Designer Meats

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

"I really like doing various pork salamis like boar cacciatore," he says. "It's a boar and fennel sausage that will take about three or four weeks to hang," he says with a broad smile. "I also really enjoy soppressata and playing with the bigger diameter ones because you get a beautiful cut. We actually take that extra step and add our own cured lardo into our salami instead of just diced fatback."

He says that the occasional failure is par for the course when you're making your own charcuterie. "A scary one that can be tough is hams, because it's a lot of curing time and hanging time. When you cut one open and it's rotten inside, that's the worst feeling," he says. "With charcuterie, there's a certain amount of patience involved."

Both Basye and The Grove's Ryan Pera brought a basic knowledge of charcuterie with them when they moved to Houston from other parts of the country, but have learned a lot here. Our meat-loving city has been an excellent playground for the chefs, who can now easily get quality pigs from local farms and whose ambitions and creativity feed one another as they expand their programs.

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.

As charcuterie has become more prevalent in Houston, Pera has seen sales of his Picnic Platter increase. "It's generally a pork-driven product, and some people shy away from pork," he says, "but other than that, it just goes so well with their dining habits. People are looking to share a lot of little things and charcuterie is perfect for that. They can sit down with a glass of champagne and talk and nibble and just have a great time."

James Silk of Feast believes the charcuterie movement in Houston is here to stay. More restaurants are putting it on menus, and more diners are coming to understand the history and the processes behind these intricately crafted meats.

"I don't think it's just a fad," Silk says. "It's not like molecular gastronomy or things to do with foams. I don't think it's going anywhere, and it's certainly not going anywhere back home," he says, speaking of England. Knight nods his head in agreement.

"Perhaps some will move on to the next hot thing, whatever that is. But people like us will just keep doing what we've always been doing," Knight smiles. "It's what we've been doing for thousands of years."

Charcuterie: A Glossary

Certain tools are required to make any kind of charcuterie, whether they be natural tools like salt or manmade ones like meat grinders and sausage stuffers.

Bactoferm: Essential for making sausage, Bactoferm is a brand of starter cultures or live bacteria. The bacteria feed on sugar and produce an acid that lowers the pH level in the meat and thereby prevents bacterial growth.

Casings: The inner lining of the intestine, usually of a cow, pig or sheep. Casings both contain the meat mixture that makes up a sausage and at the same time allow moisture to leave the sausage while it's hanging. Without this process, the sausage would never dry. Casings are also used to make fresh sausage and provide a lovely browned color and texture to products like sautéed sausages.

Dry cure: A dry cure contains a combination of salt, sugar (or dextrose) and pink salt. The dry cure is used to cover meat and thereby draw moisture out of the cells, which creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria.

Pink salt: One of two different kinds of curing salt, colored pink to distinguish it from regular salt. Insta Cure #1 pink salt contains nitrite, which prevents botulism from growing in smoked meats and sausages. Insta Cure #2 contains nitrate, which is used for dry-cured sausages that must hang for long periods of time.

All charcuterie is made from meat or fat, usually a combination of the two. Charcuterie can be roughly divided into two categories: fresh and dried. Fresh charcuterie includes softer products like pâté and rillettes. These products require refrigeration and don't keep for as long as dried charcuterie.

Boudin: A fresh sausage made with meat (most often pork), fat and seasonings. Boudin blanc is made by adding heavy cream, eggs and breadcrumbs to the mixture, while boudin noir (also called black pudding or blood sausage) is made by adding apples, onions and pig's blood. The traditional Cajun boudin that more Americans are familiar with is made by adding onions and rice. Boudin sausages are usually poached or sautéed.

Confit: A French specialty wherein meat — usually duck, goose or pork — is poached slowly in its own fat with a generous amount of salt. It's then packed into an earthenware dish and covered with the fat until the meat is submerged. Once the fat cools and hardens, it acts as a barrier to oxygen, sunlight and bacteria and will preserve the meat — with refrigeration — for up to six months.

Lardo: Cured pork fat from either the back fat or the pork belly. The fat is cured in a salt/spice mixture for nearly two weeks while tightly covered to prevent any light from damaging the delicate fat. Once cured, the fat is hung for three weeks until dried, then sliced paper thin and served on crusty bread. It can also be used in place of regular fatback when preparing other sausages and for general cooking.

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