Friday, October 21, 2016

Carrara and Lardo

Carrara is coveted by cooks. Kitchen tools made of Carrara are as functional as they are beautiful. My custom Carrara pastry board is one of my prized possessions. So, during the planning of our 2014 Italy trip when I realized that the road from Tuscany to Liguria passed through Carrara, I knew we would be making a pit stop. I had to see the source of the white marble. There wouldn’t be time for a guided quarry visit, but we could fit a car tour into our schedule.

The loop we drove was dotted with shops selling all manner of marble souvenirs to busloads of tourists, but it seemed mostly like a working area. All around us enormous tractor-trailer-size blocks of marble were being noisily extracted from the mountain and trucked down to the workshops in town. There were several earth-shaking blasts from the mines in the distance, each explosion punctuated by the clatter of falling rocks. We quickly learned that it was best to stay out of the way of the earth-moving machinery on the narrow mountain road. Perhaps the people on the buses knew something we didn’t—it seemed like we were the only tourists brave (or stupid) enough to dare to drive our rental car in the midst of all of the heavy equipment.

The shops offered everything from chachkies to two-story-tall statues of Jesus. We saw Carrara vases and bowls, platters and pedestals. Shelves of white marble rolling pins and meat pounders, cheese knives and wine corks. There were mortars of every size and shape. Unfortunately the one I wanted for making pesto was too heavy to put into my suitcase. A small serving board made me part with my money. And every shop had these curious marble boxes…

In a tiny little hamlet called Colonnata in the marble mountains above Carrara, they make lardo. The guidebook mentioned that it was the best lardo in the world. We figured that if we had come this far, we might as well drive all the way up to Colonnata to see what all the fuss was about.

We ventured into the first deli we came upon, unsure of how to order.

The shopkeeper seemed to understand despite our hesitation and the language barrier. She pushed a couple of samples across the counter.

The paper-thin slices of silky pork fat were indulgently melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and we agreed to her offer of lardo and tomato sandwiches for lunch.

Moments later we were served this feast.

It turns out that the marble boxes or basins, known as concas in Italian, are used for curing the lardo. Concas can be small like the size of a box of tissues or large like a bed of a pickup. Pork fatback is packed into the concas along with coarse salt and herbs and spices and left to cure for six months.

The lardo is only made during the cooler months of the year. Lardo di Colonnata is an IGP product and the process is strictly regulated.

Upon returning home from Italy, I couldn’t stop thinking about the concas full of lardo and I became determined to recreate the flavor we experienced in Colonnata. I researched the ingredients and process extensively, bribing an Italian friend to translate what seemed to be the most informational video about the process in exchange for homemade gelato and subjecting my charcutier brother to an endless barrage of questions. Eventually I came up with a subtly flavored formula I’m quite proud of.

In Colonnata, fatback is cured with abundant salt in what is known as the “salt box method”. The use of preservatives such as sodium nitrate is not permitted. The salt box method requires fatback of a consistent thickness and skill judging doneness.

But the equilibrium method of curing ensures more consistent results, especially for the home cook. The equilibrium method also allows for the use of cure #2, which results in whiter lardo with a slightly more cured flavor and longer shelf life.

My brother and I suspect that the six-month cure used in Colonnata probably has more to do with the flavoring than the salting. The long curing time probably allows the herbs and spices to marry and mellow. We suspect that they do not cure during the summer months because of the heat and the seasonality of hog production.

For lovely, sweet lardo, use the best fresh pork fatback you can source. It’s not worth making with commodity pork. You’ll need an accurate gram scale for this recipe.

Lardo in the Style of Colonnata
Printable Recipe

5% kosher salt
0.25% cure #2, optional
1% black pepper
0.4% minced garlic
0.2% rosemary needles
0.03% cinnamon
0.03% cloves
0.03% ground star anise
100% skinned fatback

Blend together the salt, cure #2, if desired, and flavorings. Rub the salt mixture all over the fatback. Only a portion of the salt mixture will adhere. Transfer to a vacuum sealer bag, spreading the loose salt mixture as evenly as possible over the fatback, and vacuum seal. Refrigerate, top with a weight if a uniform shape is desired, and let cure for 3 weeks (or longer if it’s convenient—lardo can be left in the bag with the cure for weeks or months without compromise or change). Rinse the lardo, pat dry with paper towels, and dry on a rack in the refrigerator overnight.

For use, slice the lardo as needed and keep vacuum sealed in a clean vacuum sealer bag in the refrigerator. Lardo stored in this manner will keep for many months. Light can cause lardo to turn yellow and rancid, but that shouldn’t be an issue since it’s dark in the refrigerator when the door’s shut. Cut the lardo into paper-thin slices and serve on slabs of rustic bread or as a part of a salumi platter. Wrap slices around asparagus spears, shrimp, or sea scallops for the grill. Drape slices over pizza fresh out of the oven. Dice small and use instead of pancetta or bacon in tomato-based pasta sauces and ragus. Render and use for fried potatoes. If you have homemade lardo in your refrigerator, doubtless you’ll think of a myriad of ways to use it.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Sour Cherry Vodka

Happiness is kayaking and cherry picking on the same day. Paddling is a new hobby for me, but going to the cherry orchard has always been one of my favorite things to do.

I like to look for interesting ways to get the most out of the cherry harvest and make it last.

This time I covered my few precious sour cherries in vodka.

It was a bit of an experiment. The essence of the cherries was extracted after a month, and the resulting infusion is intensely aromatic and flavorful.

Sour Cherry Vodka
Printable Recipe

14 ounces sour cherries, stemmed
¼ cup sugar
16 ounces vodka

Combine all of the ingredients in a 1-quart mason jar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Cover and let infuse at room temperature for about a month. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a glass bottle.

Makes approximately 20 ounces. Keeps more or less indefinitely tightly sealed in the bar or the pantry. Use in cocktails or blend with freshly squeezed lemon juice, sugar, and chilled soda water for a refreshing spritzer. Combine with simple syrup to moisten cake layers in Black Forest cake.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stargazer Cast Iron

Have you noticed my growing interest in cast iron pans? Used to be, I'd only recommend clad cookware to my readers and students because it is possible to deglaze with acidic ingredients, because of ease of care and cleaning, and because mass-marketed cast iron is so heavy and hard on the wrists. But a whole new crop of makers, including Borough Furnace, Field, Finex (remember the factory tour?), Lucky Decade, Smithey, Solidteknics, and Stargazer, is convincing me to embrace their modern versions of the traditional cookware.

Lately I’ve been trying out the Stargazer skillet.

This is what it looks like after a number of uses.

My Stargazer arrived earlier than expected. I didn’t have anything special in the house to cook, but it is one sexy skillet and I couldn’t wait to use it. Just frying up this humble meal in it was a pleasure.

The cooking surface is silky smooth and the grilled ham and cheese sandwiches made a satisfying zipping sound sliding around on it. It seems like this pan retains heat nicely and yet is more responsive to temperature changes than any of the other modern CI I own. Also, I was tickled to find that the handle makes a great spoon rest. I inquired if that was by design, and Peter Huntley, Stargazer’s creator, replied, “I'd love to take credit for the built-in spoon rest, but it's just a coincidence that a comfortable curve for the hand is also a nice spot for a spoon. Who knew?” What a happy coincidence!

Then came the sear and sauté action in the Stargazer.

It is so slick. Even my hubby, who cares not about cookware, commented on what a nice pan it is. BTW, this was accompanied by Truffled Mashed Potatoes (check out Seared to Perfection for the recipe).

The more I use this pan, the more I love it. I wish new CI pans such as this were available when I was writing Seared to Perfection. I might’ve developed recipes a little differently.

Thank you to Peter and Stargazer for providing this pan in exchange for my unbiased opinion.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Dutch Babies for Lodge's 120th!

This month Lodge is celebrating its 120th anniversary, and since I’m a big fan, I’m joining the party. And I’m bringing Dutch babies!

When you think about it, 120 years of “Made in USA” is a big deal.

Lodge hasn’t merely survived where all of the other major cast iron cookware foundries have failed, it has managed to innovate and prosper, and perhaps what’s most exciting to CI aficionados like myself is that Lodge is currently undergoing a massive expansion. I, for one, cannot wait to see what they’ll come out with next and whether they’ll bring back some favorite pieces from their past. (Like the breakfast skillet and maybe the chile-shaped muffin pan. Hint, hint, Lodge.)

Too bad 120 candles won’t fit in a Dutch baby! Because these puffy pancakes are my absolute favorite thing to make in my Lodge cast iron pans. I especially like to use their cute little 6 ½” skillets to make individual babies. I mean, who doesn’t love having a baby of their very own?

There was only a second to snap this photo before the heat from the oven started melting my phone, but this is how properly puffed Dutch babies should look.

They’re enormous! For that unbelievable puff, use high heat, preheat the cast iron skillets with the butter until the butter is nutty and brown, add the batter directly into the hot pans, and bake until the crust is set and very dark and caramelized. Go darker than you might think—they’ll taste amazing and they won’t fall when they come out of the oven.

I’ve made Dutch babies in other vessels before, and they’re not the same. A Dutch baby made in a stainless pan or a ceramic baking dish lacks the deeply caramelized crust and deflates as soon as you take it out of the oven. You’ve just got to have Lodge cast iron for Dutch baby perfection!

Happy 120th anniversary, Lodge!

Individual Dutch Babies
Printable Recipe

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
¾ cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 450˚F. Divide the butter among 2 6 ½” cast iron skillets and bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until browned. Meanwhile, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the eggs, milk, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture in thirds, whisking after each addition until smooth. If you add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients all at once, you will inevitably wind up with a lumpy batter. As soon as the butter is brown, divide the batter among the hot skillets and bake for 22 to 25 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. Serve immediately.

Serves 2. For breakfast, lunch, or brinner, these babies are delicious served with nothing but a spoonful of preserves or a drizzle of maple syrup or honey. Take them from simple to spectacular with a topping of seasonal fruit and lightly sweetened vanilla whipped cream. Strawberries and cream is always a hit at my house.

Sometimes I serve the babies right in the pans, sometimes I slide them out onto plates.

The cast iron keeps them warm longer, but of course it melts toppings like whipped cream faster too. For a more substantial crust that is even more resistant to falling, substitute 2 tablespoons of cornstarch for 2 tablespoons of the flour. If you treated yourself to a Lodge 120th Edition 8” skillet, you can use it to make a single large Dutch baby. It will take 7 to 9 minutes to brown the butter and 24 to 27 minutes to bake the 8” baby.
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