Posts Tagged ‘pork’

Real Bacon

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I am firmly opposed to factory farming of animals, especially in the case of pigs, and only want to eat meat from animals that were treated decently and fed well. Pork like this is hard to find, but recently I came into a large fortune: a slab of pork belly from a farmer who runs a great small pig operation. Naturally I decided to make Real Bacon.

As it turns out, making bacon is child’s play. There are a lot of ways to approach the curing step, but I chose brine because it’s so simple. Dissolve a cup of salt in each gallon of cold water, and make enough gallons to cover the pork belly completely in a vessel that will fit in your refrigerator. If you want, you can buy curing salt that contains nitrates to preserve red color in the meat, but I don’t see much point in this when you are going to fry the meat brown anyway. Put a plate on top of the meat to keep it totally submerged, cover the vessel, and refrigerate for a week.

7 days or so later, take the meat out, dry the surface, and set it on a rack in the refrigerator to dry more thoroughly overnight. Cold-smoke by your favorite method. We have a smoker, but it you don’t, there are all sorts of contraptions that let you cold-smoke on your grill or even on the stovetop if the piece of meat is small enough. Just be sure that the temp can be kept under 150 degrees at all times.  I used a combination of cherry and pecan chips. Applewood is also delicious on pork. I don’t recommend mesquite, which is just too strong. Smoke a couple of hours. Monitor the internal temp of the meat. If it reaches close to 120 at the thickest part, stop. Cool the meat, cut it into pieces of a suitable size for your household, and fry it or freeze it.

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Our lunch today was generous slabs of real bacon, eggs from my hens fried in bacon fat, green chile, and a garnish of avocado sprinkled with chipotle. After a lunch like this, we are full until 8 or 9pm. A snack in the late evening is plenty. This is real food.

There are all kinds of ways to get creative with the formula. Dry-salt with herbs, add other ingredients to the brine, whatever. There are lots of good cookbooks on charcuterie, so read one if you’re interested. But I’m glad that for my first try, I stuck to simple brine, rich smoke, and real pig .

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Independence Day


I am not a locavore. I love Italian olive oil and cheese, Belgian chocolate, South American coffee, Spanish ham, Alaskan salmon,and wine from all over the place. I am not an extremist about anything, and I think that cutting oneself off from the rest of the world makes less than no sense at all.
That said, it’s a lovely feeling to be able to produce a lot of what you need yourself, with the imports as luxury add-ons for variety. I value the concept of food independence and intelligent localism, and Independence Day weekend is a great time to take stock of how we’re doing at meeting our own needs, and celebrate with a local feast.
My current inventory looks pretty good. I’ve grown vegetables for years, but in my new location I’ve greatly expanded my vegetable garden and added laying hens and a dairy goat. I’m raising a batch of chicks for meat, and I have good local sources of grass-fed beef and humanely raised pork. So far this year, the only vegetables I’ve bought were potatoes and avocados, and not many of them. I can get flour from upstate New Mexico and southern Colorado. Not bad for a desert.
So, my 4th of July will start with a brunch of “yard salad,”homemade bread or cornbread, and eggs from our hens. Dinner is likely to include a grass-fed steak, more salad, and homemade egg pasta made from Sangre de Christo flour and backyard eggs. Midafternoon, we might snack on goat cheese from Magnolia, our “yard goat.” We’ll drink my own homebrewed mead, and drink a toast to our beautiful country and our own joy at being part of it.
This year I’ll ask my readers to consider having a local Independence Day feast, or as close to it as works for you. There are farmers’ markets this weekend, and some time to plan, so please leave a comment about how you plan to celebrate our local abundance.

Kitchen Staples: notes on staples and specialty ingredients


I’ve been in the habit of referring readers to my website for more information on the seasonings that I use and the ingredients that I don’t grow at home, but at this point it seems to make more sense to make the blog more independent. Therefore, here are some random jottings on what I keep in my kitchen and why.

Vegetables: Veggies are a primary and prime staple! During the growing season, I cook with what’s ready, but often I’m tired out by dinner and don’t want to spend more time picking, so I try to harvest and prep vegetables in the morning so that they’re ready in the refrigerator and can be prepared with little trouble. When I buy vegetables, I try to wash and trim them right away so that they’re near-instant gratification at dinnertime. Salad greens are soaked clean, rinsed twice, and stored in a large salad spinner-crisper. I try to think of vegetables first, meat or grain second, when planning meals. When I know that something is ripening, for example the first of eight broccoli heads is nearly ready to pick, I brush up on interesting recipes then, not a week later an hour before dinner when I’ve got three heads of broccoli in the refrigerator.

Meat: here in Albuquerque, I get most of my beef, fish, and lamb from the Fishhuggers, an energetic local couple who sell their family’s grassfed beef and lamb and the Alaskan salmon that Kenny catches every summer. Their meat is 100% grassfed, and unlike many grassfed operations, their meat is not overly lean and tough. Cooking grassfed meat is different, and I recommend getting some advice from them. Generally it cooks a lot faster than grain-fed meat and you have to get it off the grill promptly to keep it rare and tender. I get all my chicken from the Pollo Real people at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Their chicken is fed some grain but is raised on pasture. It’s healthier for the chickens and for you, and also it tastes like real chicken. I don’t know of a reliable local source for pasture-raised pork, so I get mine from the James Ranch people in Durango. Again, with regard to sustainability and health benefits, you can use the sources of info mentioned in “butter and Dairy” above. Most of the meat mentioned above comes frozen. If you want to buy fresh, be aware that “grass-fed” is not a legally controlled designation and there is a lot of meat in the meat cases around town labelled “grass-fed” that isn’t. One producer even told me that his meat was grass-fed “but I just finish them on grain for a month. That’s still grass-fed.” That isn’t grass-fed, and a well-designed study has indicated that the Omega3 content falls very rapidly during even a brief period of grain-finishing, eliminating the health benefits that you are paying for as well as the environmental benefits. I would only buy from a farmer that I knew personally and trusted. If in doubt, ask to visit the farm.

Butter and cheese: for the sake of the planet and the cows, I eat only pastured butter. The very best that I know of is from Pasturelands in MInnesota, and is 100% grass-fed, no grain supplementation, which makes it unique in the market. It comes frozen in styrofoam shippers, and they include a prepaid label so that you can send the empty shipping carton back and have it reused. I keep it in the freezer for up to a few months. They also offer 100% grass-fed cheeses. I especially like their mild Cheddar for snacking, and then they have complex cave-aged cheeses for special occasions. Why does 100% grass-fed matter? For quick info you can check out the Eat Wild site, or you can take more time and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, still the best book on ethical eating that I know of and far above later books on the subject (including, unfortunately, Pollan’s own later books.) I wish that there were a local producer of 100% grassfed dairy products, but until there is, I’ll buy by mail.

Parmesan: I am giving this imported cheese its own heading because there is no worthy substitute for the genuine Italian article. It’s worth buying the best that you can find. Discount stores like Trader Joe’s or Sam’s Club carry imported Italian Parmesan, but the quality is quite poor compared to really good Parmesan, and most domestic and Argentinian imitations that I’ve tasted have been appalling. Nobody will be more thrilled than me if American producers come up with a truly great Parmesan, but I would argue that it hasn’t happened yet. If you buy the good stuff, your pastas will benefit, and because the flavor is so pronounced you can use it the way the Italians do, ie sparingly. Pastas in America are too often oversauced and overcheesed. You’re supposed to be able to taste the pasta.

Capers: There is no question about salt-cured capers being the best. I’ve seldom met a caper I didn’t like, but my favorites are the “Wild Mountain Capers” that I get at The Spanish Table in Santa Fe. They are fearfully expensive but they have a wonderful herbaceous flavor and are less salty than other kinds. I buy them in 1 pound jars. When you are ready to use them, rinse off the surface salt and soak in cold water to cover for an hour, then drain and squeeze dry. In the summer I use capers so much during the summer that I often soak some when I’m working in the kitchen, squeeze dry, and pack them tightly in little plastic containers to use on the spur of the moment. They will keep 2-3 days this way, and they keep indefinitely in their salted state.

Anchovies: There is no better seasoning than anchovy for giving a meaty complexity and richness with minimal use of actual flesh. One or two fillets can give a complex undertone that can’t be identified as “fish” but which greatly improves the dish. I use tiny amounts in a wide variety of dishes. Salt-cured are the best if they are the lovely meaty specimens that you find in Italy, and in a very few specialty food stores in this country. Food “experts” frequently recommend the 1KG cans of salted anchovies that are readily available in the US, which makes me think that they themselves have never opened such a can to find the scads of teensy fish with no fillets to speak of that they contain. My experiments with those cans have been very disappointing, and I now use anchovy fillets packed in olive oil instead. Another product that I would never be without is colatura, an Italian “anchovy essence” of the highest quality. It is something like Asian fish sauce but darker, more complex, and richer in flavor. Zingerman’s has it. I don’t know of a local source.

Wine: all I will emphasize here is that if you cook with wine, it has to be good wine. If you wouldn’t drink it or serve it, don’t cook with it.

Eggs: I have my own laying flock now, but there are several people at the various local farmers’ markets who have real free-range eggs, not the ersatz kind that come from large producers. Be sure to save your egg cartons and take them back to the people who sell eggs. The growers are always glad to get them back, because they aren’t cheap, and reuse always beats recycling.

Olive oil: I’m sometimes shocked at how much of it I use in a couple of months. It loses flavor slowly but steadily in the bottle, so don’t buy more than you can use up in a few months, store it in a dark place, and buy from good sources where it isn’t displayed in a light hot place. Find a few kinds that you like. The easiest way to find out what you like is to taste a lot of them, and the most convenient way to get started is to go to The Spanish Table in Santa Fe, where knowledgable employees will offer you samples of oils that you are interested in. Or just let them surprise you. I try to keep a couple of very flavorful oils on hand for salads, and some less intense but much less costly oil for cooking.

Charcuterie: The excellent products of La Quercia last a long time when wrapped properly and refrigerated, and they are scrupulous about using humanely raised pigs. The prosciutto rosso is superb. I have not tasted any Italian prosciutto that was better, and no domestic product has been anywhere near as good. They also have a less expensive grade called Americano, and it’s very good, although it lacks the subtlety and finesse of the rosso. Their guancialle is a good staple to have around, and has been the start of about a zillion delicious pasta sauces in my home. For Spanish cooking I keep some Spanish chorizo around. This is a dry cured sausage, nothing like the fresh uncased chorizo found in Mexican groceries.

Herbs: I strongly recommend growing your own, even if you don’t grow anything else. The presence of fresh organic thyme, winter savory, sage, rosemary, basil, and parsley will inspire you to cook. They are easy to grow, and in our sun-drenched area will survive in partial shade if necessary. Having big pots of them around invites frequent use. I advise getting the culinary classic Simple French Food by Richard Olney and reading his notes on use of herbs. These are very strong flavors, and using them at random invites a muddled result. Once you have used them for a while, it’s second nature to create a balanced taste.

Grains: I like to have coarse bulgur, size 2, on hand because it cooks up with a more interesting texture than the finer grades that “gourmet” groceries tend to sell. Local readers here in Albuquerque can get it at Cafe’ Istanbul. Elsewhere, check your local Middle Eastern food source. I keep organic jasmine rice on hand at all times for Thai-influenced meals. I have never been able to take to brown rice, so I use white. I do love to use forbidden rice (black rice) on occasion. As you see above, it makes a dramatic deep-purple backdrop for bright green vegetables. I keep yellow, blue, and purple cornmeal. For baking, I always have coconut flour on hand to supplement white-flour products with a dose of fiber that doesn’t ruin the flavor. It’s tricky to work with at first, but as you learn its quirks it becomes easy to add fiber to your baked goods to improve the glycemic index. Coconut flour doesn’t ruin the color the way grain brans do.

Legumes: I cook these in my solar cooker and freeze them in containers. But if inspiration strikes shortly before dinner, a frozen block is daunting to approach, so I keep a few cans of beans and chickpeas on hand for the last-minute ideas.

Food Inc.

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       Recently a follower of my site asked me if I ever receive pay or free goods for recommendations that I make about products. The answer is no, never. I prefer to be able to say whatever I think, and am careful not to accept gifts or samples for this reason. I don’t recommend a product unless I have eaten it, know how it’s produced, and think it’s a good thing. I also don’t recommend anything that I didn’t pay for, because forking over the cash myself is a good reality check about perceived quality/cost ratio.

       In this case, though, I’m going to recommend a movie that I have not seen and haven’t (yet) paid for a ticket to. The movie is Food Inc., and it opens in Albuquerque on July 31st. The filmmakers are people with solid credentials in the area of sustainability, and I think it will be good. Also, attendence at this film will be scrutinized to see if there is  broad support for more sustainability and safety in our food supply.
          Here’s a little more about why I think this film will be important: the picture above was taken last week when I visited old friends of mine in Los Lunas who have a small pig operation. Everything about their place respects the needs of pigs: these pigs have lots of room to stretch out and to socialize with other pigs, walls are sturdy to keep them safe, both sun and shade are available, they have both indoor and outdoor space, and no inhumane practices like tail-docking or farrowing crates are used. The pigs have plenty of water to make the muddy wallows where they cool off on hot days, as you see above. You will not see any of this in a large commercial pig operation.
        Sure, it takes extra effort to seek out meat from farmers like this instead of buying it in plastic at the grocery store. You may need to buy a quarter or half animal at once, and the cost will probably be higher than the factory-farm price.  You will probably need to eat less meat. That’s a good thing.

        The movie Food Inc. is likely to get more people to think about these issues. That’s a good thing, too. www.foodincmovie.com
And no, I won’t be getting any free passes.