It's simple enough that it doesn’t even require a real recipe.
When I grow up I just want to be an old Italian man. This, I am slowly beginning to realize, will be challenging on a few counts. I don’t drink espresso. I don’t really care about soccer or cycling. I don’t own any nifty hats. I suck at bocce. Oh, and I’m not Italian.
This last one may very well prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, but I refuse to go down without a fight. That’s why, in an effort to be the very best Daniele I can be, I lugged an old refrigerator into my apartment, staged a hostile takeover of the utility closet, and started curing my own salumi.
'Sure, it’s entirely possible that I’ll be an American Jew until the day I die, but I’ll be damned if anything’s going to stop me from living out my golden years with a cigar in my mouth, a blood-stained apron around my neck, a coppa in one hand and a soppressata in the other.
DIY dry-curing is on the Mount Rushmore of home cooking projects; yes, it takes a little legwork, some gear, some space, and some time, but damn if slicing into your own handmade salami isn’t one of the most satisfying things an intrepid cook can do. I’ll write about it sooner or later; in the meantime, let’s talk seriously about how to get some homespun charcuterie into your life (and into your mouth) as quickly as humanly possible. Rillettes and pâté are excellent gateway meats, and bacon lets you dip your toes in the salty curing waters without diving all the way in, but if you want an outright stunner for your next charcuterie board, fresh soppressata might be just the thing.
If you’ve never seen it, you’re not alone. I hadn’t either until I visited the kitchen at Locanda Vini e Olii, a ridiculously charming (and very delicious) neighborhood Italian restaurant housed in a 19th century Brooklyn pharmacy. Most of us know soppressata as a dried, spicy salami, but in Tuscany (where Locanda’s chef Michele Baldacci ate it as a kid at his local countryside “bottega”), it’s an entirely different animal. Well, it’s still a pig, but otherwise bears little resemblance to its cousin from the south.
Fresh soppressata is cooked, not cured, and is essentially an Italian version of head cheese. You braise a head (or other pig parts if you prefer), season the mixture of meat, fat, and cartilage, stuff it into some cheesecloth, twist and squeeze it into a salami shape, and hang it in the fridge to solidify overnight. What you wind up with is a wide, sausage-like specimen that is surprisingly handsome relative to what it’s made from, slices like deli meat, and is simple enough that it doesn’t even require a real recipe. Here’s how to make it.
As soon as he finishes skyping in Italian with his parents back in Florence, Baldacci scoots down to the basement and emerges with a giant pig’s head (for the purposes of the home cook, the head need not be giant; half of a reasonably sized one will yield a perfectly ample soppressata). If you’re squeamish about the head thing, you can use fresh hocks and feet instead, though a head (with its diverse array of, well, features) will give you the most texturally rich and aesthetically pleasing final product. Needless to say, these parts of the animal aren’t typically competing with boneless skinless chicken breasts for supermarket shelf space, so they can be harder to come by. Most butchers or greenmarket pork purveyors should be able to get them for you; just call ahead. And at the risk of sounding like her royal highness The Barefoot Contessa, use good pork if you can; these are humbler cuts of meat, so even the highest quality stuff shouldn’t break the bank. There’s essentially nothing else in this dish, so the better (and happier and healthier) the pig, the tastier the soppressata.
“Clearly,” Baldacci says as he beholds the head, “you need a big pot for this…or a smaller head.” Just find a vessel that fits, add the head, and cover it completely with water. Throw in some celery stalks and an onion or two (Baldacci keeps them whole so they don’t fall apart, but cuts “Xs” in the tops to release their flavor). That’s it. Bring it to a bubble, then adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook until the meat is very tender, about four hours (you’ll know when it’s ready). Using a spider or a slotted spoon, fish out everything that’s not bone (yes, meat, ears, noses, tongues, skin, cartilage, all of it) and transfer it to a large mixing bowl. You don’ need to add any extra braising liquid; the shallow puddle that naturally sloshes in as you transfer the meat will be plenty. Let the mixture cool for a bit until it’s easy to handle. In the meantime, if you like, try the stock; if it tastes like something you’d want to inhale out of a ramen bowl, save it; if not (heads can be funky sometimes), chuck it.
Salt. You need it. A decent amount, since nothing got seasoned during cooking. Baldacci figures 40 grams (a little over two tablespoons) for every kilogram of meat (weighed before you cook it). Use that as a rough guideline, but tasting as you go is your best bet. Same goes for whatever else you decide to put in there. Baldacci uses salt, chopped parsley, and orange and lemon zest (cut into thin slivers so you can actually see it). This is classic (and highly recommended), but feel free to add some peppercorns, tinker with other herbs, even throw in some pistachios if you’re feeling frisky. Hell, there’s no reason you can’t take this thing to an entirely different part of the globe if you want (cilantro, lime zest, you get the idea). Whatever you do, toss the meat gently as you mix it; you don’t want to break it up too much (though if you come across a giant ear, go ahead and slice it).
Stuffing and Hanging
A this point if you want, you can pack the mixture into a terrine or loaf pan lined with plastic wrap, put a piece of cardboard on top, weigh it down, and refrigerate overnight. This is easier, but doesn’t come with the benefit of having the excess fat and liquid drip away as it chills. That’s what casing and hanging achieves.
Baldacci uses a special paper casing sent to him by a soppressatta maker in Florence. Of course he does. We’re using cheesecloth. The idea here is to essentially make a large cylindrical sausage casing. Cut four or five pieces of cheese cloth, each one about two feet long, and stack them on top of each other. Fold the stack lengthwise into thirds like a letter. Using butcher’s twine, tie a tight knot towards one end (this will be the bottom of your casing).
Carefully spoon the pork mixture into the casing: it’s nice to have a helper to hold it open; either way, do it over a bowl or the sink to catch the liquid. Once all the pork is in the casing, begin twisting and squeezing the sausage. The goal is to press out as much liquid as you can, and shape the sausage into a nice tight cylinder roughly four inches in diameter (though the size doesn’t really matter that much). Once it looks good, tie a tight knot at the open end with more butcher’s twine, and hang it in the fridge overnight (make sure to put something beneath it to catch the liquid and fat as it drips away). The next day (or whenever you’re ready), cut away the cheesecloth and use a sharp knife to cut thin slices of the soppressata. Serve it as Baldacci does, with some pickles and mustard, or simply with some good bread.
You can wrap the rest in plastic and keep it in the fridge for up to two weeks. Or you can put on your niftiest hat, invite all your bocce friends over and take this bad boy down in one glorious night. If I were an old Italian man, that’s sure as hell what I would do.