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Pass the Tasso
Need a new pizza topping to replace those tired regulars pepperoni and sausage? Like to add some meaty zing to a pasta sauce or a plate of nachos? Try some tasso -- pork shoulder rubbed with paprika, cayenne, and black pepper and then cold-smoked. Tasso looks a bit like prosciutto, but instead of that Italian ham's buttery tenderness, it gives a real Cajun kick up your nostrils.
The Aidells Sausage Co. makes tasso locally and sells it from its booth at the Saturday farmers market in Ferry Plaza. You won't easily find it otherwise, says Aidells' Laura Monroe, because most of it goes to restaurants. (She won't say which ones.) It's a traditional ingredient in such bayou staples as jambalaya and gumbo, but it also works in such fusion dishes as pasta with Cajun carbonara sauce. If tasso isn't as tender as prosciutto (it isn't aged, either), it's much leaner -- only 5 percent fat, according to Monroe. No water is added to the meat during processing, so while tasso shrinks, its flavor also becomes intensely concentrated. A little goes quite a ways. But does it match well with melon? Although Monroe has never heard of anyone trying it, she allows that doing so might be "interesting."
The Bitter Truth
Stepping into Joseph Schmidt's retail shop, on 16th Street near Sanchez, is a little like stepping into a Parisian chocolatier. There are glass cases full of truffles, stacks of gorgeously boxed candies, and, on high shelves behind the counter, various confectionary fantastications. All this stuff tastes as good as it looks -- rich, intense, perfectly smooth, the chocolate equivalent of Peet's coffee. One of the reasons is that Joseph Schmidt uses Callebaut chocolate, from Belgium. Dish inquired as to whether any American chocolate might be up to snuff. Alas, no. According to Kerry McKee of Joseph Schmidt, there are several reasons that Callebaut is superior to any American product. Perhaps the most important is that the Belgian company has the pick of the cocoa bean crop grown in Zaire, formerly a Belgian colony.
If you start with the best, you're likely to end up with the best. Along the way, Callebaut (unlike most American producers) avoids alkali in processing. Use of alkali ("dutching") helps separate the beans from their skins, but it adds a bitter taste. Producers who shun alkali have to separate beans from skins by mechanical means -- a time-consuming process that's worth the bother, because it preserves chocolate's melting silkiness. That quality is the one Joseph Schmidt prizes above all others: "We want our chocolate to melt on your tongue," McKee says, "not leave a burning sensation." And so it does (and doesn't).
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