For decades, our country has been protecting us from foreign products such as cured hams and sausage, and in response, immigrants and descendants of immigrants went all DIY. Many of the restrictive trade barriers have now been relaxed, and that’s a good thing.
But the best thing is that artisanal pork stores and salumi plants have sprouted up everywhere. Americans may now compare authentic articles from Spain or Italy with what is produced stateside. And guess what? The Speck from Iowa is, in my opinion, better than the stuff imported from Austria or Italy’s Friuli region. While the high-quality imports set the bar, at least some U.S. manufacturers are meeting that bar and very often topping it.
West Coast has a treasure of salumi makers
On the West Coast, I’ve gotten to know some of the people making some of the best cured meats you will ever taste. For me, discovering these products began with La Espanola, now in Harbor City, Calif. Two decades ago, La Espanola began re-creating authentic, regional Spanish chorizo that you will find on menus all over the United States.
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On a trip to Seattle, I was able to sit down with Armandino Batali (Mario’s dad) and talk about what he was doing at his packed restaurant, Salumi, which has a curing room in the back. I was also knocked out by the “tasty salted pig parts” at Boccalone in San Francisco. Another stop worth making: Paul Bertolli left his chef position at the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Oliveto to establish Fra’ Mani, a handcrafted sausage shop.
A comparative newcomer is Alle-Pia established by Antonio Varia in 2009. Varia is the chef/owner of two restaurants, both called Buona Tavola, in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, Calif. Alle-Pia turns out a whole spectrum of cured meat products from its plant in Atascadero, Calif. Varia brought his nephew Alex Pellini over from Italy to run the plant. Pellini walked me through the process on my first visit a little more than a year ago. They’ve expanded their plant with three additional rooms for aging in a particular sequence as the salumi age. The first stage, of course, is grinding the meat, and for this they use a rebuilt grinding apparatus that dates back to the middle 1960s.
For the next step, the prepared and seasoned meats are stuffed into natural casings. At the plant, I was shown a board with a peg at one end and something that looks like a spindle of kite string at the other. This is used for tying and tightening the salami. The spindle of string is known as “spago,” no reference to Wolfgang Puck.
Next comes fermentation — how many good things in life begin with fermentation? For a salami to be properly done, the process adds up to about two or three days. Finally comes aging, and that is the sequence of rooms from youngest to oldest. Depending on the thickness of the sausage, drying and curing can take as long as two months. And while the salumi casing is edible, it is best presented without it. It is digestible, but a little too chewy for most tastes.
Alle-Pia’s products are now sold up and down the West Coast. The company makes a wide variety of cured salumi. The most interesting new one is their salami di capra, a mixture of goat and pork. It’s gamey and delicious. You can put on a pizza, but really, it’s better uncooked. Alle-Pia also makes pancetta and now guanciale (beloved by Roman cooks). The latter is made from jowl rather than the belly of your favorite swine.
A fully cured salami doesn’t require refrigeration if you keep it at a room temperature of 70 F or less. But it won’t last forever; 90 days is a good benchmark. Fresh sausage needs to be refrigerated or frozen. Among the fresh products I’ve picked up from Alle-Pia is cotechino, which they make seasonally, incorporating pork and white wine. This sausage is associated with the arrival of the New Year and most typically served with lentils. In many cultures, the lentils symbolize coins and promise good luck — it is hoped.
Lenticchie con Cotechino per la Festività di Fine Anno! (Lentils With Cotechino of the Celebration of the New Year)
I researched a number of Umbrian recipes for this New Year’s Eve dish, and they are all remarkably alike, which I guess means there’s pretty much just one way to do it right. Not all call for cotechino, but all do require a sausage. And by the way, I’m advised by Piemontese friends that if you serve it on New Year’s Day, it actually changes your luck from good to bad. But I’m sure that was meant as a joke.
2 cups of small green lentils, preferably Castelluccio
1 rib of celery, cut it in half
2 cloves of garlic, divided
Salt to taste
½ cup parsley, chopped
1 cup of tomato purée
2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
Hot red pepper flakes to taste
1 or 2 cotechino, depending on weight (about 14 ounces is a good weight for this recipe)
1. Simmer the dried lentils with half the celery rib and 1 of the garlic cloves in just enough water to cover. Add salt. Allow these to cook until al dente, about 20 to 30 minutes. Check them from time to time for doneness.
2. Meanwhile prepare a soffrito of chopped parsley and 1 clove of minced garlic by sautéing in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil for a few minutes.
3. Add the tomato purée — or in Italian “passata,” which is a bit looser — and the pepper flakes and bring to a simmer.
4. Pierce the cotechino a few times with a fork, a toothpick or a skewer so the casing doesn’t burst when you cook it.
5. Heat a pan deep enough to contain the cotechino. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil and lightly brown it, then cover it in water and bring it to the simmer point. Allow it to cook for 30 minutes in its bath.
6. Combine the lentil and tomato mix and cook covered on low heat for about 30 more minutes.
7. Using an instant-read probe such as a Thermapen, check the temperature of the cotechino. (Be careful not to let it squirt you.) When done, the temperature should be 140 F. Remove the cotechino and slice it.
8. To serve, top each plate of lentils and tomato with sliced cotechino.
Top photo: Lentils With Cotechino of the Celebration of the New Year. Credit: W.F. Tierney