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I was at Rare Tea Cellar, gourmet tea and food importer Roderick Markus's warehouse, a Batcave of wonders along the Ravenswood line, in mid-January. Phillip Foss (El Ideas) and a couple of his cooks were there, tasting different things—scattered across Markus's desk were upscale foodstuffs including an entire leg of jamon iberico-style ham made in Appalachia, a tray containing a few thousand dollars' worth of both white and black truffles, assorted teas and tinctures, vinegars and liqueurs from all over the world. Also there was Scott Manley, chef of Table, Donkey and Stick in Logan Square, who also happens to be an ex-El Ideas cook, though his main background is having worked for Paul Virant at Vie and Paul Kahan at Blackbird.
We spent a good hour and a half there doing little more than tasting whatever remarkable thing Markus pulled next off a shelf or from a bottle for us to try, and at the end of it Foss, his mind twirling the whole time with ideas for things to make with new ingredients, placed a substantial order. Then it was Manley's turn, and what he was thinking about was charcuterie. Specifically, the last week in February (in other words, this week) was going to be Chicago's first-ever Charcuterie Week, Charc Week for short, in which nine different chefs who know their way around a whole pig, from places like the Radler, West Loop Salumi, Tête Charcuterie, the Butcher and Larder and others, would be offering their house-made meats, and on Thursday, February 26, they'd have an event at the Dawson at which you could try them all.
Manley had picked out four things we'd been tasting to use in making charcuterie. There should be, he thought, just enough time—maybe a hair short but doable—to make charcuterie for Charc Week. He picked out a spicy, tart seasoning called yuzu kosho; made with ground peppers and the Asian citrus yuzu, it tasted a little like the Middle Eastern-seasoning-preserved lemon. Manley thought it would go well with duck breast. For a pork salami, he picked out vanilla and truffles to mix into the meat. And he got a crema chocolate pu-erh tea to cure goat with. Unconventional ingredients for charcuterie, but typical for what he likes to do at the restaurant, where he usually has eight or nine different types of charcuterie ready to go on the menu's wanderteller board.
"A lot of the charcuterie I see is traditional French or Italian. We're a German restaurant—though I make what I want," Manley said. "I've never been big on recipes. Here at Table, Donkey and Stick I've sort of cut [recipes] down and rebuilt them with one ingredient. I've cured sausages with coffee or sumac—one thing. So the stuff that I did for Charcuterie Week is like that, one thing, except for the salami, which is about 2 percent truffle and 1/4 percent vanilla. It tastes like a malt."
I said it sounded as if he looked at charcuterie as being like pizza—you could put anything you want on it. "That's how I feel about it," he said. "I worked for Paul [Virant] and Nathan [Sears, now of the Radler]. They'd say, we want to make something. I'd say, okay, how do you make it, what goes into it? And they'd say, whatever you want. It needs this much salt, this much curing salt, this much dextrose, and here's the fat ratios that are most ideal. And from there, I just started playing with these ingredients. It's just blank canvas."
When I visited the restaurant last week, Manley admitted that he wasn't sure if it had been long enough for the meat to really cure. His charcuterie cabinet had been really packed and the humidity inside it had been pretty high, which would slow the dehydration resulting from the presence of the salt, which is essential to the curing process. I wondered, too, how an ingredient like truffle would be affected by the time spent curing—would the truffle's expensive bouquet perfume the meat or simply dissipate? We went out and cut chunks from one of each of the types of charcuterie and sat down in the restaurant's patio to try them.
He cut off a piece of the goat, which was clearly still somewhere between being as supple as fresh meat and hard and gnarled like cured meat. "For the most part, I taste goat," Manley said; there was just a hint of something darker and rounder, like chocolate. The salami he took a look at and said, "This one won't be ready by next week." It tasted like good pork, but wasn't particularly strong with truffles—nor did it taste like a malt. The duck was the one he was happiest with, still not dry enough, but a good hit of spice from the yuzu kosho. "I've always had good luck with the flavors with duck. It seems more receptive to it," he said.
So only one out of three, the goat, was ready for Charc Week, but he was philosophical about it—he had plenty of other charcuterie in the pipeline which would be ready, and these meats would turn up on the wanderteller board soon enough. "We've got this sort of curry powder that makes a mild curry salami," he said. "And we've been doing a peameal bacon," a Canadian style of cured pork. "And we've got a sea bean salami that's pretty good. That was with an oyster dish for Valentine's Day, but it will probably go straight onto the charcuterie plate here. On Halloween we had a sea bean dish, and I had to buy five pounds of it, so we used it for its salt content in a salami. We've got this squid ink one, squid ink and shallot, it's probably still a month out. We've got a hay bresaola, that cut of meat wrapped in hay. So it'll probably be the goat, the hay bresaola, the curry salami, and the sea bean salami."