In the Featured Foodie series, we will be featuring a person or a business doing something interesting with food in the Sacramento region. This is our inaugural post on the topic. Let us know what you think or suggest someone you would be interested in having us feature!
Smokey Ridge Charcuterie, located in Apple Hill, is a staple of the Auburn Farmers’ Market. Kara, in the photo above with her husband Zach, answered ten questions for us on her meat preservation craft, being a food entrepreneur and how to use duck fat!
1. In the US, we have a strong culture of preservation of jams, jellies and canning veggies, but you don’t hear a lot about meat preservation. What inspired you to preserve meats?
I’ve always been attracted to forgotten, esoteric knowledge and I think meat preservation in this country falls into that category. I was living in Montana and surrounded by hunters, and game when I started researching and experimenting with air dried hams. I found it satisfying in kind of a primal way to work with meat, salt and fat.
2. Where do you source your meats?
We use several meat purveyors in Sacramento that are able to accommodate the quantities that we need for our farmer’s market products, Del Monte/Port Seafood and Reeds Gourmet Meat. We source primarily Mary’s Free Range Chicken, and Natural humanly harvested pork, but we will also source duck and game from our purveyors for specialty products. We’ve tried pastured pork from Niman Ranch for Farmer’s Market products but have found customers don’t want to pay the higher price for it. For our Charcuterie Club and Sausage Club, we tend to use more pasture raised pork or meat raised from local farms. We make our club products in smaller batches so it is easier to find small farms that can meet those quantities.
3. Where did you learn to preserve meats?
I learned to cook working in restaurant kitchens but I taught myself how to preserve meats through research and experience. I then expanded my knowledge by becoming a Master Food Preserver with the University of California Cooperative Extension in El Dorado County, which is a great organization that teaches the public safe home food preservation methods.
4. Why do you think bacon is the most popular of preserved meat in America?
Bacon is incredibly versatile – a seasoning ingredient for soups, beans and other dishes, or a main ingredient to be eaten fried for breakfast. It’s sweet salty flavor taps into the pleasure center in the brain (or at least in my brain). I find it interesting and encouraging that bacon has been spared by our cultural preference for leaner and leaner meat, like society decided bacon was worth making an exception for. I know many vegetarians that will even make an exception for bacon.
5. What is your favorite meat to preserve and why?
I love confits, especially duck confit. They are so tasty and easy to use for a quick meal or rillette. I love making duck prosciutto but we don’t package it for sale, though it will sometimes grace our Apple Hill lunch menu or catered events. I also like dry cures. We use them for hams, bacon and tasso; they produce a wonderfully concentrated flavor.
6. What is the biggest technical challenge in meat preservation?
It depends on which type of preservation techniques you’re using. In air dried meats and sausage getting the ideal drying conditions is difficult, especially in our region where humidity tends to be really low for most of the year. Controlling mold growth is another challenge, and the bigger the piece of meat and the longer the hanging time, the more chance something will go wrong. In brined meats like hams, the challenge is finding the right brine time so the cure goes all the way through but the meat isn’t unpalatably salty. With confits the challenge is being patient enough to let the meat cook really slow and to leave it in the fat long enough for the flavors to fully develop, when its so tempting to eat it right out of the oven.
7. How does Apple Hill influence your charcuterie?
Our products are heavily influenced by what we grow on our Apple Hill farm (Smokey Ridge #133). One of the main reasons we started the charcuterie was to find ways of using farm ingredients that were different from all the other Apple Hill farms. In the spring we make a Lamb and Grape Leaf sausage from our vineyard trimmings, in the summer we make a delicious Andouille with peppers from the garden, in the fall we do an Apple Sausage and Duck and Pear sausage, we make a farm-style pate that uses whatever greens are in season at the time (chard, grape leaves, kale….). We also offer condiments like apple ketchup and verjus that compliment our charcuterie and sausages. Our goal is to source all the produce and herbs that we use from the farm.
8. What has been your biggest lesson since you took on the challenge of becoming a food entrepreneur?
There’s been many challenges. Figuring out how we want to grow has been one and learning how to say no to things that don’t help us head in the direction we want to. Financing has been another. We started the business with a couple thousand dollars of wedding money and have boot strapped the whole thing which often feels like the hard way to do it but, at the same time, not having a lot of debt hanging over our head gives us flexibility and freedom in the decisions we make and that’s worth a lot to us.
9. What is one piece of advice you have for aspiring food entrepreneurs?
I’m kind of reluctant to give advice because I think we’ve respectfully ignored all the advice we received from our friends and family regarding this venture. I think to be an entrepreneur of any kind, you need to be ready to take risks, work however many hours it takes to get to a stable place, and spend a couple of years bringing in no money. If that doesn’t sound so bad, you may enjoy running a business. If that doesn’t sound so good, you may be better off finding someone to hire you to do what you love to do.
10. We purchased a jar of your duck fat at the Auburn Farmers’ Market. Do you have a simple recipe or use for those who are just learning to appreciate this product?
We have a recipe blog (www.smokeyridgecharcuterie.tumblr.com) and there is a link to it from our website. We post recipes for our products there. It’s fairly new but we are always adding to it. You should be able to search by product and all the recipes that use it will come up. As for duck fat, you can use it just like butter for cooking, making a roux or spreading on toast. At home, I cook almost exclusively with duck fat. I love the flavor of it.