alla carbonara (house-cured guinciale)

Salad with grilled peaches, lavender, blue cheese and arugula

Caprese salad (Mr. Karl’s garden tomatoes, my basil, Deacon D’s olive oil)

Braised beef with polenta and fresh sweet corn

Chocolate mousse with fresh berries

New Clairvaux wines, Quartermaster’s beer, homemade lemoncello

photo 2The dinner went well. Everyone ate, even the littles (who were well behaved, considering that dinner started at 8:30). If everyone eats everything, it usually means it’s okay.

It’s been a whole year since we began this project with the first pig that we purchased, curing the hams in the style of prosciutto — a simple salt cure (not brine) followed by a coating in lard and cracked pepper, wrapping in cheesecloth and hanging in the Curebrewzer for nearly twelve months.

About four months ago, I unwrapped and tested the first of the two prosciuttos, which went to a friend. I wondered whether our friends like it, and learned on another recent evening that it was used to make panini (with aioli, shaved onion, and a bunch of other good stuff) — lunches (and late-night snacks) for a Catholic retreat group. A well loved ham brings much happiness.

20140815_094147_AndroidI’d say the prosciutto was even better with an additional four months of aging. The rind was a bit firmer, the ham itself was just as tender, but flavors were more concentrated, more porky, especially the fat had a sweeter, more buttery flavor. I’m pleased with the outcome for this first attempt. I have some ideas for the next two hams that began the air-drying process in the Curebrewzer last week. I plan to hang them for 18 months, and remove the cheesecloth after 9 or 10 months to let the air harden the rind more directly.

The Italian gourmet food dealer took a turn with the knife to slice the prosciutto, which I had rigged up on an oven roasting rack (maybe I do need a better solution). For twenty minutes he patiently (I need a different knife for this) replenished the tray of shaved paper thin slices of ham (like he’d done it a few times before), enjoyed with a slice of melon. We ate well over a pound of the thin slices. When the couple said their thank-you’s and good-bye’s, the husband shook my hand and told me (in his charming Italian accent), “You made me very happy as an Italian man tonight! Thank you!”

So Adventures in Pork continues, with renewed vigor. We have another pig waiting at the butcher right now, which means two more hams going in to cure in the near future. We have friends raise these pigs for us, and it turns out to be an affordable way to buy high quality meat. And, it’s fun to do something special like this prosciutto project.

20140805_103004_AndroidIncidentally, I was at Costco recently and came across a display — not for prosciutto — but for Spanish Iberico ham, a close relative of prosciutto.

The hams from Spain have their own following, and it’s well deserved. Iberico is a very robust flavor that I really like, in part due to the special breed of pigs raised for the ham, and their diet, which, includes feasting upon acorns. The hams are also cured a bit longer than prosciutto. There are certain Iberico hams that are aged up to three years, and in that time develop a concentrated porky flavor.

Displays like this at a warehouse store signify that Americans are developing a more mainstream interest in foods that come from time-honored, traditional preparation methods. And it also says that there’s money to spend in this area of cuisine. Or it says salt plus pork plus fat equals good.

Things like diet and space for the hogs, and things like time and care in the process are what make items like Iberico ham (or prosciutto, or artisan cheese, etc.) so expensive. To save money, and because it’s more fun than a plastic package from the warehouse store, we’re making our own prosciutto-style locally-sourced ham, and sharing it with family and friends — whether new, old, or Italian. It’s a tiny little Catholic joy for me.

Adventures in Pork: Disaster Mitigation

We have a large freezer in the garage. It has….. issues. The main issue is that the shelves are the wire type with four pegs that are supposed go into little recessed holes on the inside of the freezer. If you put anything slightly heavy on the shelves, the weight causes the shelf to bow, and you lose a quarter- or half-inch of width which causes one or two pegs to come out of their place, toppling the entire shelf and its contents.

I like to store stuff in the freezer. It’s normally full. Or at least, it was. Recently, a few weeks ago, someone (probably me) went into the freezer, removed something, causing a shelf to fall out after shutting the door. This little avalanche knocked the freezer door ajar, which no one realized until it was too late. This is the second time this has happened.

Luckily, the door has a lock and we were able to locate the key. So hopefully this exact catastrophe will not happen again, because even if something falls forward inside the freezer when it’s locked, the door will stay bolted shut….. as long as we ALWAYS keep it locked.

Everything — including about half a side of beef, and over half a pig — thawed completely. By the time I discovered it, the small items kept on the door were barely refrigerator temperature (maybe a bit warmer in fact, and I couldn’t determine how long they’d been like this) and the large items were entirely thawed but nice and cold.

I ended up filling our garbage toter with more than $500 of spoiled food.

prosciutto1I had two fresh hams, at over 20 lbs. a piece, to be cured for prosciutto, along with the jowls and sides for guinciale and pancetta. These items were vacuum sealed and seemed properly cold, so I determined that I would have to get those started curing IMMEDIATELY (or they’d be lost) (this was just a couple days before I had to leave for Guatemala).

So I quickly gathered the things I’d need to get the pork into cure before leaving on the mission. I checked the hams two days ago:


They actually look really good. They smell cured. No off aromas at all. I used a good amount of weight on top of them. They are firm and actually feel good and cured right now, however, I’m giving them another 5 days and just a bit more salt. After that, they’ll get rinsed, coated in lard and crusted with coarsely ground black pepper, wrapped in cheesecloth, and placed in the curebrewzer for at least a year. The pancetta and guinciale will go in at the same time as well, but will hang for a far shorter amount of time.

AND, I just got word that our NEXT pig was just slaughtered and so I called the butcher with cutting instructions. Apparently this pig was fed a steady diet of goat’s milk and is nice and FAT. We will cure the hams, sides, and cheeks in the same manner, and maybe this time we’ll finally get some salami.


Baby Gastronomy in Italy is Positively Genius

The bambinos there really know how to eat! Proof:

I love how the living animal (happy to be food!) is prominently displayed. Packaging here in the US rarely shows that — even for adult food. I wish it did. Farms make me hungry.

And, for the even more adventuresome palate:

Horse: the meat you can also ride.

Do they ship internationally?

Adventures in Pork: Prosciutto Update

Yesterday, after seven long months, one of the two “Salumi” prosciuttos hanging in the curebrewzer emerged! The other one will continue to “ripen” for a few more months, until I can properly plan an event that revolves around all the fantastic dishes that contain prosciutto.

Prosciutto #1 (from Salumi); wrapped in cheesecloth, lard and black pepper

Prosciutto #1 (from Salumi); wrapped in cheesecloth, lard and black pepper

If you recall, at the beginning of the process, after curing in salt, the hams were coated in a layer of lard and covered in cracked black peppercorns. Then, they were wrapped in cheesecloth and set to hang in the curebrewzer where the temperature and humidity is controlled and kept at approximately 60 degrees and 60 percent humidity.

During this time, I periodically checked the hams by visual inspection only. I did not, as some people recommend, attempt to insert a metal skewer inside the ham to check it.  Despite hanging at temperatures well above refrigeration for a period of many months, these hams have very low risk of spoiling, versus something like an air-cured salami. Plus, I figured that some vague description (“the removed skewer will smell ‘cured'”? Thanks!) of how to do it and what I would be looking for wouldn’t help me very much anyway.

A ham is a whole muscle — very tightly packed protein. At curing the flesh takes on a significant amount of salt while losing a lot of its water weight. It becomes even more dense. Nasty aerobic bugs have no way to penetrate inside the ham and survive. Poking holes into a ham basically equates to opening a door for these icky bugs, and even if the risk if fairly low, it didn’t seem worth doing.

All of the cheesecloth wrapping, lard and pepper from the ham is removed to expose the "rind'

All of the cheesecloth wrapping, lard and pepper from the ham is removed to expose the “rind’

I completely unwrapped the cheesecloth. The cheesecloth, lard and pepper covering is supposed to provide a protective layer while permitting some exchange of moisture so the ham can continue to mature and lose a little extra water weight. The more moisture that is lost will concentrate the ham flavors, make it a bit chewier and saltier. The aging will impart a nutty flavor and aroma to the meat.

The cheesecloth did develop some patches of multicolored mold on the surface, but as I anticipated, the mold never got close to penetrating past the layer of lard. I treated these areas with a spritz of white vinegar and a dusting of sea salt, which killed the mold and kept it contained.

During unwrapping, I avoided contamination with any viable mold spores by removing the cheesecloth and throwing away the parchment sheet that I was using as a surface for the ham. Then, when I scraped off the lard, I replaced the second sheet of parchment that the ham rested upon, so that once the rind of the ham was exposed, any residual contamination was gone and the ham was on a clean sheet of parchment. Finally, after scraping, I took a few paper towels to remove the last smears of lard, fully exposing the rind of the ham.

Since this prosciutto was being given to a friend, but I wanted to do a “quality check”, I cut off just one small portion of the rind, which had oxidized a bit and taken on a light tan/ochre coloration, to expose a deep pink rose colored flesh, with a tint of peach that was more prominent after shaving into thin slices.


How did it taste? Fantastic. No off flavors at all, just a warm and earthy “pig” aroma, the slightest hint of iron and butter, and a clean balanced saltiness that really typifies a good salt-cured ham. It is not more salty than other good prosciutto or Serrano ham that I have tried, and the texture is also very nice, a bit more tender than your commercial domestic “prosciutto” examples which are sometimes quite chewy and hard to bite through. A thin slice could be easily pulled apart with the fingers and had a nice “melty” quality on the tongue.

In other words, I’m really proud of it, and it will be not be easy if I ever stop making this stuff and have to go back to relying on Costco or Trader Joe’s for prosciutto. Most of the domestic salt-cured ham just isn’t anywhere close to the real deal, and even imported prosciutto is not the truly high-end ham that you can only get in Italy.

We have two more whole fresh hams from a second pig, waiting to be cured in the same manner. These hams are quite a bit larger than the first set, and so I will have to modify the process a bit to accommodate the extra size. I think that I have also learned that I can be a little bit more judicious with the amount of lard and number of layers of cheesecloth to use in wrapping the hams. I think just a little less would permit slightly better moisture exchange, which may be important since the next two hams will be almost twice the size of the first two.

A very successful first trial!