The Home Cure – Mission Pancetta

It’s about time for me to do another round of bacon again. I’ve got a third of the last five-pound slab in the freezer, that was done in a maple syrup and cracked pepper brine and apple smoked. We’ll likely use that up this month. I haven’t touched the skins from the last batch yet, which I use in the kitchen the same way a ham hock is used – to flavor soup. But January is my favorite month for soup, so that won’t last long either. I’ve got a 15 bean mix in the pantry that is just dying for some porky goodness.

The major question for me when doing bacon is whether I should try something new in the cure, or stick with my maple and pepper original. It’s just so good. But juniper sounds good too – I still haven’t used any of the berries I picked up at Spice House before Thanksgiving. A juniper brine, hickory smoked perhaps? I’m certainly thinking about it.

I’m also thinking about pancetta. I have a minor love affair with pork belly, and another minor love affair with Italian food. What combines these two wonderful things more readily than pancetta? My bolognese is the absolute favorite thing that I make at home – it’s my ultimate comfort food. If I’ve had a long day at work, I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and spend and hour and a half in the kitchen just cooking. Nothing soothes the soul better than prep – the methodical deconstruction of basic vegetables with a good, sharp knife. But I digress – it’s the pancetta, after all, that is the point here. The pancetta they sell in the market comes in little plastic packets from Italy (or, if I can find it and afford to pay more than what I’ll pay for even the imported stuff, La Quercia American-made pancetta from Norwalk, IA). Both options are very good pancetta, don’t get me wrong. But they’re very thinly sliced, as though they were slivers of proscuitto to be served with melon wedges. I like a little more heft in my bolognese, slices just a few shades thicker than paper-thin. I want the luscious, silky fat to ever-so-slightly render out with the mirepoix and garlic, so it perfumes the base of my sauce with porcine goodness.

Of course, I’ve convinced myself that the only way to achieve this dream-like state of affairs in my next bolognese is to make the pancetta myself. Doesn’t it always seem like I can convince myself of these dire necessities all too easily? But alas, a good bolognese cannot be burdened any longer by store-bought pancetta. I’m an old hand with bacon now – I’ll even be sharing my skills with the Food for Thought ladies as soon as we can arrange a suitable date. But pancetta is new territory for me.

To get inspired (as though the quest for still-better bolognese isn’t enough of a motivator) I decided to find out what my fellow culinarians were up to when it came to the magical transformation of raw pork belly into irresistable pancetta –

– I found a ridiculously gorgeous couple of photos in the LTH thread Cure Meat Everyday. It was produced from Polcyn’s and Ruhlman’s recipe in Charcuterie (which is the one I’ll likely use).

– I also stumbled across an old 2009 post about DIY pancetta at Cured Meats, as well as an even earlier post. They’re so enthusiastic and informative, I know I’m on the right track doing some of my own.

– Because it just popped into my head that pancetta-wrapped quail would also be a delicious use of home made pancetta, I searched out this recipe from La Cucina Italia.

So, February is to be the month of cured pork!

Apple-Smoked Pheasant

Our Thanksgiving pheasant was so delicious, I just can’t keep the recipe to myself. We did ours in a Weber kettle grill outside, so that’s the method I’ll explain here. Though I would like to try it indoors on the stovetop with the large model Cameron, as soon as I’m lucky enough to obtain one. Just think, having two indoor smokers going at the same time – main dish and a side dish both imbued with wonderful smoky flavor! But I digress – back to the pheasant.

First, you want to make sure your pheasant is ready for smoking. The night before you want to smoke your pheasant, remove it from the packaging and put it onto a rimmed baking pan. You’ll keep it in the fridge overnight, uncovered – this helps the skin get really crisp when you smoke it. If it comes with giblets, put those back in the fridge as well if you intend to make a gravy or stock.

It will take anywhere from two-and-half to three hours to smoke a three-pound pheasant. You’ll want to build a two-zone fire in your kettle grill (which means all the coals piled onto one side of the grill) using a full chimney starter worth of charcoal. We have a medium-sized chimney starter. It usually takes 30-40 minutes for our charcoal to be ready in our chimney starter, so make sure you get that going 30-40 minutes ahead of when you want to get the bird in.

After you get the charcoal started in the chimney starter, take the pheasant out of the fridge and let it come closer to room temperature. Season the bird well with salt and pepper.

For the apple smoke, we prefer to use apple smoke cans made by Cameron. They’re easy to use, require no soaking of wood, and are fairly affordable. You’ll want two for three hours of smoking – in our experience, they last for about an hour and a half each. If you don’t have the cans (or have run out of them like we foolishly did), you can make up foil packets with wood flakes that are intended for the stovetop smokers. I took an entire pint of apple wood and divided it between three foil packets, that we replaced at intervals during the smoking process. Either way, place your can or packet directly onto the coals and put the lid on, making sure the top vent is placed opposite the coals, over where the bird will sit. The vents should be halfway open, which will encourage the smoke to flow up and over the bird.

Let the wood get to smoking for a few minutes, and then place your pheasant on the empty side of the grate – do not place it directly over the coals. Then just let it go – the less you take the cover off to check it, the better it will be. You don’t want all that good smoke to escape. We only checked ours three times over three hours, to replenish our foil packets.

You want the internal temperature of the pheasant to come up to 170 degrees. Start temping it during the last half hour of smoking. If it’s only about 150 degrees, you’ll likely want to finish it in the oven, which is what we did. It was pretty cold out Thanksgiving day and our smoke was running out, so we didn’t have a choice. We finished it in a 350 degree oven for about a half hour. Just make sure you tent it with foil when it goes into the oven so that the drumsticks don’t overcook and dry out  and the top doesn’t get too brown.

When it reaches the correct temperature, take it off the grill or out of the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.

When treating pheasant this way, you’ll be amazed by the flavor. The bird is slightly gamey and imbued with apple flavor, and the meat is silky and moist. The skin takes on a burnished, rich chestnut color and will be a stunning centerpiece on the table. Our three-pound bird cost about $30 and served three people two helpings at dinner, plus three meals with leftover meat besides – a dinner with just reheated meat, a pasta dish and a soup. And if you’re smarter than I am and save the bones and giblets (I hate to admit it, but they got thrown out!) you’ll have a fourth use by making a rich stock. For larger crowds, you should figure one pheasant for every four people. For special dinners every now and again, it’s more than worth the price!

Pheasant Success!

Ah, Thanksgiving. I woke up early and baked my trio of breads right away – applesauce spice with apricot glaze, pumpkin and cranberry. The oven was on literally all day. Then I cracked fresh chestnuts for my chestnut bread stuffing, sauteed the mirepoix for it and got that pan into the oven.

While the oven was working full steam ahead, I had the husband fire up the Weber for this showpiece – the pheasant. We narrowly averted a wood chip disaster when we realized were out of the apple-chip cans. But I was able to throw together a packet with the apple shavings I normally use in the stove top smoker by putting an entire pint of them into a tin foil packet. Despite previous problems with this method, it actually worked this time, to our great relief.

While the pheasant was smoking out back, I made up a whole stockpot full of mashed potatoes (I love mashed potatoes), home made cranberry sauce and steamed broccoli. I also put together a few a few appetizer platters – proscuitto and smoked salmon with dilled mustard and a veggies – marinated mushrooms, gerkins, pickled asparagus, soy mozzarella and triscuits (for some reason, we have a box in the panty). After all that, I slid the ham into the oven and set the table.

I had a linen tablecloth down with two glittered pumpkins and a beeswax taper in a silver candleholder for the centerpiece. We used my blue willow dishware, as always. It was simple, yet nice. Jeremy’s grandpa came over for dinner and we all had a great time talking – we love hearing stories of the family and his life.

And when we sat down to dinner, the pheasant. Oh, the pheasant! The color was the deepest chestnut brown, with a crispy skin, and the meat was tender – even silky and very moist. It was gamey, but not too much so, and was redolent with apple flavor. It’s the best poultry I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure I can go back to turkey after pheasant.

Oh, and you want to know the secret to extra pumpkiny pumpkin bread that will make you happy forever? Cook down a can of pumpkin until it’s reduced by half before adding it to your batter/dough. Concentrate the flavor. I’ll have the miracle pumpkin bread recipe itself posted soon so you can try it out.

So all in all, Thanksgiving was a great success. And we’ve got a nice pile of leftovers, so the cooking fun continues with creative leftover recipes. Happy Holidays everyone!

The Great Pheasant Debate

Pheasant is destined to grace the table this Thanksgiving, but for something so special, how should I present it? Plain, roasted with a little butter? Or something fancier, with an exciting combination of flavors – citrus and sage, juniper and cracked black pepper, with a sauce?

Whom else to consult but the revered L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones? There are a whopping eighteen pheasant recipes included in the book, plus one for making stock from game birds in general. With that many to choose from, how could I pick the one? Since I’ve decided that I’d like to present the bird whole since it’s the star of the show, half of the recipes are automatically eliminated because they call for the bird to be cut into pieces. Sadly, this elimination includes Pheasant Coq au Vin, which would likely taste amazing. That one will have to wait for another time and place.

Narrowing down the contenders is tricky because they all sound so delicious. The simplest preparation is the Roast Pheasant with Herbs Under the Skin – basil, tarragon, parsley, shallots and even mushrooms are pureed with a little brandy which is then layered under the skin before roasting. Pheasant Flamed with Apples sounds good though too – the pheasant is surrounded by gooseberry-filled apple toasts and the whole thing is flambéed in Calvados.

There are also several recipes for stuffed pheasant – sorrel, wild rice and mushrooms, Gruyere and noodles, and liver and mushroom. Braised Pheasant Marsala sounds pretty good, including mushrooms, Marsala wine and juniper berries in the dish. And then there’s Pheasant Cock-a-Leekie, a recipe chock full of aromatics – leeks, parsley, and bay.

And aside from the wonders in the L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook, using the grill has been on my mind lately as well. Last weekend we made hickory smoked chicken on the grill and the honey-brown color of the crispy skin was stunning, not to mention the delicious flavor of hickory permeating the meat. Why not pheasant? And maybe I can riff off of the Pheasant Flamed with Apples – maybe we’ll hickory smoke the bird, stuffed with calvados-soaked diced apples, caramelized red onions and thyme…

So many choices – how will I ever decide? Stay tuned for the final decision!