Right. The follow up to The Christmas Ham.
So I ended up trimming all the skin and most of the fat off the ham. This was no small amount of trimmings, I ended up with about a pound of smoked, spiced pork fat and a pound and a quarter of skin. Shame to let all that go to waste, particularly since it was a 13 lb. ham (wet weight) to begin with, and I just cut two pounds off. The question was what to do with it?
I find that smoked, cured pork skin tends to resemble football leather, but there's still many good things you can do with it. In the past I've tried various ways of getting my trimmed bacon rinds to crisp up chicharone-style: microwave, oven, hot oil... nothing worked. My current theory is that the curing process leeches too much water out. No expanding steam, no puffy crispy skin. But it's still got a lot of smoky-porky flavor to impart, and goes great in soup and bean dishes. Just add during the boil and remove before serving. And of course, there's a million tasty things you can do with smoked pork fat trimmings.
In this instance a confluence of factors resulted in this application. First, I received Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's amazing River Cottage Meat Book for Christmas. The day after Christmas I sat down and read it for several hours (although I did check it the day before for pointers on a standing rib-roast that we did for Xmas dinner!), and it has entered the ranks of my top 5 favorite cookbooks. It's not just the encyclopedic number of recipes that make it great, it's the discussion of the ethics, practice and dare I say theory of eating meat. Start with good ingredients, know them and understand their strengths and weaknesses, apply the right technique and bingo, you've made the most of the animal. Here I agree with Hugh, in that eating meat is only acceptable on an ethical level if you can do this. Perhaps this explains why I have a deep aversion to throwing away any potentially useful meat or bones. There's always stock to be made, or sausage, or stuffing, or soup, or something with it.
In this case, Hugh has a recipe for cotechino in the book. It's an Italian sausage from Modena that uses pork skin in the grind. I first came across it on Jason Molinari's very helpful Cured Meats blog, and while I didn't have any spare skin around I did file it away somewhere in the deeper basements of my brain.
The idea behind the sausage is that it's boiled for several hours before serving. This extended time at such a high temp in a wet environment causes the collagen in the skin to turn to gelatin, which as we all know from pulled pork is lip smacking delicious. In Italy it's traditionally served on New Years with lentils. I thought "Hey, what luck! New Years is a week away!" Perfect. But mine would be a little bit different, as you will see.
I began with the River Cottage recipe, and then tweaked it to suit my ingredients. Traditional Cotechino does not contain smoked anything, it's closer to a quick cured salami that gets boiled instead of fully dried. So with my smoked skin and fat this would become a sort of North Carolina meets Italy fusion sausage. A gamble that paid off, I might add.
Besides the book another important Christmas present was my shiny new meat grinder. Somehow in The Move several parts of my Kitchenaid grinder went AWOL and so it has been out of action for six months. But now I have a shiny new 3/4 hp grinder... It's bigger, badder, and much, much better than the Kitchenaid grinder. It sounds like a jet taking off. Children flee, women scream, and grown men weep at its awful power.
Here's the recipe I used:
- 2 lbs lean pork shoulder, cubed
- 1 lb smoked, cured ham fat trimmings, cubed
- 1 1/4 lb smoked, cured ham rind, cubed
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1 tsp Pink Salt (Sodium Nitrite)
- 1 glass red wine (I used a Columbia Valley Cab Sav that I was also drinking)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp cracked black pepper
- pinch or two of nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- pinch of mace
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 4 finely crumbled bay leaves.
- Casings: several feet of at least 2" diameter and I guess you could go up to 4" or more.
Stuff the casings with the mix. I used artificial 3"-diameter "Deer Summer Sausage" casings that I got as part of a artificial casing variety pack. You're looking for 8-10" sausages. Tightly pack them, and try to keep as much air out as possible. Poke small holes to let any large air bubbles out.
Tie both ends with a double knot. Hang them in a cool, dry, dark, airy place for a couple days or even a couple weeks. There's no sodium nitrate (Cure #2), and because the fat and skin were already cured I cut Hugh's pink salt amount in half, so the long, long term storage of these is in doubt. But there's still a lot of salt in there and they'll be fine for at least a month.
When it comes time to cook one, just cut it off the line. Stick the cotechino in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer gently for about two hours. The sausage is really salty, but the boiling will reduce this considerably. Serve sliced on a bed of lentils. I used this recipe from Mario Batali's Babbo which was a bit bland. Next time I'll spice it up a bit more.
The first cotechino was served up as an appetizer to some friends at my wife's birthday party. It was quite good, but not spectacular. It needed something. The real twist came when it struck me that I had a mason jar full of North Carolina Red Sauce that had been happily festering in the back of my fridge since Summer. So I added a couple spoonfulls of it as an experiment. Amazing! Everyone agreed that it went from good to outstanding. The vinegar bite was just what it needed, brightening it and cutting the fattiness a bit. Smokey, porky, nice spice level. The skin did a great job of being unctuous but still with just a bit of bite left. North Carolina meets Modena! Fusion food!
So that's about it. I've still got two more hanging downstairs. Plan to eat one next week (having had two weeks of drying) and the other in a month or so to see how it ages. Next time I get a pork shoulder with the skin on I think I'll try this again, but tweak the spices more toward pulled pork. Mmmm, pulled pork sausage...
The last of my little cotechini is gone. I was getting tired of the lentil pairing and started plotting other uses. Finally came up with: Baked Beans. Makes sense I think. Sweet, smoky, porky, salty, unctuous. So I took the last one, took it out of its casing and chopped it up. Cooked it up in the bottom of a dutch oven with a chopped onion. Added garlic, three chopped apples, a pound of soaked kidney beans, a can of tomato sauce, a dash of cider vinegar, a drizzle of molasses and some black pepper. Baked for three hours or so until the beans were tender. The cotechino worked really well with the beans, the skin made the whole thing very lip smacking. Not bad at all.