Low on the hog

Nov 23, 2005 at 12:00 am

Last night, I was makin’ bacon. In one of those karmic coincidences that sometimes seem to fly in from all directions, it was because two writers were once intrigued by the same passages in the kids’ book series, Little House on the Prairie.

By “makin’,” I don’t mean cookin’. I trimmed a 5-pound, 2-inch thick piece of meaty pork belly so it was nice and square, rubbed it with a mixture of kosher salt, sugar and a meat-curing powder called “pink salt” until it was completely and evenly coated with the stuff, sealed it in a large Ziploc bag and stuck it in the bottom of the fridge. This morning, the big chunk of pork was sitting in a puddle of thin juice, and all was well.

For the next week, I’ll turn the bag over every other day, then dry off the belly, let it rest on a rack in a very low oven for about two hours, trim the thick rind off the top and sample what my friend Brian Polcyn promises will be some of the best bacon I’ve ever sunk my pig-loving choppers into. If he’s right, and he ought to be, I’ll take the next chunk of pork belly a step forward and smoke the bacon after it’s cured. Maybe first, though, I’ll trim up a thinner slab, rub it down with a spicier dry-cure mix, do the seven-day bit, then rinse and dry it, coat the meaty side with cracked black pepper, roll it, tie it and hang it in a cool room to air dry for two weeks. Polcyn’s promise this time is better and significantly cheaper pancetta than you can buy at the meat counter.

Polcyn is one of the country’s leading authorities on the art and craft of charcuterie, a master, and the proof can be found on every table in his much esteemed Milford eatery, Five Lakes Grill.

Charcuterie (shahr-cooter-ee) is all around us and always has been. As kids, we called it lunchmeat. As adults, deli meat or cold cuts. But it’s not confined to salami or bologna, corned beef or pastrami and the like. It encompasses all manner of cured meats – hams, pates, terrines, confits and especially sausages, from relatively simple breakfast links to more demanding and less predictable air-dried chorizo and pepperoni, with an infinite variety of smoked bratwurst, kielbasa, andouille, hot dogs and others in between.

When Polcyn was going through one of several unsuccessful 10-day cooking ordeals to earn the title Certified Master Chef from the august — and frankly, stuffy — Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he hooked up with a writer named Michael Ruhlman. Polcyn, who has said he plans to try it again, attributes his earlier failures not to lack of skills, but to a no-bullshit Detroit-boy attitude that put off some of the judges. Ruhlman, who was at “the other CIA” to write the book that would become the critically lauded Soul of a Chef, saw the same thing and focused much of the story on the amiable, endlessly talented smart ass from Detroit.

They became friends, and after Polcyn went back home to his restaurant and teaching butchering and charcuterie in the culinary arts department at Schoolcraft College, Ruhlman went on to write signature cookbooks for Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert. Food professionals commonly refer in almost reverential tones to Keller, chef-owner of The French Laundry in California, as the finest chef in America; Frenchman Ripert, chef-owner of New York’s Le Bernardin, was named just that by the James Beard Foundation in 2003.

Ruhlman says he’s long had a fascination with preserving foods. About three years ago, when he decided to do a book on charcuterie, he called his pal Polcyn, they went to work, and the result hit bookstores this week. Their 320-page Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (Norton, $35), is a contender — no doubt about it — for best cookbook of the year.

Their intent, Polcyn says, was to “demystify” the craft and to assure serious home cooks that it can all be done, with far less difficulty and angst than might be expected, in their own kitchens. They succeeded brilliantly.

Ruhlman and Polcyn cite the opening pages of the first Little House book as particular favorites because they detail how the Ingalls family preserved and stored food long ago while living a tough but good life on the prairie. Pa smoked venison in a hollow tree, salted fish, fattened and slaughtered a pig and used every bit of it in future meals. Their recounting brought back a long forgotten memory of my reading the same books in grade school. It’s one of the earliest specific memories I have of becoming intrigued, and eventually fascinated, by food and its preparation. Aside from that, and the fact that a house can actually be built from sod, I soon grew bored with the domestic drama of the stories. But I vividly remember Pa Ingalls and his smoker, and pigmeat I could almost taste.

I’ve occasionally messed with charcuterie during a lifetime of cooking, especially sausage. With only a few exceptions, the results were mealy and dry, like well-spiced ceiling insulation. I meticulously followed every instruction I could find, with little improvement. Something was missing.

Polcyn, and his eminently readable cookbook partner Ruhlman, provide the answers, and I’m set to work my way through every recipe, and learn every technique, in their engrossing new book.

We’re lucky here, because one of the mail-order sources listed in Charcuterie for essential and hard-to-find ingredients, Butcher & Packer Supply Co. (800-521-3188, www.butcher-packer.com), is right downtown on Gratiot. If you have a hard time finding fresh pork bellies, Ronnie’s Quality Meats (313-566-5471), directly across the street inside Gratiot Central Market, nearly always has them in stock for about two bucks a pound.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]