No baloney: Today’s cured pork products are better than ever

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As a nation, we long have prided ourselves on “living high on the hog.” But only very recently have we begun to do so in a literal sense.

Where once only a few run-of-the-mill bacons, sausages and hams adorned our food shelves, now we find prosciutto and chorizo and finocchiona and scores of other delectable cured-pork products.

We finally have discovered that “there’s nothing like a salty piece of pig,” as chef Robert Moore of Heartland in Minneapolis, so plain-spokenly puts it.

Cured meats have been around since the early-B.C. days of the Egyptians and Chinese. Over the centuries, Europeans, and particularly Italians, have perfected many ways of preserving every part and parcel of our porcine friends (and sometimes their bovine and equine counterparts).

But for the most part, only the most rudimentary of these products – whole-hog sausages, picnic hams, mass-produced bacons – made it to America’s tables, largely because strict laws forbade the importing of most cured meats.

Over the last few decades, though, the foodie movement has brought with it an appreciation and demand for specially made hams, bacons and sausages. A slight loosening of import and safety laws and the influx of chorizo-making immigrants have contributed as well.

The raw and the cooked

Among the results: more charcuterie plates in restaurants; a surfeit of sausages both fresh (lamb-wild rice-blueberry, anyone?) and dry-cured (speck, culatello, mortadella and the like), and a raft of recipes featuring these meats as stars or, more often, as complementary components or flavor-enhancers. As a friend noted, “You can take someone who hates Brussels sprouts, and cook the sprouts in some really good bacon, and he’ll lap ’em up.”

The culinary possibilities are limitless: A salad that once might have been topped with uber-processed bacon “bits” might now boast a sprinkle of prosciutto “bites.” The bacon wrapped around a shrimp or sea scallop could be Nueske’s rather than Corn King. The sausage in that pasta sauce may have come from a wild, acorn-eating boar rather than a factory-farm, no-telling-what-it-was-fed hog.

In a sense, this trend reflects the Slow Food movement, which favors artisan-made items over mass-produced ones. Like many of the more popular cured meats, this movement originated in Italy. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that two Americans of Italian descent, renowned Bay Area restaurateur Paul Bertolli and Armandino Batali (father of super-chef Mario Batali), are at the forefront of the “salumi” revolution. Their dry-cured sausages are made the old-school way.

As are the goods from sources closer to home. The lean, hearty (and yummy) Thielen bacon is made in Pierz, Minn. At meat markets around town, from longtime stalwarts such as Forster’s and Kramarczuk’s to relative newbies such as Clancey’s, the display cases and freezers are packed with handmade sausages both exotic and traditional. And of course, Italian markets such as Broders’, Cossetta’s and Buon Giorno are larded with guanciale, soppresetta and exotic hams from near and far.

A pretty penny for pork

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A lot of this stuff isn’t cheap. Some bacons cost two or three times as much as Oscar Mayer, the good prosciuttos can approach $30 a pound and one Batali delicacy, culatello, fetches a whopping $5.50 an ounce at Broders’.

“It is outrageously expensive. It shocks me,” said owner Molly Broder. “But it’s worth it if you know how good this kind of thing can be. (Batali) is using only the best ingredients, heritage pork products. And he’s combining his family’s traditional methods and our own terroir (the flavor from the land and air), giving it the taste of Washington state (where Batali lives).

“He’s doing for salami what has been happening the last 10 years in America with cheese, making artisan products that can compete with anything in the world,” Broder said.

Greg Westersteen, who makes a variety of sausage and other cured-pork products at Clancey’s, is on board with the movement. “It’s really catching on,” he said. “People want better products. Using quality animals rather than a commodity product, putting fresh chopped herbs and garlic rather than dried stuff, that makes a big difference. It’s what people are coming to want and expect.”

Trendy and tasty

These items are at the forefront of the cured-meat trend:

Hams

n Prosciutto

Primary varieties: Parma (nutty, salty) and San Daniele (sweeter) from Italy; getting rave reviews is prosciutto from an Iowa company called La Quercia.

Best enjoyed: Wrapped around everything from melon to asparagus to fresh breadsticks. Atop pizza (uncooked) or pasta (lightly cooked in sauces). In the classic Italian dish saltimbocca (rolled-up veal, prosciutto, cheese and sage).

Similar types: Hams from France (Bayonne), Belgium (Ardennes) and Spain (Jamon iberico and Serrano).

Worth noting: The word prosciutto derives from the Latin perexsuctum, which translates as “(having been) very sucked out.”

n Primary varieties: The Smithfield brand from Virginia is the most renowned, but calling it the best would be fightin’ words with many purveyors in the rest of the mid-South (Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia).

Best enjoyed: Baked whole or halved (with a carbonated soda and maybe some rum in the pan). Sliced, sauteed and stuck into biscuits with grits and red-eye gravy (coffee mixed with pan drippings). Chopped and folded into cornbread or stuffing.

Similar types: Louisiana’s Tasso hams have less salt but a lot of other spices.

Bacon family

n Pancetta

Primary varieties: Italy has countless variations, but in these parts it’s generally just pork belly that has been air-cured (and not smoked) for 1 to 3 months.

Best enjoyed: In pasta carbonara, all’Amatriciana or the simpler La Gricia (sauteed pancetta, onion and red pepper flakes). As a flavoring for risottos and soups, especially bisques and chowders.

Similar types: Guanciale is made from pork cheeks and jowls and rubbed with salt, pepper and sometimes red pepper flakes.

Worth noting: Many Italians believe the best pancetta comes from the town of Norcia, where the local pigs and boars often feed on black truffles.

Sausages

n Chorizo

Primary varieties: Chorizo fresco is ground or chopped meat in casings and must be cooked. In Spain, a more popular version is dry-cured and fermented, and can be eaten raw.

Best enjoyed: The raw version is served most often, sliced, as a tapa (appetizer). The fresh version can be crumbled and cooked with scrambled eggs, or used as part of a filling for such Mexican staples as tamales, tacos and burritos.

Similar types: Chorizo is made all over, occasionally with an odd ingredient: donkey meat in Argentina, tuna in the Philippine version called longaniza.

Worth noting: This spring, a “chorizo” will become the fifth entrant in the Milwaukee Brewers’ nightly “sausage race.”

n Primary varieties: Finocchiona (heavy on the fennel), sopressata (hot or sweet), coppa (also hot or sweet) and Genoa salami all are more prevalent than ever.

Best enjoyed: Sliced and served on an antipasti platter, or as part of Dagwood-like sandwiches or muffulettas. Chopped and mixed into omelets, frittatas, salads or pasta sauces.

Similar types: The fattier, baloney-like mortadella and the much rarer culatello both originated in or near Bologna.

Worth noting: During the curing process, culatello is tightly encased in a pig’s bladder to help maintain its succulence.

Worth noting: Waffle House restaurants serve more than 381 tons of country ham every year.

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