Charcuterie, a review

The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing
by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn
Illustrated. 320 pages. Norton $35

I would not have bought this book; now I have to buy this book.

In February, son Eric emailed a request for Charcuterie, in case I had a review copy and didn’t want to keep it. When I think charcuterie, I think sausages. Living in an apartment in the city, I’m lacking the space for sausage equipment and, okay, the desire to use up my pork scraps for sausages (like I have scraps, I buy my meat trimmed). Eric, on the other hand, buys a half-hog each year, loves to make sausages and is a staunch advocate of Fergus Henderson’s book, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. He needs Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.

Well, since we lost the lease for the Bookstore and closed in November, I’m out of the loop for review copies of books. In any case, I emailed our fabulous Norton rep, Susan, to see if she might have an extra copy.

“Susan, ‘Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing,’ got a great review in today’s Boston Globe Food section. If you have any lying around, I’d sure like to have one. Michael Ruhlman is one of my favorite cookbook authors. Thanks, Marcus” She replied, “Yes, I’ll send you my sample copy. Not much chance I’ll be making sausages any time soon. Susan”

When the book arrived, I was startled by what an ugly cover it has. Had I been in a bookstore browsing for new cookbooks, I surely would have passed it by. But now that I had it in my hand, I thought I would give it a read, especially since I like Michael Ruhlman’s writing. I have three of his books in my library; The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon, both written with Thomas Keller, and House, his memoir of remodeling his house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Brian Polcyn, an authority on charcuterie with a restaurant in Milford, Michigan (near Detroit) is the co-author of this book.

About two pages into the Introduction I was hooked, big time. Its title; “The Reason For This Food, This Book: Why we still love and need hand-preserved foods in the age of the refrigerator, the frozen dinner, Domino’s pizza, and the 24-hour grocery store.” is right up my alley. Indeed, why home cook anything at all? It just tastes so darned good. The subsequent chapters thoroughly address the means of making charcuterie with discussion, recipes and techniques for Salt Cured Food: How the most powerful tool in your kitchen transforms the humble into the sublime (pancetta, beef jerky, corned beef, basic brine, etc); Smoked Food: The exotic seasoning (pastrami, smoked salmon, etc); Sausages: The Power and the Glory: One of the oldest, divine-yet-humble culinary creations known to humankind; Dry Cured Food: The Artist and the Sausage (salami, etc); Pates & Terrines: The Cinderella Meat Loaf (there are recipes for meat, vegetables and seafood); Confit: Fat: The perfect cooking environment; and finally Sauces and Condiments: Not Optional.

Heck, I’ve made some of these things. Under the influence of James Beard, and Julia Child in the Boston days, we made Duck Confit and several kinds of Pates and Terrines. We even boned a chicken, took it out of its skin, ground the meat and added pistachios and seasonings, stuffed the meat back into its skin, tied it up and baked it—more than once. We’ve done some quasi-smoking in our Weber grille. I won’t be making sausage, but now I know what’s in them, so when I look at sausages at the market, I’m not ordering blindly. Everybody knows what’s in Italian Sausage—pork—but do you know what is the principal ingredient of Weisswurst? I do, now.

Wife Carol asked me, why not make sausage, you don’t have to stuff it, just make it into patties. This reminded me of going to my grandparents farm just outside of Logan, Ohio for Thanksgiving, when I was 12. We were snowed in by the biggest blizzard in 37 years. A few miles out of town on a country road, it was days before we were dug out. We listened to the famous Ohio State vs. Michigan “Snow Bowl” on the battery powered radio. As luck would have it, my grandparents had recently butchered a hog and made pork sausage patties, preserved in canning jars in pork fat. They kept these in their root cellar, since they had no electricity. Those were so good! I wanted them every meal. That’s my earliest memory of sausage and confit, although I didn’t know what confit was until years later; and the sausage I knew came from the grocery store (we lived in the big city of Columbus).

Michael Ruhlman explains the ingredients and techniques of charcuterie so well, and so beautifully and with such passion and enthusiasm that it makes my mouth water. “I can do that!” I exclaim, after reading the recipes. Here’s what he says about Sauces and Condiments, “Most chefs worth their salt would as willingly enter the dining room naked as send a dish to a customer without a sauce. Sauces and condiments should not be thought of as extras or add-ons, but rather as fundamental parts of any given dish, just as seasoning is.” It’s so clear and direct. I’ve been reading cookbooks and cooking for many years and have never read that. I’ve made mayonnaise (I love green garlic mayo), aioli, and a few salsas when a recipe calls for it. When I do steak or a pork chop, I might make a pan gravy, or pull out a bottle of BBQ sauce. Who has time—when you’re rushing dinner to table—to make a proper sauce? Think ahead, dude. “Condiments finish a plate, complete it, adding the final seasoning, as well as visual and textural elements.”

A food writer friend once said, that if you get three or four recipes that you’ll use more than once from a cookbook, you’ve made a good investment. I know that I will get good use from this book, and I’ve already gleaned some useful advice.

Now I have to buy this book.

Eric, I’ll send you your book now.

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