Chewing The Fat, And Talking About It Too, With Michael Ruhlman
Cookbook author goes H.A.M. with Italian curing
Cleveland-based author and jounalist, Michael Ruhlman, is well known for his collaborations with chefs (Thomas Keller and Eric Riepert, to name two) as well as his own books on cooking. You also may have seen him as a judge on Cooking Under Fire, and The Next Iron Chef, or as an occasional guest on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. He also keeps an excellent blog.
Back in 2005, he and Detroit-area chef/instructor Brian Polcyn collaborated on Charcuterie, a book dedicated to the age-old craft of preserving food (mainly meat) in a way that not only keeps, but transforms it into something sublime. To put it lightly, the book was incredibly successful. “To sell 100,000 copies of a book devoted to animal fat and salt in a country that’s terrified by animal fat and salt...well something was going on there,” he recalls over the phone. With a bit of pressure from their editor at Norton, the two wrote a follow-up focusing specifically on Italian dry-curing, Salumi. We spoke about that and his next single-topic subject in the works.
Will you ever open a restaurant? It would make sense.
Why the fuck would I ever want to open a restaurant? They are the biggest headache, pain in the ass, nightmare businesses you could ever possibly hope to engage yourself in! It’s the thing you would only do if you had no other options. Ask any great restaurateur.
So that’s a no?
From your books and blog, it’s obvious that you’re an extremely well rounded cook. Is there any dish or technique that you haven’t been able to conquer?
I’m not good with fish, which is probably because I grew up eating Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. I grew up when there was only one fish delivery a week into Cleveland. So I never ate fish, never liked fish. Didn’t even know that decent fish existed until 1997 when I had dinner at the French Laundry and had the most astonishing fish I ever had and realized that, whoa, fish doesn’t suck! But it’s left me fish-challenged. I like it when I can serve it raw because then I can’t fuck it up.
Anything you don’t like eating?
I’m not a big calf’s liver fan. Other than that I’m good with just about anything.
Anything you don’t like cooking?
There’s nothing I don’t like to cook. There’s plenty I don’t enjoy prepping! (Artichokes, picking thyme, etc.)
What four items do you always make sure you have on hand in your kitchen?
Well, unfortunately, we all run out of stuff we need every now and then and it always astonishes me. I always think, ‘How can we not have an onion?’ So onion is one of them. ‘How is it possible that we’ve run out of butter?’ (I now have 3 pounds of butter in the freezer just as backup.) My go-to seasoning support is good fish sauce. The fourth one is eggs.
How did you get so interested in learning the craft of curing, preserving and aging meat?
What I loved was duck confit. I realized that, god, this thing that I was ordering because it was so satisfying, so delicious, so amazing, was never created to be amazing or delicious. It was meant to keep people alive! The fact that humans had become so ingenious in their preservation techniques as to make something so good that is also fundamental to their staying alive. I wanted to explore it. So I called Brian, who teaches charcuterie.
What was it like writing the new book?
For the latest book we went to Italy, researched the subject and had a ball! We visited our first salumeria in the beautiful town of Biella. I was just overwhelmed — it was this twinkly, Willy Wonka pork factory! I was writing stuff down, and then just gave up because there were, like, 100 different kinds of salamis, and a whole case of belly, a whole case of lonza (loin). We went back to where we were staying. We were eating some salumi we bought and having a glass of wine, trying to figure things out.
And then, hmmm, what if we just break it down into those cases? Suddenly things started to make sense. Each case at the salumeria was devoted to a part of the hog. You’ve got the guanciale. You’ve got the spalla (the shoulder), you’ve got the lonza, you’ve got the fatback, you’ve got the coppa, you’ve got the prosciutto, you’ve got the lardo, and you’ve got the trim (which you make into salami). So, there’s really only eight things you’ve gotta know! You take this complicated, mystical, confusing thing and break it down into its component parts into what we call the Big Eight. Once you start thinking about it like that then the whole of salumi becomes much more clear, graspable, understandable.
What will I learn from Salumi?
You learn how simple it can be and also how complex it can be. It also teaches the fundamental importance of sourcing good pork. This is critical. I don’t care if you’re talking about a pork chop or a beautiful coppa. I’ve tried curing grocery store pork and it has no flavor. It is texture only. In fact, it is something of a revelation how little flavor it does have. [The good stuff] tastes like pork — really deep, savory, delicious, succulent pork.
What do I look for?
If you can get the cut, the coppa, which is the muscle that runs from the back of the skull down along the top of the spine. That’s the perfect cut for the first time home curer. There’s no danger of bacterial contamination — you just salt it, season it, dry it and slice it. It’s got the perfect ratio of fat to meat. It’s delicious (again, if you get good pork). The thing is, American butchers slice right through the center of the coppa!. So we also describe and illustrate how Italian butchery — salumi — is done, and how it differs from the American-style breakdown.
Finally, what’s the next great subject you’d like to take on?
It’s a fat. It’s a single subject book on a specific fat and it’s going to be out for the iPad only at first but soon after will be on Kindle. It will be coming out this fall. And you’re the first person I’m telling this to!
Read more interviews on Food Republic: