Brined is better. For everything.
Therein lies my lesson learned from this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge for which 300+ food bloggers and Louis François Drone wannabes (he’s the French pork butcher largely credited with elevating charcuterie from the peasantry to the upper-classes’ gala menus in 19th century France) submerged all sorts of meat into mixtures of salt, sugar and herbs before cooking them.
On tap in my kitchen: pork chops, a whole chicken, and a beef brisket which turned into my very first home-cured corned beef.
After my goat pancetta debacle last month, I shied away from going off on any meaty tangents in March (although my friend Sandy had a bunch of fun with calves’ tongue out at Painted Hand Farm in Newburg). I stuck with the steady, even recipes as written by Misters Ruhlman and Polcyn in their book Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing veering only slightly in cases where my pantry did not hold up its end of the bargain.
If I had to pick the cut of meat most favored by my children, I’d finger a good n’ thick, bone-in pork chop. My husband’s English roots betray him here –not only because he absolutely mocks the American abbreviation “n’” – but more so because his high-minded table etiquette bars him from picking up the bone and gnawing on it like the rest of us. In this instance he made do with knife and fork. And that was no obstacle to picking clean these particular bones, because the meat on them had been brined for two hours in a mixture of water, kosher salt, sugar, whole garlic cloves and sage leaves. There was incentive, too: they were delicious.
The thing that tripped me up a bit on this challenge was getting the timing right. Even if the smaller cuts of meat have only a two-hour brine time, you still can’t start dinner at three in the afternoon. First the brine has to be heated until the sugar and salt dissolve, then it has to come to room temperature (Mr. Ruhlman nudges this leg of the process along a bit by using only half of the water to dissolve the minerals, and subsequently adding the other half in a very cold state immediately after). And then it has to completely chill out in the fridge before you can immerse the meat into it.
This all makes perfect safety sense. You don’t want to half-cook the meat in hot brine because that combination could produce just the right temperature to breed non-desirable buggies. Aesthetically, putting the meat in hot brine could make it resemble victimized micro-waved protein, all garishly white and utterly indigestible around the edges.
But once you factor the proper timing into the equation — allowing for a bit more when the meat rests out of the brine before cooking and again a bit after it’s cooked to help redistribute the juices evenly — these pieces of meat can be some of the moistest , most flavorful you’ll serve. And only you will be able to put your finger on just why that is.
“It just tastes more sumptuouslier than any other pork chops you’ve cooked, Mom,” said nine-year-old Eliza. Owen, 12, didn’t speak, except to ask for seconds.
Eating my Go-To drunken sandwich while sober
This month, with my brisket in the brine in the basement, I knew I just might have the makings of the perfect Reuben. Ruhlman’s basic corned beef pickling spice is a magical mix of black peppercorns, mustard and coriander seeds, allspice berries, crushed cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, whole cloves and ground cinnamon. He calls for red chili pepper flakes and grated mace, but I substituted my new favorite heat source – Aleppo pepper – and a few grates of a seed of the teak tree (feve de tonka is widely used as a musky spice in France) that was escorted from Le Grande Epicerie in Paris to my spice rack by a bottle of Burgundy in the toe of one of the black boots packed in my suitcase. The combination infuses a slightly sweet, earthy tone that finishes with just a bit of a kick. This is not your Oscar Meyer corned beef, ladies and gentlemen. It’s Nirvana in a slab of meat.
I also made my own sauerkraut (but am still unsure as to why one batch fermented just fine on a shelf in my springtime cellar, while dots of green mold grew on a second, separate batch) and tapped a CopyKat recipe for the Russian dressing served at the Russian Tea Room in New York. My neighbor kindly chipped in the homemade rye bread without compensation in barter ( he’s a vegetarian and held strong even in the face of my corned beef) and I bought my cheese from a local Amish farmer who offers something akin to baby Swiss he makes from Jersey milk and calls Clippinger.
One of the more frequent guests on my table announced it was the best Reuben he’d ever eaten. But he will eat almost anything with compliments to the chef if that will secure an invite back to the table. A more telling tribute came from his son — who had wrinkled his nose when first presented with the explanation of my built-from-the-ground-up Reuben — but snatched the last half of a sandwich that had previously sat uneaten on the cutting board. He then kissed me on both cheeks and walked out the kitchen door.
A conversion, in my book, is a total success.