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Making Charcuterie at City Provisions

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 31, 2011 4:00PM

If a genie was to come out of a magic lamp and grant a Chicago locavore 3 wishes, what would they ask for? "I'll take a more sustainable food network and a ban on GMO alfalfa, please. Oh, and put a place like City Provisions in my neighborhood!" City Provisions is a paradise for local eaters. Every local product you can think of (including many we've profiled on this site) is stocked, and the number grows every week. Anything they can't buy, they make in-house. The owner and founder, Cleetus Friedman, opened a retail location for his catering business in September of 2010, and he agreed to teach us a few things about making charcuterie. In fact, the headline really should read "Making Sausages, Chopped Liver and Head Cheese at City Provisions, all while having a darn good time," but the box is just too small. Fair Warning: The pictures are meaty, and involve a skull.

Just as we do, Friedman thinks of local food as a movement, not a trend. His food is "truly slow food" and he wants to make slightly "scary" items like head cheese and chopped liver approachable for the average eater. None of his products are overly processed - as he put it, "Our food is great when it gets here, before we do anything." His head butcher, Andrea Deibler, formerly of Mado, creates meaty specialties from scratch, every day, and the delicatessen sells it all. City Provisions goes through 1/2 a hog in an average week, and that amount increases during busy times.

The back kitchen at City Provisions is filled with a steady thrum of activity. Unlike a restaurant kitchen, there isn't a huge rush around lunch or dinnertime. But the tradeoff is a constant sense of movement, as produce comes in and finished products go out for the deli and catering business. Despite (or perhaps because of) the level of activity, we've rarely seen a happier kitchen. Deibler glowed with happiness when she pointed out the meat grinder that Friedman got her "as a present" and Friedman told stories about putting everything in the kitchen through his smoker when it first arrived. Even the counter staff and prep cooks joined in the banter, urging employees and customers to try new products - we've rarely encountered a retail staff with such interest and expertise in food and drink.

The chopped liver, made from Friedman's grandmother's recipe, combines beef liver (roasted in the oven with salt), grilled onions and hard boiled eggs. It's a strong flavor, but if you've been frightened of liver in the past, this product might just convert you to the cause. Deibler was stuffing sausages the day we visited, a novelty as City Provisions usually sells sausage in patties. The sausage was flavored with sage, ginger, garlic, salt and pepper, and when Deibler fried up a hunk for us to try, it was all we could do to stop ourselves from buying the entire batch on the spot. Speaking of batches, if you ever see something you like at City Provisions, buy it - everything is made in small batches, and it isn't uncommon for popular items to sell out quickly.

The head cheese was quite an experience for us. We've done some butchering before, but never had so close an encounter with a pig skull. The head had been boiling in a huge stockpot with water and herbs before we arrived. Friedman and Deibler cleared a long prep table before going at the head with tongs, trying to get it out of the pot in one piece. They were mostly successful, though the meat was so tender it fell off the bone before they could get a good grip on it. After that, it was all hand-picking - trying to get the small, tender pieces of meat off the skull while avoiding skin, gristle and fat. We joked with Friedman that he should start selling pig skulls as locavore art objects. Any takers? After about half an hour of picking, they had enough meat to fill a small terrine mold, which would be flavored with roasted parsnips and fennel seeds. After the cooking liquid had reduced, it would be poured over the meat. Once it had set, the headcheese would be ready to slice and serve.

Do you want a piece of this local meat action? While we were there, Friedman told us that they were planning on launching a meat share program. Unlike the existing meat CSA programs in Chicago, City Provisions' program will combine fresh meat from their purveyors with house-made bacon, charcuterie and smoked meats. The pickup will be weekly (since the products are fresh) and the first round will cost $1000, or $200 a week for five weeks. It launches on March 4th - for more information, contact City Provisions.

Cleetus left us with an open invitation to return for more meat-making. What products do you want to see City Provisions tackle next?

City Provisions is located at 1818 W. Wilson.