There I stood, almost 20 years ago, in a Pavillion’s grocery store in Southern California, with the butcher, a man with some years on me, staring at my mouth as if that might help him decipher what was coming out of it. The question, one I thought was a simple inquiry, had been, “Got any tasso?”
The look he gave in return suggested I was speaking another language, admittedly not an uncommon problem in the markets of my new home of Orange County, but we were on the same page as far as that was concerned. I guess we just spoke two different types of English. We quickly found common ground in a discussion of the fine smoked meats and extravagant cheeses of the newly renovated upscale store as the meat cutter paraded me around to the cheesemonger and deli guy searching for the elusive pork product.
No one had heard of it. I was taking them for samples of an incredible horseradish cheddar and roast beef, which they had plenty of, as they tried to extract some sort of Southern wisdom from me, which I seemed to be about a quart low. Genuinely interested in what I had to say about tasso, all they got from this transplant was “cured and smoked pork.”
My search through specialty markets yielded none as I would explain how you could practically find tasso in gas stations in Louisiana (I later did on a return trip from Mobile driving to Louis Armstrong). I’d talk about how it was used to “season” dishes rather than just be eaten as a protein. I would segue into boudin. Crawfish. They would all listen.
My quest and complaints spilled over into my work life, where I’d hold court in front of audiences more diverse than a ‘70s sitcom. The guy from Transylvania, another from India, my supervisor from Pakistan, the Vietnamese secretary, and two Pauls, one white and one Mexican. All were first or second generation Californians, except for white guy Paul. I think he was from San Clemente. Point is, they wanted to know more about Southern delicacies. All I wanted to know was where to get tasso.
You don’t know how bad you want something until you can’t get it. The internet was a fairly new commerce superhighway, and although I may have paid too much for a couple cases of Nehi during a weak and possibly drunken moment, I thought it weird to overnight smoked meats. Years later, the internet has tasso recipes as far as the eye can see.
John Folse says to add Worcestershire. Emeril doesn’t smoke his. Some use brown sugar, others stick to white. I want mine to be Yankee hot, not stinging the nose, so it can color a dish with flavor instead of heat. If you have a good setup, you can adjust your seasoning and try this anytime you have an extra piece of meat around. I may even give a tough piece of venison a whirl.
Like plenty of other Southern and Creole/Cajun dishes and ingredients, tasso is really the meat of the poor, or the un-wasteful. It’s often about making use of the parts you’d throw away. This is going to be cured and smoked to the point of being fairly dried out, a little north of jerky, so we don’t necessarily need a good marble fat for tenderness.
But today, we are simply using a Boston butt. Trim the fat layer away and debone the hunk of meat, slicing it a little more than half inch thick. Steak-sized cuts are what we are looking for.
Some season their meat and wrap it, letting it work its magic in the fridge for a week. I don’t really have the patience for that right now. Of all my research, a good quick salt cure will give us what we need and the rest of the seasonings will come right before the smoke.
Combine one cup of kosher salt with one half cup of white sugar and dredge the cuts, coating them completely. Cover them in a plastic container and refrigerate them for about 6-8 hours. You’ll see the moisture has been sucked out of the meat.
Rinse the salt off and get ready to season.
2 Tbsp cayenne
2 Tbsp paprika
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp white pepper
1 Tbsp black pepper
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Mix all ingredients. Coat each piece of meat generously. You may need to double your seasonings.
Smoke ‘um if you got ‘um
I am using an upright electric smoker with pecan chips and a dry water pan. We don’t need the moisture. With the temp around the 200° range, you’ll be good in about 2 hours.
Allow the meat to cool and vacuum seal for long term storage. In the fridge you can eke out a couple of weeks or get a couple months from the freezer.
Tasso shines when chopped up and used in gumbo, red beans or jambalaya. It’s never in lieu of meat, as it’s more of a seasoning. Add a little to hollandaise sauce on your next Eggs Benedict or asparagus. Sneak a little into a pasta dish. Rub a little on the back of your ear for good luck.
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