Black Garlic's rise to culinary fame was rather short lived.  Heads of garlic slowly heated at high temperatures until they caramelize, turn black, taste sweet, and lose their sharp bite?  It sounds wild, but didn't really stick around.  Sure, it could always come back, but I get the feeling the moment and novelty may have passed for this unique food.  It never became the workhorse stable, like quinoa or chipotles, or the star ingredient-of-the-moment, like chocolate bacon, za'atar, or truffle oil on anything.  I played around with black garlic myself and while I loved the unique, sweet flavor of the black bulbs, I never really hit my stride with it.
But maybe I was using it all wrong.  Despite being an Asian ingredient, I've found cheese has a wonderful affinity for black garlic.  Well, I didn't find it out, I bough a wedge of Black Gold, a raw milk, gouda-style cheese made locally by God's Country Creamery.  I thought it said "Black and Gold," and wanted to get it for my wife and her Pittsburgh Steelers friends.  But tasting this cheese, it has a wonderful flavor of sweet, earthy garlic and a long, savory umami finish.
Black Gold by God's Country Creamery
Describing the flavor profile, it reminds me a lot of words used to describe black truffles: earthy, savory, umami, garlic without the bite.  And truffles love fat and cream and butter.  I think part of it is that the fat helps to capture the flavor and give it a lasting presence on the palate.  Tasting the black garlic cheese, I really felt like the flavor and intensity of the ingredient became the highlight.  While I enjoyed black garlic before, this cheese pairing was greater than the sum of its parts.  I ordered a few heads online and plotted.

Black Garlic Mac n Cheese
Now it was time to try this on my own.  Black garlic is sticky and gummy, and I didn't relish chopping it up.  So I peeled two heads and pureed them in a blender with whole milk.  I used this as the base for my Gruyere and cheddar black garlic mac and cheese.  I didn't go far off the path of a basic mac and cheese recipe, as I really wanted to see if I could capture the black garlic flavor like God's Country Creamery.  Hot and bubbling out of the oven, I snuck a crispy bit of the crust and felt success.  Savory, sweet, with the unique flavor of the black garlic. 

It's funny to say this, but I feel energized after finding success with this recipe.  Now I'm curious to take black garlic back to Asian recipes and try it with the Asian equivalent of cheese making: tofu.

I love cured salmon.  It can be regular gravlax cured with dill, smokey Nova style salmon, or even one of those flavored varieties, like "pastrami-style" cured with black pepper and coriander.  It's one of those foods I never tire of and always get excited when the opportunity comes around for me to make a batch.
Cured Wild Sockeye Salmon
I've been making gravlax (salmon cured with salt, sugar and fresh dill) at home for a few years now and I've really tried to get better at it each time.  my main issue is that when the thick center is perfectly cured, the thinner end and edges are over-cured, hard, and rubbery.  For this attempt, I thought about curing the salmon as you would cure a ham.  The ham is brined for days, and then the surface is over saturated with salt by the time the brine penetrates to the cure.  The ham is immersed in water for a day or so to draw out the excess salt in the meat's surface.  So shouldn't I be able to do the same thing with a side of sockeye?
Gravlax with Capers and Pickled Red Onion
Taking my fully-cured side of salmon, rubbery end pieces and all, I put it into a large tray of water.  After about an hour, the ends seemed to be softening up.  I flipped the salmon over and changed out the water with a fresh tray.  After the second hour was up, I found the salmon ends were perfect.  Honestly, I felt lucky I checked right after two hours, as the ends had drastically soften up and felt perfect.  Another hour and it might have gone too far and been under-cured.  I didn't think the osmotic flushing would take too long, especially since salmon isn't as dense as a leg of pork, but this was still fast.  

I laid the salmon out on a baking sheet and let it dry out overnight in the fridge and firm up a bit.  Slicing into the supple salmon, I was delighted to see the ends were perfectly cured, while the middle hadn't lost its cure and become soft and squishy.  I'm excited to try this again, but I'll probably check every 30 minutes or so, rather than every hour, knowing how fast the soaking alters the fish.

Beef spleen is just like a pig's spleen, but about four times as big.  When it came time to cook this spleen, I chose what's probably the most well-known (but still pretty obscure) recipe in the U.S.: vastedda.  Vastedda is a Sicilian recipe of humble ingredients: bread, organ, and cheese.  Thanks to a number of food shows, news articles, and blog posts, vastedda has risen out of total obscurity into mid-obscurity, a region that can get some people to say, "Isn't that the spleen sandwich Italian places in Brooklyn sell?  I think I saw that on TV."
Fresh Beef Spleen
This spleen came from a Scottish Highland cow raised by North Woods Ranch.  A big strap of an organ, it has a ruddy color and meaty, minerally aroma.  Making the sandwich is quite simple - poach the spleen to cook it through, allow it to cool, then slice thinly and reheat by frying in lard.  Pack the fried spleen into a bun, then cover it with cheese. 

Although the recipe is pretty straightforward, the type of cheese recommended seems to change from recipe to recipe.  I've read of a few different types of cheese, from Caciocavallo (the Sicilian cousin to Naple's Provolone) to Pecorino Romano, to the odd suggestion to use fresh ricotta. I think this might be something that was lost in translation, as I found other recipes that suggested the dried, pressed form of ricotta, ricotta salata.  A crumbly, slightly acidic sheep's milk cheese, this seemed like it would be a better partner for the spleen than fresh ricotta.

When assembled, the sandwich was simple, filling, and tasty.  The spleen cooked in lard gave it substance, while the slightly crumbly texture of the cooked spleen's interior matched the crumbly ricotta salata.  Plus, the bright acidity of the cheese helped to cut the richness of the organ meat.

My one complaint would be that the membrane of the spleen was a bit tough and chewy.  In previous recipes for spleen, I've scraped out the spleen's interior to remove the membrane, but that leaves you with a pulpy spread, not something easily sliced, fried, and layered on bread.

In looking at some photos of the original vastedda being served in Palermo, Sicily, it's always kept warm in a bit pot of lard.  Prior to serving, the spleen slices are removed, and then squeezed to remove the excess lard.  So up until you receive the sandwich from the vendor, it's just stewing away in lard.  Perhaps that helps to soften and break down the outer membrane, like a mini-confit session.  I'd be curious to try this again, and give it a few hours stewing time prior to eating.

Although July is the time for fresh corn, I couldn't help but share these interesting, delicious grits from Anson Mills. South Carolina's  Anson Mills is getting a lot of press for their heirloom grains, from Carolina Gold rice, Benne seed, Red Flint Polenta, to their famous Antebellum Coarse Grits.  Along with actively sourcing these rare cultivars (even to the point of tracking them down from seed saver or in the wild and then searching for a farmer to grow them), Anson Mills is also notoriously scrupulous about handling the resulting crops in a traditional method.  This might involve letting the corn ears dry out on the stalk a bit before harvesting, or letting them overwinter on the cob, loosely packed in wooden crates to further dry and cure.
Pencil Cob Grits are one of these rare, nearly extinct cultivars that Anson Mills is bring back to the dinner table.  They get their "pencil cob" name from the fact that the cob is very skinny and narrow.  Today, when contemplating corn, we just think of the jumbo cobs thick as a soda can, but in colonial times corn came in all types and shapes.  There was even especially tiny "milk corn," that was harvested early and eaten raw off the cob.  William Woys Weaver (of Scrapple fame) wrote about a fascinating milk corn, Sand Hill Gray Flint, in Heirloom Gardener's Fall'13 issue that's had me on the look out for it ever since.
Although the cooking of Pencil Cob Grits isn't too different from other grits (about 40 minutes, and soaking the night before really helps avoid lumps), the flavor is quite different.  A first spoonful makes you realize that these are not the bland grits that are served up in diners as little more than a delivery system for hot sauce and butter.

Grits with a Pork Chop and Fresh Strawberry-Pepper Relish
Rather than just mushy and bland, they have a toothsome texture and a savory corn flavor.  These are the old fashioned grits that were served up in homesteads as our country was just beginning to knit together.  A bubbling pot of these grits could easily be the dish "sofky" that's bubbling away over the fire in the frontier cabin of True Grit (really, no pun intended!).

While I'm excited to enjoy the fresh corn in season, I've got a strong feeling that I'll cook up several pots of these grits over the coming fall and winter.  But for now, I'm going to enjoy the summer.

I've talked about my love for juniper in the past, and it's still in full force.  When I saw a recipe in the Marianski brothers/Gebarowski book for Kielbasa Jalocowa, I just had to try it.  Not just because it used juniper, but also because it was from Southern Poland, where the land is more hilly and mountainous going up to the Tatry Mountains.  This leads to both shrubby juniper bushes, the raising of sheep, and hunting of game.  So while the recipe was still largely pork, the authors explained it was not uncommon to find lamb, duck, or wild game in these regional kielbasa.
Pork and Lamb Kielbasa
Now, I actually made this kielbasa twice over the last two months.  The first time I made it with 20% lamb meat, with the rest being pork.  The instructions suggested a small amount of ground juniper berries being added to the meat (3g juniper for 5kg meat), plus, mixing whole juniper berries/branches in with the smoking wood chips.  This was to give the meat an enhanced juniper aroma, as well as a pronounced dark color, perhaps from the additional resins in the wood?

The resulting lamb kielbasa was great.  Just a little bit of lamb flavor peeking out.  But my issue is that it didn't really taste of juniper.  I use wild-harvested juniper and it always has a great flavor, so my doubt wasn't with the berries being old or stale.  But juniper can be a love-it/hate-it ingredient, like cilantro, hot peppers, or anchovies; perhaps the recipe was too conservative in its juniper proportions for my tastes?

So I made the kielbasa again.  This time, I wanted to try some duck in the kielbasa.  A friend had given us an old duck that was lame after being attacked by a predator.  I butchered the duck for this kielbasa. The meat was very dark and firm, but there was not much fat on the duck.  I added the skin of the duck as well, to help add extra fat.  Finally, as a internal garnish, I coarsely ground a duck breast through my 3/4" die.  This produced large chunks of duck breast and fat.  The rest of the keilbasa weight was made up of finely ground pork.  To up the juniper flavor, I jumped up to 14 grams for 2.5kg of meat.

After it came out of the smoker, I was pleased to find a pronounced juniper flavor in the Kielbasa Jalocowa.  Piney, resinous, and wonderfully intense, it was just what I wanted.  Unfortunately, the duck breast had taken on a bit of a mealy texture with the extended cooking and smoking.  I thought the duck breast would maintain its tenderness, especially in the rich and fatty mix of the kielbasa forcemeat.  But it just felt like small pieces of dry, overcooked chicken breast studding the kielbasa.

So, when I am ready for batch #3, I think I've got this recipe down: pork, lamb, plenty of juniper.  I'll leave the duck behind for now.