Cheeky

Several weeks ago, I had a go at making my own bacon. This was my second foray into the world of simple homemade charcuterie, after duck prosciutto, which I recommend as a good entry-level effort to the craft of curing.

Bacon is pretty easy. Buy yourself some good quality, free-range pork loin or belly… or even better, the loin with the belly attached. Cure it in a mixture of salt, sugar, some cure #1, plus whatever other flavourings you want to add and then massage it into the meat. Chuck it all into a big zip-lock bag and put it in the fridge for a week, turning it every day or so. Once it’s cured, you can hot smoke it or in the absence of a smoker, cook it in a low (120C) oven for a couple of hours.

To make it smoky, you can lightly spray the meat with a liquid smoke before it’s popped into the oven. The one I bought from Misty Gully is great and smells like Cheetos’ Cheese & Bacon Balls. There are a few more steps to it than what I’ve outlined, but this post on the Overclockers Forum is a great resource if you want to give it a go yourself. Kudos to kodo78.

bacon

As for my attempt at bacon – it looked like and smelled like bacon. Finely cut and pan fried, it also tasted pretty bacon-y and damn good between two pieces of bread, butter and a good dollop of HP sauce.

Wanting a greater challenge and with some spare time on my hands at the moment; I sought some inspiration from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie to seek out my next curing venture. As space is a bit of issue at my place, there was a requirement to stick to a smaller cut of meat, so I decided that Guanciale would be the most viable as it could be used in a number of recipes, as well as being delicious on its lonesome.

The direct translation of Guanciale is ‘pillow’, which may relate to the delicate texture, thanks to the higher fat to meat ratio in the cut. Or the simpler inference is that its name is derived from the Italian word for cheek (guancia). Either way, the cured and dried pork jowl is a little stronger in flavour than pancetta and as any staunch Italophile will tell you, is the only meat to use in a Carbonara or Amatriciana sauce.

Now you would think that with all of the various bits of pork we consume regularly, the cheeks and jowls would be a little more omnipresent and therefore easy to find, but they’re not. That is, until they probably feature in a future series of Masterchef and Coles will start to sell them at ridiculously-inflated prices. Alas, it wasn’t as simple as walking to either of the butcher shops on my street. I suspect the local restaurants might get first dibs, given jowl is so meltingly delicious.

After unsuccessfully widening my search to incorporate the surrounding suburbs, the next obvious place was Victoria Street, Richmond. Sadly, after 10 minutes, I was zero from six on Victoria Street and so I decided to cut my losses and head to the most next obvious place – the Queen Vic Markets.

Thirty five minutes, a further nine butchers, eight bucks for parking and a doughnut from the American Doughnut Van later (alright, it was two), I was still jowl-less.

A quick Google search had me back in the car heading towards the next, next most obvious place –  the Footscray market, which in hindsight was probably what I should have done in the first place.

By butcher number five, my luck had changed and the guy was only too happy to hack off a couple of jowls right before my eyes… All for the bargain price of $4.50, later finding out for an extra dollar, I could have purchased the whole pig’s head. Perhaps next time.

Cheeks getting a trim
Cheeks getting a trim

Sourcing the jowls was easy, compared to my next dilemma; to cure or not to cure with curing salt. And if I did use it, which cure do I use? Cure #1 or Cure #2? There were so many conflicting recipes that used different cures, if at all. Now I wasn’t in the mood for seriously harming my family and friends through some serious food poisoning or worse, botulism.

Therefore a bit of research is always a good thing. In Cure #1, the sodium nitrite only keeps the meat safe for a short period of time, as well as imparting that nice ‘cured’ taste. It’s also assumed that anything cured with Cure #1 is cooked after curing. In Cure # 2, the sodium nitrate breaks down over time and transforms to sodium nitrite, which is further broken down to become nitric oxide; the key oxidising agent that keeps the meat safe from that nasty old botulism. This cure is reserved for the likes of salumi, etc; things that aren’t intended to be cooked before consuming.

So knowing which cure was the best for me, the rest of the cure recipe was pretty simple and the one I used was from Nuovo Mondo, by Stefano de Pieri & Jim McDougall.

Guanciale (for 2 cheeks)

2 pork cheeks
300g table salt
300g caster sugar
5 garlic cloves, smashed
30g black pepper, lightly crushed (I only had white pepper on hand)
½ bunch thyme, chopped (stems and all)
2.5g Cure #2

The cheeks needed a bit of a trim up for starters. Mainly to get rid of some of the flappy bits, as well as to remove some of the glands that still may be attached to the jowls. The glands are pretty obvious-looking things; they’re grey in colour so they are usually pretty easy to distinguish from the fat or muscle.

Simple ingredients
Simple ingredients

Once trimmed, they were ready for the cure, which was as easy as combining all of the ingredients together. As for the amount of cure, I used the cure packet as a guide. The 100g pack was enough to cure 40kg of meat, so using my trusty brain and a calculator, I worked it out to be 2.5 grams of cure per kilo of meat. My jowls weighed in at around 1kg after trimming, so 2.5g of cure was mixed well into the salt and sugar before adding the thyme, garlic and pepper.

As the cure was going to draw out moisture from the jowls, I added an extra base of salt to the bottom of my container before rubbing down the cheeks with the cure mix and placing them into the container. I also made sure that the cheeks were only in contact with the cure mix and not the container or each other.

See you in a week
See you in a week

There was nothing left to do, other than pop them in the fridge and let the cure do the rest, for about a week. Every day or so, I check on them and ensured that they were happy and the cure was still covering each cheek.

After a week, it was time to wash the cure off the cheeks, but not with water. So, unless you were a magician, like Jebus, white wine was the traditional method for washing the cheeks and I thought I’d do the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I’d bought a cask of goon and sadly, I thought Fruity Lexia might be a tad too sweet for washing the cheeks, so I opted for a drier, more highfalutin Semillon Chardonnay.

Goon-ciale
Goon-ciale

Once the cheeks were well washed in the good stuff, I patted them dry with paper towel, ready for the next step. They had firmed up in the cure nicely and now they were ready for a rub down of spices, ready to hang. I used a combination of juniper, green peppercorns, fennel seeds and chilli. I went for green peppercorns as I wanted a milder pepper flavour. Juniper, fennel and chilli are fairly traditional spices as far as Guanciale goes.

Ready for hanging
Ready for hanging

The last step before hanging was to weigh the cheeks. I’d read that the same principle I’d followed when making duck prosciutto was also relevant to making Guanciale; that was when they’d lost 30% of their initial weight, through loss of moisture, they were done.

Actually, a precise figure of 30% is a little subjective. Jowls that contain a lot of fat won’t lost as much weight as the moisture is lost. I guess I just had to wait and see. My cheeks had lost around 100 grams in the fridge cure, so I was aiming to lose around 120 grams. In my little wine fridge, set at 13 degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around 65 percent, this could take anywhere from four to eight weeks.

Patience
Patience…

Fast forward to just shy of six weeks later and my impatience had gotten the better of me. On the scales, they hadn’t met the ’30 percent’ rule (closer to 20%) and since I first checked on them at the one month mark, there had been very little additional weight lost over the past two weeks. However, they were nice and firm; I was pretty sure that they were ready.

Worth the wait
… is a virtue

From the first cut of the knife, I knew my impatience was justified. The flesh was a rich and red in colour and the fat was lovely and firm. It smelled fantastic and tasted even better! Rich, buttery and a little nutty. A little bit of sweetness lingered from the cure and the spicing rounded it out perfectly.

A wee favour called in at Maria’s Deli (a few doors down from me) and soon enough their meat slicer had transformed one of my cured cheeks into paper-thin slices.

Patience truly is a virtue.

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Epocha – 49 Rathdowne St, Carlton

My overly-elaborate definition of regret is not blogging for four months, then dining at Epocha in Carlton. With absolutely no desire beforehand to post a review, then realising too late into the night, it was a misjudgement. This place is worth reviewing.

However, my secondary overly-elaborate definition of (slight) regret is placing our unbridled palates into the hands of Sommelier, Angie Giannakodakis (there was nothing wrong with that part), to match wines and not talk cost. Being slugged $220 for a 1970’s vintage Eiswein (which was delicious) that at the time was declared “not expensive” was an important lesson learned that there are different perceptions of ‘expensive’, especially when it comes to Sommeliers. It wasn’t expensive compared to, say the $980 1981 Chateau d’Yquem that was also on the wine list. Or maybe in respect of other Eiswines, which can command up to $400-$700, but you see my point.

This got me thinking about the tactics that restaurants use to potentially discombobulate diners and extract more revenue on already paper-thin margins. Hey, the capitalist in me doesn’t blame them; most of them need it. Look at how the industry is suffering at the moment and every extra dollar makes a difference. On this night, we simply went with the flow as to what was offered to us.

For example, we ordered two espresso martinis and two espressos at the end of the night. Clearly on a roll with the wanton disregard possibly coming from our table, one of the staff came forward and suggested we “may as well ditch the coffees and make that four espresso martinis”. What are you going to say, no?

By placing ourselves into the good hands of the staff, the bill reflected that. If treated well, you become comfortable, you don’t want it to end and you can easily succumb to the upsell… like the Eiswine, the martinis… hey, it was our choice and they did their job extremely well and we had an excellent night. It’s merely a heads up to the cost-conscious (and reminder to me) to be more wary. Actually, excluding the cost of the Eiswein and it was pretty good value, around $175 for food matched with wine.

Epocha opened in September last year and it sits comfortably amongst the Victorian terraces on the top end of Rathdowne Street, across from Carlton Gardens. Inside, you immediately feel that it won’t be a difficult task at all to stay as long as you can, in an inviting room of dark timber, candles, crystal decanters, marble fireplaces and low light. It’s romantic, but it’s also a place where you’d feel very comfortable with a group of your nearest and dearest. The website states that they look forward to welcoming you to their home and they are spot on.

The menu is very much pan-European; it’s a little bit of everything from across the continent and some Rule Britannia thrown in for good measure (well, they are part of the EU). There is also a great emphasis on sharing. The $68 sharing menu is good value and probably more or less the same in cost if you were to order the same dishes a’la carte. Value went from good to great by taking the option to add the 550g Côte de Boeuf (on the menu for $64) for an additional $12 per person (for a table of four); a self-proclaimed feast and they weren’t wrong. The offerings were more than generous; rustic but very much refined.

House-baked bread arrived in a calico bag. Still warm, the bread was dark and sweet, like it had been made using a stout or a porter. It was flecked with caraway and a wonderful house-churned sea salt butter sealed the deal. Mixed olives ($6), with their own little silver tray for pits (the little things that made a difference) were full of flavour. The chicken liver pate ($9) was smooth and rich, but not rich enough to want to go back for more. The toasted bread-to-pate ratio was spot on.

I had a lot of favoured dishes throughout the night but the crispy pigs ears ($6) were outstanding and yet, probably the most simplistic. Finely shaved pigs ear, deep fried and seasoned. It was just missing a cold beer. Mushroom arancini ($8) were small, delicate and packed with flavour.

That was the end of the first wave of food. The second wave delivered venison carpaccio, with pickled mushrooms, hazelnuts and some spherified PX sherry ($16). Definitely the classiest dish of the night and one that I’d go back and selfishly have all to myself… with some pigs ears and the Kefalograviera saganaki ($14). Perfectly pan fried, salty, some punch and texture from currants and pickled apricots, a little acidity from some verjuice and a touch of honey for sweetness.

The quinoa salad with apricots and yoghurt ($14) was the healthy option of the night. Probably much needed in hindsight. Another belter was the Blue grenadier (with perfectly crispy skin) with a creamy pearl barley and celery risotto and shards of cavolo nero ($34).

Wave three saw us tucking into slow-roasted lamb leg, served in a rich pan gravy and stuffing ($38), a dish called simply ‘Bird’, which was the breast, thigh, leg and wing of a bird, presumably chicken ($32). All of the protein dishes had their own respective jus and they were all sublime, including the bone marrow jus that accompanied the 550g Côte de Boeuf, which was cooked perfectly to medium rare. This was protein overload. Fortunately two serves of duck fat roast potatoes ($9) and the obligatory green vegetable in the form of green beans with toasted almonds ($9) eased the pain.

Just when you think you can do no more, the final wave arrived… although nothing like the preceding tsunami-sized waves of protein; this was more akin to gently caressing the shore as it broke (it’s diners) and receded. Small, simple, decadent desserts. A couple of slices of (what might have been) a frangipane tart, some of the best choux pastry profiteroles I’ve ever had, filled with a light vanilla pastry cream and covered in salted caramel, a couple of slices of (again, what might have been) chocolate delice and a trifle-like thing in a glass that no one really touched because we were all too full. Things always get a little sketchy at the end. Desserts ($12 a piece) are rolled out on an old-school dessert trolley. A nice touch.

The wine list is extensive and if you’re one of those people that tends not to stray from stra’ya when in comes to wine, then perhaps this is the place for you to get out of your comfort zone. You won’t find any Australian wines on the list, nor anything Australian for that matter. Not unless you’re dyslexic and misread Austria. There’s a price point to suit all and like us, if you’re unsure about what’s what when it comes to wines of the Old World, you can always place your night into the hands of Angie, but unlike us, be a little more upfront about your preferred spend.

Epocha is a must-try. You won’t be disappointed.

Epocha on Urbanspoon

Epocha
49 Rathdowne St, Carlton VIC
(03) 9036 4949

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Good For: Guaranteed, rib sticking, interesting, honest, wonderful food and wine. Impeccable service. It’s a gem.

Not Good For: Vinoxenophobes… I’m copyrighting that.

Creatures of Habit

We are all creatures of habit. We like stuff a certain way and if that stuff is a little bit different from the last time, we can become a little perturbed.

“Can you please put the [insert sauce here] on the [insert protein here], but not on the [insert vegetables here]?”

God forbid if there’s gravy on the vegetables. I’ve nearly sustained a fork in the groin for getting that wrong.

There are also the burger people, who proceed to dissect the burger, eating each layer individually. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, much to K’s disdain. Mind you, she eats the least favourite thing on her plate first and so on until she gets to her favourite thing on the plate… which is usually the meat.  See? We all do something weird when it comes to our food preferences.

My typical weekday lunch is to grab a sandwich and take it back to my desk to eat it (without deconstructing it). However today I had a few errands to run, so rather than grab something when I got back, I decided to take a few minutes to sit and enjoy something a little more exciting than a ‘sammich’.

Phở is becoming a favourite of mine and is a healthy alternative to most lunch options, as is most Vietnamese cuisine. A good phở can be hard to come across, particularly if the broth is insipid, but a quick check of Vietnamese Restaurants, Melbourne CBD on urbanspoon narrowed it down for me.

Mekong was busy, so that was a good sign. I was quickly ushered to a spare seat next to a guy that looked like a phở junkie from way back. It can be a little weird dining by yourself, but in a place like this where most of the tables are communal, it didn’t really matter. I decided to order the Phở Ga Dac Biet, also known as Chicken ‘Special’ …

Waiter: [pauses] “Umm… you know…”

Me: “Yes, I know”

Waiter: [excited that the gwai lo / farang / or whatever the Vietnamese vernacular is for a Westerner, is giving Phở Ga Dac Biet a crack]: “OK, cool”

To clarify, the ‘special’ part relates to the special parts of the chicken. You know, most of the bits that repulse most Westerners and are often discarded; namely offal.

For those unfamiliar with phở, origins aside, it’s a clear broth with a specific cut of white rice noodles (called bánh phở’) and is usually served with beef or chicken.

The broth for beef phở is generally made by simmering beef; bones and meat, charred onion (for colour), charred ginger and spices, including cinnamon, star anise, ginger, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and clove. Chicken phở is made using the same spices as beef phở, but the broth is made using only chicken meat and bones.

Beef phở usually comes with finely cut boiled beef (steak, flank, brisket) or thin slices of raw flank. Tendons, tripe and balls (meatballs, not testicles) can also feature. Chicken phở is served with breast meat and commonly features the giblets, hearts, livers and sometimes an unborn chicken egg, which even I would probably draw the line at.

But the best part of slurping down a steaming bowl of phở are the condiments and whilst I was sitting there waiting for my lunch to arrive, it dawned on me… All of these people around me had their own routine regarding phở. It was brilliant!

Accompanying the phở is a side plate which contains lemon wedges, bean shoots and Vietnamese mint, which you add as much or as little as you like. The table is also crammed full of other delicious condiments; vinegared white onions (hành dấm), fresh green and red chillies, chilli paste, hoisin sauce, fish sauce and a variety of other bottles and jars of flavours, which I’ve yet to discover.

The guy next to me looked as though he was counting the slices of fresh chilli to get the heat ‘just right’, the guy opposite me tore his mint into tiny, teeny pieces and mixed them through his phở for even distribution, then made sure his bean shoots were well immersed into the broth. As for my routine, I’m still finding my true preference, but so far it’s a small squirt of hoisin for a little sweetness, a squeeze of lemon for some acidity, a little chilli paste for some warming base heat and a generous amount of fresh chilli.

Next time, I will spend more of my time people-watching to discover other’s secrets to build the ideal phở.

I will also spend some time observing the secrets as to how not to splatter broth on my shirt as I am far from getting that right.