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Charcuterie holds cure for run-of-the-mill meals

In a world of three-step recipes and take-out mania, a book on making sausages, pates, and prosciutto at home seems an unlikely hit. But ''Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing," a detailed -- even fussy -- manual for making products that can sometimes take months to get to the table, is on best-selling cookbook lists. It's a far cry from ''Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals."

Even the author is a little surprised. ''It runs contrary to everything that seems popular today," admits Michael Ruhlman on the phone from his home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He wrote the book with master butcher and Michigan restaurateur Brian Polcyn. ''But I think people are curious about it," adds Ruhlman.

Charcuterie encompasses everything from bacon, duck confit, fennel-cured salmon, to smoked andouille. All of these are Old World methods of preserving, from the days when butchering was done in freezing weather and the meat from the family's hog or cow, or from a hunter's deer, had to last for months. But it's not only the interest in what Ruhlman calls ''hand-preserved foods" in a packaged and processed world that's surprising. It's also the new lust for ingredients that have been shunned for years. After decades of being fat-averse, Americans are embracing discussions of lard, poaching duck in fat, and cutting fat back to make salami. At Home Hill restaurant in Plainfield, N.H., diners are gobbling up charcuterie, says Victoria du Roure, executive chef and owner. Her sous chef, Guillaume Hannauer, has been making these cured meats in the style of his native French village. ''People aren't so afraid of the fat in those products anymore," says du Roure.

The success of ''Charcuterie," which is in its third printing, may have as much to do with chefs' interest as anything else. Local restaurateurs know about the book, and it seems that each young sous chef practicing skills at sausage-making and salami has received a copy from a boss or family member.

Jason Collin, a sous chef at Harvest in Harvard Square, got the book for Christmas from chef Keith Pooler. But he's been experimenting with charcuterie for years, Collin says, starting at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, from which he graduated in 1998. ''Our house-cured chorizo has so far been successful," Collin says. He uses it in a hearty Portuguese-style dish of clams, sausage, and potatoes. The chef also makes garlic sausage, which he serves with beluga lentils, and country-style pate of pork or chicken livers, both of which are well received. He tries to stretch the envelope with crepinettes (sausages wrapped in a lacy membrane of fat) and duck and venison sausages served on the bar menu. The diners are responding, he says. ''A lot more people are starting to warm up to charcuterie."

More esoteric products come naturally to Italian chefs, who might have seen bundles of salami or prosciutto in their grandparents' cellars. Italian-born Gianni Caruso, chef of Umbria in the Financial District, makes and cures prosciutto, salami, and sausages for the restaurant, and also for Bricco and Mare in the North End, all under the same ownership. ''I've been doing this since I was very young," says Caruso, whose family in the Umbria region made their own charcuterie.

Prosciutto, he explains, is a long process that involves trimming pork leg, seasoning it with rock salt and black pepper, and then storing it for 20 to 30 days. After soaking in white wine, drying for a week, and then sitting under weights to squeeze out moisture, the pork is hung for up to nine months. His customers, he says, ''can taste the difference" between his intense, and slightly saltier house-cured prosciutto and prime commercial products. ''I only use salt and pepper," Caruso says. Commercial makers now use other flavors and shorten the curing times to as little as three months. Prosciutto rinds go into pots of lentils and beans, using up every bit of the flavorful meat.

Marisa Iocco, executive chef and co-owner of the three Italian restaurants, says they like to experiment with new ideas. Recently, she says, they made wild boar prosciutto, which was a success, and now Caruso is working on mixing wild boar and Niman Ranch pork in salami.

In Daniel DeCarpis's kitchen at Eclano in the North End, rabbit is turned into sausages for an appetizer garnished with mustard and sauteed broccoli rabe. Geoffrey Gardner at Sel de la Terre offers an assortment of charcuterie as appetizers, including country-style pork pate with figs; house-smoked ham with pomegranate honey; and duck liver terrine with port aspic.

''Charcuterie" author Ruhlman insists that many of the products we might consider difficult or time-consuming are really very easy. For instance, he cures his own bacon by salting, sugaring, and seasoning pork belly and then refrigerating it for seven days. The result, he says, ''is so much better, so much more complex" than the often watery, brine-filled bacon from the grocers' case. Doing it this way gives people a glimpse into ''why bacon became part of our culinary heritage," Ruhlman says. And then the extras -- lardons from the bacon ends or the fat -- can be used to flavor salad or a vinaigrette.

The dry cured meats are the least familiar, says the author. Salami is the most well known in this category; others include air-dried ham, Spanish chorizo, and lardo (cured pork back fat). ''How we take raw pork and then serve it when it's never been brought above room temperature," he says, can seem mysterious. Those meats do take more time and require special attention, he says, but they aren't out of reach for accomplished home cooks.

Americans' growing concern about their food supply can be a motivator to curing at home, he says. Restaurateurs who buy from small farms and tell their customers about it are educating the public about naturally raised meat. Perhaps there's a chance we can recapture an art we are in danger of losing, Ruhlman says. ''Just understanding how food works can reduce your costs. You don't need to buy beef tenderloin for a party. You can make a pate or terrine" for much less, he advises, or make sausages that are cheaper than the fancy ones available -- and better, he adds.

The point of making charcuterie today isn't really a cost-cutting measure. As Caruso of Umbria says: ''It's not to fill the larder with food. It's to enjoy the flavor."

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