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Here's Why Westchester Chefs Love Curing Foods

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As the weather cools, Roger Mason turns his attention from harvesting garlic and tomatoes to curing prosciutto for the following year. As chef and co-owner of Basta in Ossining, he’s been curing Italian hams, plus pancetta, lonza (a pork loin salumi), and French-style sausage seasoned with garlic, black pepper, and red wine, since the restaurant opened in 2012. “I got a little bit of experience [with curing] at the Culinary Institute of America,” recalls Mason, who graduated from the school in 2009. “When I went to Italy, I realized the products and the flavors were completely different. When I opened Basta, my goal was to try to match what I had seen.”

For his prosciutto, Mason sources whole legs from butcher shops on Arthur Avenue. He trims them down (the hocks are reserved, smoked, and used to enrich the restaurant’s pasta fagioli), salts them and lets them sit for about two weeks. The hams are rinsed, bathed in white wine and left to dry before being coated with a mixture of flour and lard, seasoned with black pepper and aged for nearly a year. “Is it comparable to a prosciutto di Parma?” No, says Mason. “It has a bit more earthiness.” This year, he’ll cure a dozen hams, which he’ll highlight in raw preparations across the menu. “Most of the commercial stuff is filled with preservatives, extra-salty, and irresponsible,” he espouses. “The idea here is to pursue the Italian flavors from a more responsible standpoint.”

He’s not alone. Whether for moral reasons, as a way to cut down on waste and promote sustainable practices, or just for flavor, a handful of Westchester chefs are taking the time to cure items in-house. That includes Chef Jay Lippin, of Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, who found curing could be a solution for making scraps profitable again. “I had a ton of salmon bellies left over, and I was trying to figure out a use for them,” recalls Lippin. His delicately textured salmon bacon starts with an aromatic wet cure in soy sauce, brown sugar, onion, garlic, and maple-sugar pearls. From there, it’s smoked, glazed with Crown Maple syrup and seared-to-order, to crisp the skin.

Rolls of house-made pancetta aging at Basta in Ossining.

Breakfast-for-dinner goes gourmet at Crabtree’s Kittle House, with salmon-belly bacon and runny quail egg. 

“We serve it as an appetizer called salmon bacon and eggs with cornbread and a sunny-side-up quail egg,” says Lippin. “It’s a huge seller.” It’s not the only type of creative bacon they’re serving, either. After a soak in a similar wet cure, paper-thin slices of eggplant are roasted in a low oven until they develop a crisp texture. Brushed with smoked maple syrup, for that unmistakably bacony flavor, this vegetarian riff adds smoky richness to the restaurant’s veggie burger.

At Saltaire in Port Chester, salmon becomes a more traditional gravlax — with a twist. “We add vodka, for an additional kick,” says owner Leslie Barnes. Deboned filets of New Zealand king salmon are cold-cured for three days in a mixture of salt, sugar, herbs, and vodka. It’s rinsed to stop the cure (and prevent excessive salinity) and then sliced paper-thin and served with spicy mustard, lemon, and seven-grain bread.

In Armonk, curing is part of Restaurant North’s emphasis on sustainability in food. “We’ve been curing since the day we opened,” says owner Stephen Mancini. “It’s part of the North model.” Currently on the menu: a house-cured whipped lardo perfumed with peppercorns, rosemary,  Hudson Valley-grown anise hyssop (an herb with a flavor like oregano and mint), and black garlic. “Black garlic gives an extra depth of flavor that makes our lard unique,” promises Mancini. “We often whip the lard and use it [like] butter, to accompany the bread service.”

Also look out for the restaurant’s cured lamb belly, which is used to up the flavor profile of dishes, in which bacon is traditional. “It has a gamey, smoky, rich, fatty flavor,” says Mancini. “We use it in pasta carbonara with Fazio Farm duck-egg yolk. It brings the classic to new heights.”

Curing is also what Mason Sandwich Co. owner Lou Brindley looks to when he wants to liven up the specials board. From time to time, he’ll make pork-belly pastrami, cured with salt and sugar, and smoked until tender. “We do it with Chinese hot mustard and a fermented, Chinese spin on sauerkraut,” says Brindley. “We mix in a little duck sauce to sweeten it, put it on rye, and people go crazy for it.”

Last summer, he also introduced cured egg yolks to the menu. Salted and left to dehydrate until they’re dry enough to shave or grate (the texture’s a bit like Parmesan or bottarga), the super-versatile yolks employ a rich, umami flavor to all kinds of dishes. “We put it on the Summer Jam sandwich last summer, but not a lot of people knew what it was,” recalls Brindley.

Why take the time to cure in-house? For Brindley, the answer is simple: “You know exactly what’s going into it. When you cure something, it always comes out better than anything you could buy at the store.”

 

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