My first amazing meal

Going out to dinner was the last thing that crossed my mind following the sailboat ride through choppy waters which caused one member of our party to vomit and everyone to feel nauseous. But it turned out to be one of the top five meals of my life.

Tomorrow, my family and I are going back to Madeline Island for a long weekend. The center piece of the trip is returning to that restaurant where I had my first amazing restaurant meal. Like a good book, I wanted to wade deeper into the meal, to taste everything, but also didn’t want it to end.

I’ve had better meals since, at TruCharlie Trotter’sJean Luc Figueras and now-defunct Trio (when Alinea‘s Grant Achatz was there). But this meal was the first time I became truly excited about the eating experience. I wanted to talk about the food, not just eat it.

I have lost my copy of the menu, which I kept stuffed into my copy of Larousse Gastronomique, but I still remember what I ate. Duck “saltimbocca” with wild rice-stuffed crepes and seared foie gras.

It was the first time I had eaten fatten duck’s liver. I was amazed to find how it did melt deliciously in your mouth and coated your tongue in a bath of fatty goodness just like I had read about.

What will be most interesting for me to discover upon my return is whether the restaurant can live up to my expectations this time. The first time to Wild Rice I had no expectations but now what I expect from a restaurant is much more.

I love dead pigs

I love dead pigs: bacon, bratwurst, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage, even the eyes, ears and organs that make up scrapple.

So I was intrigued when one of my favorite food-writers co-wrote a book on charcuterie.

I have a bad habit of collecting cookbooks that I end up using all too infrequently (see: Larousse GastronomicThe French Laundry CookbookThe Professional Chef). After all, nothing kills the will to cook at home like doing it all day at work. But since I have retired from food service forever (knock on wood), I am making a concerted effort to return to our home’s kitchen.

So, over various holidays, the wife gave me the appropriate sausage-making accouterments. (If anyone would like to buy me a sausage stuffer for, say, Labor Day, just let me know.) And this week I began my first foray into sausage making.

I picked the easy possible recipe Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn provided: Mexican chorizo. Readily available ingredients and no need to stuff the ground meat into pig intestines.

I began by hitting up my local grocery store for a fatty 4-pound hunk of pork shoulder butt and—what could be better—an extra pound of fat.

The scents wafting off cut-up pork mixed with fresh garlic and oregano, ground chipotles and anchos, paprika, cumin and pepper nearly made me delirious. I shoved the bowl of raw pork in the wife’s face, imploring her to inhale. She was not as excited.

If nothing else, charcuterie—whether dry-curing saucisson sec, smoking bacon or salt-curing cod— is about patience. When I started grinding the next day, I made a big mistake. I got impatient. Grinding meat takes time, especially when you’re forcing five pounds of it through the one-inch opening of a home grinder. Because of a lovely-sounding condition called smear, I ended up having to clean the grinder out ever 30 seconds or so, getting raw chorizo everywhere.

But the sausage was delicious. Even without pig brains, eyes or intestines.