Top of the Coppa
Italian for “nape,” coppa is a cured piece of pork similar to prosciutto, but using the muscle at the back of a pig’s head, at the top of the shoulder, rather than the leg.
You may have heard it called “capicola” (a combination of the Italian words capo, meaning “head,” and collo, meaning “neck”), or the East Coast-Italian pronunciation, “gabagool” (as Jersey-born photographer David Reamer calls it).
But chef Adam Stevenson sticks to calling his product “coppa,” the term he learned from Seattle sausage maker Armandino Batali, who has achieved fame as much for being the Emerald City’s don of salami at his deli, Salumi, as for fathering celebrity chef Mario Batali.
“Armandino offered to teach a few people how to make prosciutto, and it kind of snowballed from there,” Stevenson says. “I basically applied that process to all the other kinds of meats I wanted to do: coppa, pork loins, pancetta… I basically tugged on his leg, asked him to help me out here, teach me there.”
Learning Batali’s techniques lead Stevenson to create the meat curing program at Earth & Ocean, and his charcuterie has become a staple of the menu ever since. His coppa, in particular, has become a signature item, thanks in large part to his win at the 2007 Salumi Salami Challenge. The annual contest, presided by head judge Armandino Batali himself, is held in late September each year to coincide with Seattle’s Festa Italia. (Stevenson didn’t enter in 2008, and he tied for second place in 2009 with his lavender
The process to make coppa is simple, Stevenson says, but it takes practice and patience. “There are plenty of people who cure at home. A lot of hunters do this,” he says, noting that amateurs as well as professionals enter the Salumi Salami Challenge.
At Earth & Ocean, Stevenson and one of his sous chefs break down a whole pig about once a month. He sources 100% pasture-raised, antibiotics-free pigs from Skagit River Ranch in Mount Vernon, Washington, about 60 miles away.
“There’s about twenty pigs on a space about as big as a football field,” he says. “We get one pig a month, but during the winter months it’s harder. The pigs don’t eat as much, so it’s more difficult to grow them. So this pig got a little bit older. He’s about nine months old, but usually we get them around seven months old. They let these guys root around a lot longer, so they’d get a little plumper. They eat grass, clover, flax, apples, nuts, and grubs out in the field.”
What’s the difference between Skagit River Ranch’s pigs and those that come from a feedlot? “Flavor,” he says simply. “These animals taste more like pork: there’s more fat-to-lean ratio, which is more healthy for the animal, and they’re loaded with Omega-3s, because they’re fed a lot of flax. … It just tastes really clean. There are no grain or corn after-tones.”
From each whole pig, Stevenson makes five or six charcuterie items: three or four types of salamis, which may include cacciatore (hunter-style) with cardamom and cinnamon, and piccolo, a small sausage with simple seasonings of pepper, salt, and wine. “We’ll also do a Spanish smoked paprika, kind of a chorizo, plus coppa, prosciutto, pork loin, and pancetta.”
Stevenson traces back his interest in cooking and charcuterie to his youth. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he lived next door to an Italian family “who basically adopted us,” he says, and that influenced his and his mother’s cooking.
“I always wanted to make sausage,” he recalls. “My mom was always making kielbasa as I grew up, and we would buy sausage from the local meat market. Sausage is a comfort food in my mind.”
During high school, he worked at local restaurants, including a stint at an Italian restaurant called Mario’s Pizzeria & Ristorante, where he cooked alongside the owner’s mother, who schooled him in “Mama Anna’s old family Sicilian recipes.”
In 1990 he moved to Portland, Oregon, to attend Western Culinary Institute. During this time he learned how to make fresh sausage the classical way, but “secretly I had the idea of, how does sausage become salami? What’s the connection? I never got that answered in culinary school.”
His next stop was Tulio Ristorante in Seattle, where he further developed his sausage-making skills and refined his knowledge of Italian cuisine, working under Chef Walter Pisano.
But it wasn’t until he moved over to Earth & Ocean in 2001 that he finally made the leap from making sausage to salami. Around the same time, Armandino Batali opened his deli, Salumi, and witnessing the operation made Stevenson realize he could cure meats in small batches, in-house.
After the pig is broken down into primal cuts—the large cuts of meat, such as the shoulder, the leg, and so on, that will be broken down into smaller individual cuts—Stevenson separates the neck muscle from the mass of shoulder meat. “We’re just looking for this, the eye here,” he says, being careful not to cut too close to the meat he’s after.
After trimming it of unnecessary fat, he slices off the ends to make a uniform-shaped “log” of meat. “I like the uniformity. When this dries, and shrinks down a little bit, it has a compact shape and is easy to work with,” he says. None of the scraps go to waste, he assures: “This could become a coppa steak,” he says, hefting one of the lopped off ends. “You can grill it, or you can make sausage out of it, because it has all that fat.”
The next step is measuring the curing mixture: precise amounts of salt, curing salt, dextrose, and spices, based on certain percentages in relation to the weight of the meat. Using a calculator and digital scale, he documents the numbers on a worksheet; he then divides the mixture by two, since it will be applied in two stages.
In a large bowl, he pours the first half of the curing mixture over the meat and massages it all over for about three or four minutes, making sure every pore is coated with salt. “See how it’s changing color,” he says. “It’s oxidizing. That’s the nitrites in the salts going after the hemoglobin in the meat. It’s going after the muscle proteins and the blood proteins, starting to break it down. In about two hours, you’ll see a little pool of water: that’s the salt drawing out the moisture.” After the curing mixture is applied, the meat rests in a shallow pan in the refrigerator.
About two weeks later, the other half of the curing mixture is rubbed into the meat and the meat cures for another 14 days, for a total of about 30 days. “The general rule is about ten days per inch,” he says. “This coppa is about three inches thick, so it’ll cure for 30 days, then it’ll be hung to dry.”
Applying the curing mixture in two phases ensures an even distribution into the meat, Stevenson explains, which is crucial to ward off any bacteria.
After 30 days, the meat is rubbed with olive oil and spices, slipped into a “bung,” or casing of beef intestine, and hung to age in a refrigerator with circulated air. The drying phase lasts
anywhere from three to four months, making the total process four to six months long, depending on the size of the coppa. “These guys are pretty big, so they’ll take a little longer,” he says.
When does he know the meat is done? Stevenson says there are indicators along the way: he squeezes the meat, feeling for dryness, and measures the penetration of the salt into the meat with a saltometer.
Even though he’s won top honors for his coppa, Stevenson is still refining the process and flavor profile. “Now I’m trying to take it away from the Italian style and create an American style—embrace other cultures, add in other influences. My influences are Italian, my grandmother is Hungarian/Yugoslavian, and then my wife is Indian, so I draw heavily from that too. It all plays a little into my charcuterie.”
The cured meats made by Executive Chef Adam Stevenson are a top draw to Earth & Ocean restaurant at Seattle’s W Hotel. He shares his recipe for Coppa-Wrapped Scallop Brochettes with Smoked Paprika Oil, Apple-Celery Root Purée, and Grapefruit-Apple Slaw .
Article by Peter Szymczak
Photos by David Lanthan Reamer
From the March/April 2010 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine