Still basking in the glow of a successful Thanksgiving dinner, our thoughts move on to our Christmas Eve Feast. We stick with tradition for the most part on Thanksgiving. We did tweak a few things – a boudin and cornbread dressing, homemade green bean casserole (no cans of soup or fried onions here), a smoked then fried turkey, and a pumpkin pie from real roasted pumpkins with a brûlée topping. Throw in a sweet potato pie from homegrown sweet potatoes, and you had the makings of a really great meal. Nobody left hungry, and everyone took home a doggy bag.
For Christmas Eve, we try to get creative and have some fun with the meal. What originally started a few years ago as a “Feast of the Seven Fishes” evolved into a “Feast of the Seven Dishes” when we found out the family was not really that crazy about eating seafood in general, let alone seven different seafood dishes. Last year’s feast poked fun at the whole gluten-free, locally sourced, artisanal, name the farmer pretensions, with tongue-in-cheek paragraph long descriptions of each dish and its ingredients.
This year’s menu is still under development, but one thing is for sure, we are putting together a charcuterie platter that will include several items we have made ourselves. Charcuterie is a branch of cooking dedicated to the preservation of meat. It encompasses many different types of processes and techniques. Most of the techniques can be readily used by the home cook. Some special ingredients and equipment are needed while things like a second refrigerator definitely make the process easier.
Testing the recipes has become an important part of our preparation. When putting together a multi-course meal like this for a large group, getting the timing down for the preparation and plating of each dish is important. Can anything be done in advance? When does the oven or the fryer need to be turned on? Does course three clash with course four and more? If preparing your own cured meats, you also need to make sure that you allow enough time for the meat to be ready. For this, my first year preparing home cured meats, I chose recipes utilizing a short curing time.
Finding the right recipes is very important. Preserved meat recipes need to be properly vetted and tested to make sure they are safe - because a case of food poisoning is not the Christmas gift you want to give your guests. Make sure your recipes come from reputable sources and then follow all directions closely. Once done, closely examine the final product - if there is any doubt about its safety, throw it out.
An important note about meat preservation food safety: Many of these recipes (including some in this post) use “pink salt”. This pink salt is not the Himalayan Pink Salt used in cooking and various home remedies. This pink salt, perhaps better called curing salt, contains nitrite, which changes the flavor of the meat, preserves the meat’s red color, prevents fat oxidation, and inhibits bacterial growth. It is an essential component of any dry cured, and many wet cured, meats. It is 6.25% nitrite and 93.75% sodium chloride. In large quantities, nitrites are harmful, which is why the salt is dyed pink so it is not confused with table salt. Do not ever ingest it directly and use only the small amounts stated in the recipes.
Our Christmas Eve charcuterie platter will have 3-4 meats on it, possibly a cheese (that will be homemade next year), some homemade pickles, some home grown oranges and our homemade sourdough bread. The acidity of the pickles contrasts beautifully with the preserved meat and the tangy sweetness of the oranges. The smooth creaminess of the fat in the preserved meat contrasts nicely with the crunchy sourdough crust. I have been using the Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. Here are a couple of recipes that I have tried.
Cured Pork Belly
I used a small piece of pork belly to test this recipe. The flavors were intense and the aroma very earthy. The key in serving is to slice it as thinly as possible. This is a good, simple recipe to get the charcutier in you started.
• Basic Dry Cure (see below)
• 3-6 bay leaves
• 1-2 bunches fresh thyme
• ⅛ - ¼ cup black peppercorns
• 1 ½ - 3 ½ lb pork belly
1. Cover pork belly in Basic Dry Cure.
2. Put in a plastic bag along with the remaining ingredients.
3. Remove the air from the bag and seal.
4. Weight down with about 10 pounds of weight.
5. Refrigerate for 10-14 days. Check to see if it feels dense and stiff. If not, put it back in the cure for a couple more days.
6. Remove from cure, rinse then pat dry.
7. Wrap in two layers of cheesecloth and hang to dry in a cool, humid place, around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit for 18-24 days.
To serve: Slice thinly as you would prosciutto. Serve with bread and fruit.
Ruhlman’s Basic Dry Cure1
• 1 pound kosher salt
• 8 ounces sugar
• 2 ounces “pink curing salt”
Save any extra cure and use as needed.
I had never heard of processing duck meat in this way until coming across recipes in several cookbooks. To further experiment with the flavor, I smoked one of the cured duck breasts with the turkey on Thanksgiving. This is a dead simple recipe requiring salt and time. Both the smoked (Left) and non-smoked (Right) versions were fantastic, with the smoked being slightly more tasty. It all just melts in your mouth.
• About 2 cups of kosher salt, or as needed
• 1 whole duck breast, skin on, split in two halves
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1. Put about 1 cup kosher salt down in a plastic or glass container.
2. Lay each half breast down on the salt, making sure the halves do not touch. Completely cover each duck breast with salt. Cover container with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hrs.
3. Remove both pieces from the salt and rinse. Dry with a paper towel. The flesh should feel dense.
4. Dust both sides of each piece of meat with white pepper.
5. Wrap each half breast in a single layer of cheesecloth and hang to dry. I used a cheesecloth “sock” like the ones used to smoke sausages.
6. Hang to dry in a cool, humid place (50-60oF) for about 7 days or until the flesh is stiff but not hard. I used a wine refrigerator set at 50oF.
7. Once done, remove the cheesecloth, wrap each half duck breast in plastic and store in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several weeks or more.
8. I smoked one half of the duck breast using pecan wood for about an hour.
To serve: Again, slice thin and serve as you would prosciutto. We served it with homemade sourdough bread and fresh picked oranges after the “photography session”.
I hope this is helpful in either getting you started or giving you a few new ideas for the holidays and beyond. I have been very surprised by how easy it can be and by the high quality of the final product. It does require some forethought and most importantly, proper respect for each step so you produce the safest product possible.
1 Ruhlman, Michael, and Brian Polcyn. Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Photos by Jennifer Hudson
Ed Hudson is a biochemist for NASA in Houston. His free time is filled with gardening and an ongoing list of Food Preservation Projects with his lovely wife, Jennifer. You can read more MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts from Ed here and contact him at via email. He is always looking for comments, new ideas and suggestions.
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