Fairly new to the NYC culinary scene, Jamie Bissonnette has long been regarded as one of the best chefs in the Northeast (see his James Beard Foundation nominations and awards, for instance). The recipient of Food & Wine magazine’s People’s Choice: Best New Chef and winner of the $10,000 grand prize on Food Network’s Chopped, the executive chef/owner of Boston’s Toro and Coppa as well as Chelsea’s Toro (85 Tenth Avenue; 212-691-2360) should certainly be accustomed to the limelight. Bissonnette has recently stepped up his game even further; the renowned champion of nose-to-tail cuisine just released his first tome, The New Charcuterie Cookbook: Exceptional Cured Meats to Make and Serve at Home.
Bissonnette’s interest in food was sparked when he was a young cook. Like most new chefs, he was challenged by preparing dishes like pan-fried trout. At first, the process of flipping, basting, and making the fish crisp while maintaining a soft interior was difficult. But as his skills progressed, he wanted to learn more. He started taking interest in time-consuming processes, such as rising breads, fermenting wines, and curing meats. He started making liverwurst and meatloaf; his passion for tinkering took off from there. “It kind of just happened,” says Bissonnette. “I was always fascinated by it. Things like bread, wine, ham — it took time and ingredients. I got inquisitive about it.”
Charcuterie is a somewhat ironic hobby for Bissonnette. The famed nose-to-tail chef was once a vegetarian. Straight-edge as a teenager, he was into clean living. He didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, and he found his way to Hare Krishna for a bit. But he gave up his plant-based ways as a young cook. “I was pretty good, but I’d never be great,” says Bissonnette. “It’s kind of like a musician never listening to their songs. Just because you can compose, chances are, if you don’t listen to your songs, you’re never going to get better. I was cooking food that was good, but I wasn’t eating it. So I had no way to make it better.”
A few years after getting back into meat, Bissonnette felt the charcuterie draw. While working in Hartford, Connecticut, items like rabbit would come in; the prime cuts would obviously get used, but no one knew what to do with the offal. With a desire to use more of the animal, Bissonnette started trying things out. “As a young chef, I wanted to be creative,” says Bissonnette. “I’d look through cookbooks and ask questions, and figure out what I could do. So I could be creative and make stuff.”
He admits that some of his experiments were not so great, but others were excellent.
Bissonnette thinks a big part of Americans’ fear of offal and off-cuts stems from the convenience culture that grew out of the post-war era and the resulting food policy. Factory farms grew exponentially while food quality rapidly decreased. “I think it’s because people didn’t grow up eating it,” says Bissonnette. “It’s the generation from the late ’60s to the ’90s. America went the way of the TV dinner; they tried to make things that were quick and easy. They simplified things.”
Bissonnette’s philosophy is essentially the opposite. Everything he does takes time, work, and patience. He sources his meat from farms that rear their animals responsibly. He tries to avoid companies that don’t respect the environment, animals, and even vegetables.
While he details some of his principles in the book, his perspective is most evident in his section on turkey. Even though the fowl is regularly regarded as dry, tough, and reserved solely for holidays, it’s one of the most popular deli meats. But according to Bissonnette, that’s not turkey. The mechanically separated meat is pressure-washed, seasoned, shaped into a form that resembles a breast, and then sliced for a sandwich. A fan of the bird himself, Bissonnette wanted to show readers that it can easily be made at home, with great, healthy results.
The book, however, doesn’t stick to American favorites. An avid traveler, Bissonnette incorporates influences from across the world: Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America. Recipes range from banana-leaf-wrapped porchetta to pork roll to Lebanese lamb sausages. For novices, he strongly suggests starting off with the basics, like the chicken liver mousse, habanero maple breakfast sausages, and the Vietnamese sausage wrapped in Swiss chard.
Bissonnette offers one huge charcuterie tip for beginners: According to him, it’s important to know where your meat was raised. “If you don’t know anything about your animal, don’t cook it,” says Bissonnette. “You don’t know what kind of animal it was, you don’t know how the meat is going to react, you don’t know if it’s factory-farmed animal or not. Just because you go to a grocery store and it say heritage pig, pasture-raised, if no one can tell you what pasture it was raised on or what breed it is, I just call that bullshit.”
Click to the next page for the Easiest Chicken Liver Mousse recipe.
Easiest Chicken Liver Mousse
Yield: One 1-pound (450 g) mousse, feeds about 15 people
One of the first things a young chef learns to make is chicken liver mousse. I learned it but didn’t make it often enough to remember the recipe. One day I watched a sous chef make it in less than 10 minutes, including the time for soaking the livers. I was so impressed that I set a goal to do the same — and the result is a recipe I turn to over and over again. It’s buttery, creamy, and tart.
1 lb (450 g) chicken livers
3 cups (710 mL) whole milk
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 lb (450 g) unsalted butter
3 shallots, rough cut
1 tbsp (15 g) butter
3 cloves garlic, rough cut
2 sprigs thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
1/4 cup (59 mL) cognac or brandy
1 tbsp (15 g) espelette
Schmaltz (rendered chicken fat; page 151) for storage
1. Soak the chicken livers overnight in milk, then strain them. Place the livers on a clean towel to dry.
2. Season the chicken livers with salt, pepper and cayenne. Pan fry in vegetable oil on stovetop, checking both sides until medium rare. Place the warm, cooked livers in a food processor with unsalted butter.
3. Add butter to the pan and cook shallots and garlic. Add thyme and bay leaf. Scrape the bottom of pan to get the fond. When the shallots are tender, add cognac (or brandy). Remove bay leaf and thyme.
4. Pour into food processor with espelette. Blend until combined. Season with salt and pepper. Pour directly into a dish or ramekin, cover the top layer with the schmaltz, and store in the refrigerator. For a very creamy version of mousse, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve using paddle, then pack it into jar or mold.