Designer Meats

In Houston, more and more chefs are curing their own pig products

An HACCP plan seems like an excessive amount of work for something that's been demonstrated by thousands of years of consumption to be perfectly safe. Moreover, the creation of such a painstaking document can't possibly be an easy undertaking for small businesses, which are exactly the kinds of restaurants that are trying to reintroduce charcuterie to the American public. "It's pretty detailed," says Key, "and a lot of people don't want to do it because it is so detailed and long."

And if an establishment is found not to be meeting health department requirements for charcuterie? "We would ask for voluntary destruction of the product," says Gray.

People in the industry still talk about the destruction of cured meat that took place in New York City in 2006 at Il Buco, the Italian restaurant in the East Village famous for its charcuterie. Seeing only "raw" meat hung below the appropriate temperature of 41 degrees, health inspectors poured bleach on Chef Ignacio Mattos's entire stash of cured meats, destroying thousands of dollars of inventory and months of hard work.

Catalan's Chris Shepherd is at the forefront of charcuterie in Houston.
photo by Troy Fields
Catalan's Chris Shepherd is at the forefront of charcuterie in Houston.
For Shepherd, curing his own meats is a natural extension of his desire to prepare his food with local produce.
photo by Troy Fields
For Shepherd, curing his own meats is a natural extension of his desire to prepare his food with local produce.

In a 2009 interview with Edible Manhattan's Winnie Yang, Mattos despaired of the New York health department's rash decision: "It was embarrassing to see someone just acting with no sense at all, throwing away a bunch of beautiful stuff. They don't care; they take the temperature and that's it. If it's meat, it's garbage."

The shelves of Allied Kenco off Interstate 45 and Airline are lined with shiny, mean-looking instruments: long, sharp-tipped lardoirs; giant, blocky cleavers; knives that look like swords; meat grinders that look as if they came off the set of Saw; slicers made of steel so bright it looks like they could cut with a glance.

While browsing the aisles and eyeing giant gambrels meant for hanging and cleaning carcasses as if they were exhibits in a museum, Café Rabelais chef de cuisine (and frequent Houston Press contributor) Jason Kerr and I spy Catalan's Chris Shepherd, laden with curing salt, gloves and dozens of other supplies. He shops there so often that every store employee knows him by name.

Allied Kenco's slogan is "Supplying everything but the meat." There's nothing you can't buy here, from sausage casings made of sheep's intestines to Bactoferm cultures. Those cultures are essential for producing cured sausages, and work by suppressing the growth of mold, yeast and bacteria by lowering the pH level in the meats. Allied's catalog includes a disclaimer in the section that contains dry-curing products like citric acid and Fermento: "Dry curing is the next level of sausage-making, and the intricacies should be well-known before attempting."

Books filled with age-old recipes are available to guide chefs, and shops like Allied Kenco offer the required tools and equipment, but curing their own meat is often a process of trial and error, and a sheer adventure, for most Houston chefs.

"I just made some boudin noir," Kerr says the day of our trip to Allied Kenco. At Café Rabelais, one of the best dishes on the menu features hot boudin noir served with a slice of fresh pâté on top, which quickly melts onto the blood sausage and into every crevice of the tart beneath it.

Blood sausage is a notoriously challenging sausage to make, both for the mess that it can create and for the difficulty in obtaining fresh pig's blood. "We usually buy our boudin noir, because it's such a big process to make," Kerr continues. But he had managed to procure a gallon jug of USDA-­certified blood from a friend at a local farm.

"It was bright red, and it was sealed and it was stiff. I figured it was so stiff just because there was no air in the container," he says. "So I got everything ready to go. I chopped the apples and sautéed them. I chopped the onions and sautéed them. I ground up some fatback and a little bit of pork and had all this stuff ready to go because I knew that once I opened the container, I'd have to make the boudin noir immediately. Blood can't just sit around."

But when he opened the container, it was so solid, it seemed that it had been petrified. "So I open this gallon of blood and I go to pour it in, and nothing comes out," says Kerr. "And then I realize: It's pasteurized. Shit. Can I still use it?" Necessity is the mother of invention, and Kerr wasn't letting a solid chunk of blood stand in the way of good sausage.

"I thought, 'Fuck this.' And so I pureed it until it was liquid again."

"It looked like the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," he laughs. "I've got all these guts and blood everywhere. I'm covered in blood from putting the mixture into the funnel and trying to shimmy it into the casings. I was tying and poaching the links over and over. I eventually made 30 pounds of it. In fact, my sous chef took a picture of me because I looked like I'd just massacred somebody."

Justin Basye, who runs the kitchen and the fledgling but well-respected charcuterie program at Stella Sola, is so devoted to the craft that even his Twitter handle is @BigSalumi. He's gesturing to his collection of cured, hanging meats, speaking of them proudly.

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