It all started several weeks ago when I found pork butts on special and bought a couple. I always buy several when I find pork butts on special because there are so many good things to do with them. I decided to make char siu, a Chinese-style barbecued pork, with one of them. That was easy. The second pork butt was to be turned into tasso. That's a different story.
Tasso is a spicy, heavily peppered and smoked pork butt that is an essential ingredient in many wonderful Cajun dishes. I have had it in jambalayas, gumbos and with greens, but I had not--until I found those pork butts on special--tried to find a recipe for making it. That's not easy.
In Louisiana's Cajun country, nearly every butcher and many cooks make their own, but not much, it seems, has ever been written about tasso. Fortunately, I know several Cajun butchers and a few good Cajun cooks.
Romeo Nadeau, Tasso Maker
Pat Baldridge, a great cook and food editor of the State Times-Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge, put me in touch with Romeo Nadeau, who, she says, "makes one of the best tassos in Louisiana." I called him:
"There are about as many recipes for tasso in this part of the country as there are Cajuns, but I'll be happy to tell you how I make mine," he said. "I use Boston butts, pork shoulder butts, cut into strips about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches thick. I put the meat down in a pickle made of 2-1/2 gallons of ice water, 2-1/2 pounds of salt, 1/2 pound of sugar and 1/2 pound of cure for every 50 pounds of meat. Let it set in that cure in the cooler for a couple of days. It won't need to cure any longer because you've cut the meat in strips and the cure penetrates pretty fast.
"When you take the meat out of the pickle, rinse it good, let it dry a bit, then sprinkle it good with granulated garlic and rub that in. Then cover that sucker with cayenne pepper till it won't take no more. Don't rub the pepper in--just pat it on real heavy. When it won't take no more, let it stand for about an hour at room temperature till it gets kind of tacky to the touch.
"Put the meat in the smokehouse and let it set for an hour at 135 degrees with the damper open. Then close the damper down to 1/4 open, kick the temperature up to 175 degrees and pour the smoke to it till the internal temperature of the meat reaches 150 degrees. That's all there is to tasso."
Thanks, Romeo. That sounds easy.
No Professional Smokehouse
I don't have a professional smokehouse like Romeo's. I've only got one of those Little Chief home smokers by Luhr-Jensen. And I only have one pork butt--about 5 pounds, not 50 pounds. But, thanks to Romeo, I had a start. I reduced his pickle recipe down to just over one quart of water (40 ounces), 5 ounces of salt, 1 ounce sugar and 1 ounce of cure (saltpeter)--you also could make a pickle using Morton's Tender Quick or Heller's Complete Cure with Sugar, following the instructions on the package.
While my pork butt was pickling, I did a little more research on tasso. You would be hard-pressed to think for long about any kind of Cajun cooking without the name of Paul Prudhomme coming to mind. Nobody has done more than he to bring good Cajun food to the fore. His new book, "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen," has five recipes that call for tasso. I called him to pick his brain.
"I've got a special seasoning mix I use," he said, "but it's for 50 pounds of meat. Give me a couple of days and I'll break it down for you."
"You'd do that?" I asked, somewhat amazed. Not all chefs are so generous.
"Hey, Merle," he said, "if we can't help each other out, what's it all about?"
Not only do I like his food, I like his philosophy.
PAUL PRUDHOMME'S TASSO SEASONING
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup black pepper
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/4 teaspoons cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon onion powder
2 tablespoons plus 1 3/4 teaspoons cumin
2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon plus 2 1/4 teaspoons gumbo file powder, optional
Combine salt, sugar, black, white and cayenne peppers, garlic and onion powders, cumin, paprika and gumbo file. To use, roll strips of pork in seasoning mix, coating meat completely and patting in well. Allow seasoned meat to stand in refrigerator three days, then smoke to internal temperature 165 degrees.
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I smoked a couple of pieces in my smoker with hickory chips for about 12 hours. Another couple of pieces I smoked in the oven of my electric range, using liquid smoke. They both came out great.
For the liquid smoke technique I set my oven on warm (about 135 degrees), as Romeo does in his smokehouse, to dry the surface. Then I increased the temperature to 175 degrees and sprayed the meat with full-strength liquid hickory smoke from a plastic atomizer bottle. I gave it a fresh shot of liquid smoke every half-hour until it was cooked to the recommended 165 degrees (about 4 hours).
Here's one way to use it: