My Curated Weed Patch

Last Autumn, I moved into a new place and was responsible (for the first time since 2008) for the “yard.”

I put “yard” in quotes because the back is so shaded from the overhang of dense tree branches, it is basically a small, awkwardly-sloping dirt patch. The front is a narrow sliver of ground on one side of the walk leading to the front door and an awkwardly-sloping 8′ x 8′ area on the other.

Mercifully, the HOA takes care of the shrubberies on the other side of the sidewalk running along the front, but neighbors on either side care for their own “lawn” indifferently, so they have the weeds. These weeds sometimes like to come next door to my place to play and thus begins our tale.

Immediately before I moved in, the owner decided to take down a tree that had shaded the front for many years. It was necessary because the tree had become hazardous. So they mulched the stump and after such a long time in the dark, the ground was essentially bare except for a large “elephant ear” plant growing beneath the window.

Having been a container gardener for several years, I set out my pots and wondered whether I should invest in any lawn care equipment for such a little bit of ground. If not, what was I going to do with it?

For the time being I did nothing, however, and in the full morning sun each day, what had lain beneath began to assert itself.

First, three flowering things with tulip-like leaves sprang up. I learned in the next freeze that whatever that was didn’t tolerate frost well.

Soon after, some monkey grass started happening near the front. Toward the top of the lawn behind my large pansy pot, a very attractive ground cover started to spread. (I think it may be the Elizabeth variety of Sedum.)

Then came the weeds.

Dandelion was first. As the autumn progressed, however, so too did the number and variety of native plants.

There were these little plants with dark green, spade-shaped leaves that produce tiny purple flowers. Soon after, some fern-like vines erupted. These had paler fronds with the most beguiling curled tendrils on the end with even smaller purple flowers.

Then came the random grasses (at least two kinds), some kind of spread-y thing that seems to exist just to drape over everything else, thistle, and a bit of clover. Those were ones I kind of recognized anyway.

Because the nights grew colder, the weeds mostly stayed in check with a little hand removal and the ever-so slight application of Round-up. (*Don’t throw things at me YET, bee-lovers. For, this is a story of redemption.)

Then as they tend to do, the days once again grew longer. The frosts ended, but I still had a problem: responsibility for this bit of ground and no equipment. <sigh>

Fortunately, my powers of observation, keen sense of the aesthetic, and total cheapness were all working for me when I decided, I like my weeds. There. I said it. I. Like. Weeds.

They really are quite lovely and mine are mostly fairly short. They grow without any effort from me, survive without me watering them, and the bees* (eh? eh?) seem to like them.

Now my life is different after committing the highest form of suburban heresy. But my plan is a bold one.

I enter a gladiator in the Darwinian competitive fray between the pretty and small and the tall and unattractive. I will weigh in on the side of the weeds I like by hand-removing the weeds I don’t.

My hypothesis is the small and pretty will eventually occupy the entire space and crowd out the others. It may take the entire season before I have enough evidence to be proved correct (or otherwise), but in the interim, I am getting a little exercise, I am saving a ton of money on fertilizers, herbicides (bad! very bad!), seed, and water.

Here is where we are today.

     

Hopefully, I remember to circle back in late summer to update you on my progress. 

Rawr!

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Doggies (or Kitties) Grow Up on Commercial Pet Food….

About two years before I met my beloved little poodle, Butch, my cat passed away at the age of seventeen. A ripe old age many may say, but after he died of kidney failure, I had a few years to reflect on why there was no reason he might not have lived many more healthy years had I only known then what I know now about diet and nutrition.

I have since concluded that I was a colossal idiot about how and what I fed my dear Mr. Cat, unwittingly trusting the veterinary establishment to his detriment and slowly killing him with chronic dehydration. You see? I bought the bag.

My vet convinced me it was the good stuff. Healthier for him than the raw eggs, cheese, and occasional gecko he had been living on while he was a stray. In retrospect, however, I now believe he’d have been better off hunting his own. The scientifically-formulated bags of grain and crap we buy aren’t right for any cat or dog however much they may seem to crave it and however much you may pay for it.

Our pet animals simply cannot take in enough water by drinking straight water to compensate for what they need to take in as water content of their food. The grains and other fillers used are indigestible by carnivores and are the source of allergies and auto-immune dysfunction in pets aplenty.

Cats, especially, can only gain access to dietary carbohydrates by consuming them in the gut of prey which actually produce enzymes needed to break these macronutrients down into their various chemical components. Cats’ guts cannot break down carbs at all. Dogs only have limited access to those enzymes.

So why are grains in there? Because the government subsidizes their production, meaning grain is way cheaper than meat, and those fillers make it seem like our animals are eating enough though it’s really stuff their bodies can’t even use. I also suspect, as with people, they also make crap food more palatable—like kitty candy.

And Mr. Cat? Year after year of UTIs? “He’s a neutered male and they’re prone to those.” “Crystals” in his urine? “Let’s switch him to a special, low mineral ‘therapeutic’ diet.” Two years of subcutaneous saline injections? “He’s getting older. It happens. We don’t know why.”

And they don’t know why. Nutrition is about as well-understood by vets as by human doctors. (Read: not at all.)

So when I got my Butch and later fostered a kitten, Gary, I learned about feeding raw. It’s a huge pain, I will grant you, so when I don’t have the time to manage it, I at least feed organic, grain-free canned or organic frozen raw medallions from a reputable source and then supplement with raw meat, skin, bones, fat, and organs as often as I can.

If not raw feeding, just be sure the first two to five ingredients on the canned food or frozen medallions for both cats and dogs are non-pork meat. Not “by-products.” Meat. There also ideally should be a good balance between muscle, skin, bones, and organs.

Should you decide to “go raw,” do your research to learn how and then know this: vets freak out at the idea of feeding bones, even to carnivores, because they see so many critters needing surgery to remove them. Most surgical cases involve COOKED bones, however, not raw.

And pets need to chew raw, flexible poultry bones and connective tissue to keep their jaws and teeth strong. Additionally, bones supply much needed collagen, calcium, magnesium, and other vital minerals to your pets’ diet the way nature normally does—not as an additive. To be sure, your pets’ stomach acid is plenty strong enough to digest soft raw bones long before those bones enter the intestine.

Please note: I do specifically recommend raw poultry bones over raw bones of beef and other large animal. I personally fear that raw bones of larger animals may be more problematic than bones of fowl especially for small dogs, like mine, and domestic cats. I also avoid small, long bones, like poultry ribs, as discussed below.

Cooked bones of all kinds, unlike raw bones, splinter and are easily capable of puncturing esophagi, stomachs and, surviving the stomach, your pets’ delicate intestines. Those bones also lose vital collagen as they are heated. In short, do NOT cook any bones you feed your carnivore!

Also, know your pet. If he’s a gobbler, you may want to grind the bones and meat to a very fine, even consistency before feeding or skip the bones altogether. My dog is a chewer so I feel better about his eating raw bones as he carefully breaks them up with his teeth before swallowing. And, knowing my dog could just as soon choke on dry food, I’ve chosen to feed him the raw and NOT the definitely unhealthful dry.

(The bottom line is you are just going to have to make your own call on the risk-benefit of feeding bones, Cupcake.)

Organ meat is another essential part of a healthful diet for your carnivore as it is rich in needed vitamins and enzymes as well. For goodness’ sake, don’t toss that bag of giblets even if you aren’t into the delights of chicken liver and gizzards. Feed them to your cats and dogs. They will think you are the best!

I even snip chicken, duck, and turkey necks into bite-sized, single vertebrae disks with kitchen shears and disjoint wings for my nine-pound doggie. (I used to give him the whole thing, but then he started “saving” his raw chicken parts between the sofa cushions for later snacking. Mom was not happy. Smaller bits can be doled out to him until he finishes and the rest kept for later.)

The next objection typically raised is about salmonella, e coli, and other crap the establishment wants us to believe is lurking on every bit of raw food ever purchased. My responses are the following:

First, your sweet little doggies and kitties have evolved over eons with gastrointestinal biochemistry specifically designed to kill such critters on contact. If you animal is reasonably healthy, he can handle it! (Read stories of stray pups who make their living on road kill and live to tell, if you don’t believe me….)

Second, feed good quality, organic, pastured meat, if you can. The scariest germs seem to be found on sickly, feedlot, antibiotic-enhanced, Franken-livestock meats. Avoid them. Always. For you too.

Third, cost. Yup. Feeding your animal well and raw may cost you a bit of time or money. That being said, backs and organ meat come free with every whole chicken you plan to cut up anyway. I don’t feed rib bones to my pup because I feel that would just be asking for a medical emergency, but I do skin and trim the back and, between that and the giblet packet, feed him rather well for a two to three days.

My butcher even has been known to give me huge quantities of scrap turkey meat and bones around the holidays—free for the asking. Frankly, it took a little while to trim and pack those “free” scraps, but after re-freezing the gallon bags of meat, my babies ate raw for weeks. You will also find that real meat and fat fills your pet up sooner, and he will eat less in turn. See? Cost-effective.

Finally, practice good sanitation when raw feeding. This includes keeping your pet’s raw feed bowl super clean and certainly washing it following contact with raw meat. Also, be sure to disinfect the areas of the floor and/or kennel where your pet will undoubtedly drag his raw meat “prey” before eating it.

I also cover or bag and refrigerate or freeze meat I don’t plan on feeding within a few hours. Then I take the meat out and allow to warm to room temperature before presenting it to my critter. Chilled food just doesn’t have as much flavor.

As much as I believe in the safety of raw feeding, I do make it a practice to supervise my animal when he eats raw just in case he runs into trouble or decides to wander off with a bit of raw “treasure.” It’s also rather entertaining to see the primal behavior which sometimes surfaces in my sweet, innocent, tame little friend in the presence of raw food. He may shake it, throw it in the air, or pounce on it (as my foster cat, Gary, does). They know it’s prey, people.

Raw food is not just nutritionally necessary from time-to-time, but our animals know the difference between real food and the normal nonsense we feed them in lieu of what they really want to eat. Help them and their health by feeding them they way they need and not the way the industrial food complex would have us believe we should!

Rawr!

Just received this lovely press release: CONGRATULATIONS TO FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA

FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA, WINNER OF GLYNWOOD’S 2011 GOOD FOOD ENTREPRENEUR HARVEST AWARD

Co-owner Olivia Sargeant to Receive their Award at a Ceremony in the Hudson Valley and Speak at a Public Forum on October 24 in Manhattan

Cold Spring, NY, October 11, 2011 — Glynwood, the agricultural non-profit whose mission is to save farming, has announced that Farm255 in Athens, GA is the winner of the 2011 Good Food Entrepreneur Award. The Harvest Awards were created by Glynwood in order to highlight innovative work being done on a community level to increase access to fresh, locally-produced food and to recognize leaders across the country whose exemplary work support their regional food systems.

This year all of four of the Harvest Award winners will participate in a panel discussion open to the public to take place on Monday, October 24 at the 92YTRIBECA in downtown Manhattan. Moderated by Glynwood President Judith LaBelle, the winners will discuss their work, their challenges and the models they’ve created to increase their community’s access to locally produced foods. Guests will have the opportunity to speak with the winners at a reception immediately following the event, where they will enjoy small plates prepared with regionally-produced food by top New York City chefs.

About Farm 255–
Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann have created an ingenious model of vertical integration in the sustainable agriculture sector by developing a cluster of businesses that support each other: Full Moon Farms, their own farm operation which supplies up to 50% of the produce served at Farm 255 and also supplies food to 45 families via its CSA; Farm Cart, a food cart that serves “street food” at the farmers market; Farm Burger, two neighborhood burger joints using 100% local, grass-fed beef; and Moonshine Meats, a collective of pasture-based-producers that raise all the meat for Farm 255 and Farm Burger, in addition to operating a CSA for families in Athens and Atlanta, GA. Everything is raised using sustainable and organic agricultural methods. This creative business model has proven to be successful: it supports the owner-farmers of Farm 255, the member-farmers of the cooperative, and the health and wellness of the patrons of their businesses.

Farm 255 also acts as a community hub, serving as a meeting place for those who appreciate locally grown fare and for those who want to learn more about it. Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann consider themselves agricultural entrepreneurs who wear many hats – as mentors for beginning farmer interns, young cooks and service industry professionals; as educators, teaching classes to local Future Farmers of America high schoolers, as well as lecturing at the University of Georgia; and as food activists, providing ongoing awareness about the importance of supporting local food systems to their community.

“We believe,” says co-owner Olivia Sargeant, “that our tireless work within our extended community has been a key piece to introducing the South to a new perspective on farming and food that positively contributes to all points on the food supply chain.”

The complete list of 2011 Harvest Award Winners–
The Glynwood Farmer Award: Sean Stanton, Blue Hill Farm, Great Barrington MA
The Good Food Entrepreneur Award: Farm 255, Athens GA
The Award for Connecting Communities, Farmers and Food: Buffalo Hump Sanctuary, Pine Ridge SD
The Wave of the Future Award: AmpleHarvest.org, Newfoundland NJ

About Glynwood–
Glynwood’s mission is to save farming by strengthening farm communities and regional food systems. The goal is for small- and mid-sized farmers to thrive, on the land and in the marketplace. Located in the Hudson Valley and operating its own sustainably managed farm, Glynwood’s unique niche is to empower communities to support farming and conserve farmland through its community programs, public education and leadership in environmentally sustainable agriculture. Major Glynwood programs include Keep Farming™, the Modular Slaughterhouse Initiative, the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, and the Apple Project: Saving Orchards with Cider, [and this year’s organizer of Cider Week in NYC, Oct 16 – 23]. To learn more about Glynwood and its initiatives, visit www.glynwood.org.

For additional information please contact Geralyn Delaney Graham, geralyn@resourcescommunications.com or telephone 281. 980. 6643.
Learn more about Glynwood’s work to save farming www.glynwood.org

Geralyn Delaney Graham
Principal | Resources Communications
5230 West 43rd Street I Houston TX 77092
o/ 281.980.6643 | cell/ 917. 826.5094

The Waterford Harvest Festival: I bet you’re sorry you missed it NOW!

The Waterford Harvest Festival goes on for nine days at the beginning of each September and features many instructional sessions on subjects ranging from butter making and beekeeping to square-foot gardening and cooking demonstrations.

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I went for the last three days just to eat and learn more about the Grow It Yourself movement on Ireland. During the time, I attended an Irish beer and cheese tasting, a ten-course feast, and a day-long street market.

While in Waterford, I did eat very well indeed. The main thing I learned, however, is that the Irish seem to underestimate how good their food really is.

I believe that the real secret to Irish food lies mainly in the exceptional quality of available ingredients. That, and the ever-growing skill of local food artisans in showcasing that bounty. Nonetheless, there seems to be a sort of national low food-esteem that events like these have been organized to combat.

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At the beer tasting, for example, the presenters, Kevin Sheridan (right), a local cheesemonger, and Cormac O’Dwyer (left), founder of Dungarvan, a local brewery, were cast in the role of apparent revolutionaries addressing a surprisingly skeptical crowd.

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The basic mindset they seemed to be working to change was that foreign food and foreign ways were by definition “more proper.” They suggested this radical notion against a backdrop of some of the best cheeses, locally-made whole grain crackers, and beer I have ever encountered.

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My special favorites were the starter cheese–a delicate, almost fluffy-textured Triskell goat cheese–and the last beer we sampled–a very unusual and interesting new stout called, “Black Rock,” with far less chocolate and a bit more tobacco than most others I’ve tried. There was also a very versatile and pleasant, if somewhat typical, blond ale.

An audible grumble later echoed through the room, however, when brewer and cheese-guy suggested such fabulous beer could be paired with many foods even better than wine. Further, the presenters felt compelled to argue a person seen drinking beer with food should not be deemed lacking in refinement. From the reaction of the group, it appeared this was a radical proposition.

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The next day, at the feast, I asked my compatriots what they thought of paring beer with food. (We were all drinking it; in my case a different blonde ale from a brewer called “Metal Man.”) Almost to a man, they would favor wine for the sake appearances and even seemed a bit uncomfortable eating the cheese course while drinking beer in such a group setting.

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The feast was magnificent, though laced with foreign influence–particularly, that of the French. The starter, for example, was charcuterie. And it was fabulous with Irish pork chorizo, prosciutto, and other sausages along with a pate that reminded me of south Louisiana hog head cheese. And to finish was the aforementioned cheese course.

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But by then, I was too full to continue as in between, there had been a mixed grill featuring trout, lamb, beef burgers, bacon pork chops, and sausage. Mmmmmm. And after that, fresh berries with lovely cream. I also vaguely recall gorgeous vegetables, but as I mentioned earlier, there was this ale….

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After such a display of quality and abundance, I am firmly convinced the Irish can and will take their proper place among the great cuisines and food exporters of Europe–especially with events like as this. Rather like Louisiana’s efforts to market their food in the 1980s, first, you must convince the locals. Once that is accomplished, and the producers are ready, the right marketing will easily demonstrate to the world what I discovered last weekend–that Ireland is a great food destination!

(Oh, and a special shout-out to Boho Kitchens, which is a couple of young Floridians transplanted to Waterford who make the best chocolate cupcakes I’ve ever eaten! Much love.)

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Rawr!

The Sunday Market along the South Quay:

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Farm Burger Supper Series–I’ll be back (if I can get to the phone fast enough)!

Hungry diners await the chefs' offerings at Farm Burger's Summer Farm Supper No. 4.

Let me just tell you upfront: the life of a food blogger does not suck. Which is a good thing because the pay really does. But every once in a while, gustatory curiosity (and my continuing need for high-quality content) leads me to an event I might otherwise never have noticed. And every once in a while, I have an experience that ends up being pay enough. (Well, almost.)

The Summer Farm Supper No. 4 on Thursday, August 11, 2011, at Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, was such an event. And luckily for all involved, it is part of an ongoing a series!

At the helm this evening were two chefs, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, ready to show what they could do with ingredients provided by Farm Burger affiliates Moonshine Meats and Full Moon Farms in Athens, Georgia.

Chefs Zeb and Ryan take a well-deserved bow.

The rest of us were just along for the exquisite ride knowing only that for about $36 we would get something like four courses. Nonetheless, the event sold out completely leaving a decent-sized waiting list of the tardy but hungry.

The menu was posted on the Farm Burger blog two days ahead of time, and I was intrigued. The line-up included parts of the cow and pig I’d never experienced before along with some unusual parts of other animals, too.

Dinner was served at several communal tables set throughout the restaurant and at the bar. I was seated with a group of three and another pair to round out our table of six with a great view of the kitchen.

Patient patrons at the bar.

As my fellow diners arrived, we were provisioned with a pre-appetizer snack of puffed beef tendon dusted with a finely grated, hard, white mystery cheese.

Puffed beef tendon by candlelight.
 

It was paired with a refreshing and delicately sweet fig-rosé spritzer concoction.

Summertime Sipper--a kind of fig-rosé spritzer

 

 

 

 

Now just where on the animal this tendon was originally located was never revealed but the secret in no way diminished my enjoyment of this oddly alluring treat. (You will note I followed a strict “don’t ask; don’t tell ” policy through most of this meal. It was probably for the best.)

Check out the size of that beef tendon.

My closest analog with the texture was pork rinds but with a slightly sticky finish you would expect from an ingredient containing so much collagen. There was obviously some delicious fat involved, perhaps tallow, the buttery flavor of which only intensified its beefy goodness. And even though each tendon was about the size of a dinner plate and I was putting them away like I had just returned from a two week stroll across the Gobe desert, I still had plenty of room for the remaining courses—six remaining courses to be exact.

Next on deck was a sampler basket featuring three items, potted chicken liver with a rhubarb mustard, something called “scrapple,” which appeared to be something formed into a cube, enrobed in an herbed crust, and fried then topped with cured egg yolk, and something else called a beef heart “kifto” topped with a bit of crispy beef belly. (You will note, the chefs served not only inspiring food but also gave me an edumacation.)

Red basket sampler. (Potted chicken liver on the right; Scrapple topped with cured egg yolk in the center; Beef heart kifto on the left.)

The potted chicken liver was as you would expect—smoothly pate-like—and the rhubarb mustard was a served atop a subtly-sweet jelly (or maybe it was the jelly. No one at my table seemed able to tell). The scrapple simply reminded me of a really moist baked kibbe—only fried. And the shredded beef heart was an interesting deep red color and velvety texture with an unexpectedly delicate flavor. So far, so good.

Course One.

But the meal was only just beginning as course one was finally served. This course was to be a cold melon soup redolent of watermelon juice and containing a large, succulent shrimp, a sliver of “lardo,” and sweet, raw onion slivers, served as a “shooter.” (I refused to shoot, preferring a more lady-like sip that allowed me to actually taste this excellent dish.)

Those who did try to shoot it failed miserably, however, as it was a bit too much volume and the shrimp was really too large to allow much success. So, effectively, this was soup was served sans spoon. Alright then.

Along with the soup was a trout “rillette” spread upon on a whole wheat crostini. The rillette reminded me of a really awesome fish mousse—and that is good—because apparently it is prepared something like a pate. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 3 for the chefs to 1 for the foodie. But, hey, I’m on the board.

What remained of Course Two by the time I took the snap. Yu-um. (BTW, the long brown things are fried pigs ears. I know, right?!)

Next up was a quartered and cherry heirloom tomato salad with slivered and fried pigs ears, basil, and goat cheese in a lovely vinaigrette. Yum. As in each course so far, there was a hint of sweetness about this dish, but as in each prior course, only as a delicate note far in the background. In this case, that note was provided by the perfectly garden-ripe tomatoes and the vinegar.

Course Three.

Course three was thinly-sliced pickled beef tongue, shaved fennel, summer veggies (in this case diced tomatoes, thin slices of raw okra cut on the diagonal, red and yellow bell peppers, and slivered sweet onions), and chili vinegar served family-style on a wooden plank. Once again, the chefs transmuted random organ meat into an unexpected delight.

Only a few of my fellow diners had ever eaten tongue, but we all agreed this must be a great example of it. The tongue had been sliced across the grain and was so thin as to eradicate any hint of toughness and leave only clean meat with a texture that nearly melted in your mouth.

Course Three upclose.

Even more surprising to everyone than how much we all enjoyed tongue, however, was how much we enjoyed raw okra. The diagonal slicing and other mystery preparation resulted in a crispy and totally un-gooey freshness none of us okra-eaters expected.

And then suddenly, it was time for course four. The craziest part of this, the final savory course, was its incredibly underwhelming description and family-style iron skillet presentation. I mean what was so hot about sausage, ribs, and warm barley salad? Well, as it turns out: a lot.

The magical Course Four. (Warning: Objects appear less impressive than they actually taste.)

Like the huge burst of incredible fireworks that immediately precede the end of a Fourth of July display, course number four simply blew me away. Without hesitation and unblushingly, notwithstanding all prior praise for pork and pork products previously reviewed in this blog, I can truly say these were the best, ever, to-end-all, to-die-for ribs and kielbasa that shall forever haunt my dreams.

The only consolation is that these unassumingly titled components were so far in a class by themselves that they almost defied the categories from which they sprang, and so, in my mind are set aside—incomparable with any other food sharing those respective names. Hey, if they weren’t, I could never eat pork again. (Yes. They were that good.)

Course Four.

And the barley salad was pretty good too. In fact, in the presence of any other meat, the salad likely would have been star of this particular show. Here, however, it was merely something to pass the time between brief sojourns through the outskirts of pork heaven.

“What was so awesome, then?” you may ask. Well, for starters, the fat of the sausage was practically drinkable. And the meat was sensuously textured, amazingly well-seasoned, and absolutely perfectly prepared. So perfectly, I wondered whether one nanosecond of cooking time in either direction would have ruined its delicately balanced flawlessness. My God! I can hardly believe I’m talking about sausage here.

Strangely, the rib came in second to the sausage in a photo finish. That’s weird to me because I have never before in my life preferred anything to a spare rib. Not that there was anything wrong with this one.

The Chefs bask in the afterglow of their triumph in Decatur.

In fact, there was everything right about it. The exterior was almost imperceptibly crispy with a delicate crust of lightly distributed and (once again) subtly sweet sauce. Until now, it had been my experience that most ribs are defined by the sauce and the meat is either good or not good.

In this instance, however, Chef Terry’s restraint allowed the magnificence of the pork to shine through. His delicate application of the condiment enabled this rib to achieve a perfect balance of flavors that elevated both the sauce and the meat to a level I have never known. Truly divine!

The "Goodbye" Course

After this incredible burst of light and sound, we metaphorically sat around playing with sparklers in the form of the “Goodbye Course” of fried blueberry pies dusted with lime sugar and served with a side of savory whipped yogurt. Again, it was a triumph in any other context.

How HUGE are those blueberries?

 

 

 

Following as it did the almost religious experience of course four, however, I couldn’t help thinking of it more as a palate cleanser. Something akin to a nightcap before I hit the road home to mull over all that I had learned at this meal and to swear silently that I will never miss attending another Farm Burger Supper ever again.

Rawr!

For the Love of Pork Fat (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Render My Own Lard)

As previously announced on Facebook and Twitter, I recently rendered lard for the first time. Here’s an inside look at how that whole thing went down.

It all started on recent a Wednesday afternoon when I visited the Decatur Farmers’ Market in Decatur, Georgia. Among other things, I was looking for a replacement for the lard supplier I had found in Birmingham but lost when I moved away. I had been told Tink’s Grass Fed Beef would be there, but as it turns out, Tink raises pastured pork as well. So naturally, I asked about lard.

“No, Tink’s doesn’t render lard,” I was told, but for $5 they could provide me the fat needed to do it myself if I would come to the Saturday market. I readily agreed and showed up on Saturday hoping to score the goods.

Sure enough, the fat had been put on the truck and off my contact went to retrieve it for me. When she returned, I was presented with a large plastic bag of frozen fat weighing at least 10 pounds. I was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated. But for $5, I could afford to screw this up so I soldiered on—with a 10-pound lump of frozen pork fat in my trunk.

When I got home, I placed the lump in my refrigerator and set to work trying to figure out how this mass was to be turned into the white, soft, odorless fabulousness so often imitated by vegetable shortenings but never quite matched and certainly not replaced.

In my search, I found this link to a site called, “A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa,” which provided tantalizingly simple instructions for lard-making using a Crockpot, of all things.  Included were beautiful pictures showing exactly what I was to do. The lard pictured looked like what I wanted in an end result, so I figured I’d try it for myself, after buying just a few supplies.

The goal: finished lard in a lovely glass jar.

Newly purchased cheesecloth and ladle in hand, I followed the author’s instructions as closely as possible with the following results. (N.B. Our gentle reader should now take a moment to familiarize him- or herself with the instructions at the link above. That is so I don’t have to type as much and yet can refer to the article freely whilst pointing out where those self-same instructions may have gone off the rails ever so slightly.)

First, as to the choice of equipment, I was working with a regular, old, Rival Crockpot that was one of the first models to feature a removable crock (circa 1999). Nothing fancy; just low and high.

Exhibit "A": The Crockpot

So I didn’t really get where the “Valerie,” referred to in the first paragraph of the instructions, was coming from advising that unless the Crockpot was “high-end,” low wasn’t low enough and just to “use a stockpot on the stove’s lowest setting.”

In fact, I used both the low setting on the Crockpot and the lowest burner on my late ’80s gas stove, and the gas stove was definitely hotter and harder to control.

This was the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. Still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot.

Pictured here, is the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. It was still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot. The fat in the Crockpot was on for 16-hours, by contrast, and still wouldn’t burn—no matter how hard I tried—which brings me to my next few points.

Nowhere in the instructions does the author address how much fat she is rendering, but still confidently assures us of process completion in (it appears) just a few hours. This is totally misleading!

Time to completion is (I hypothecate) likely dependent on the quantity of fat to be rendered.  In my case, I rendered for 8 hours on Day One; got tired and put the lid on the removable crock, placed it in the refrigerator, took it out the following day, and rendered for another 8 hours before “finishing.”

It seemed to go faster once the volume was reduced (but that is by no means a scientific observation).  At no point did the “cracklings” get crispy as described, however, which brings me to my next observation.

The closest to crispy (not very) I was able to attain in 16 hours.

The author discusses the possibility of a “piggie” odor in the finished lard but attributes the off-flavor to “burning” the cracklings. I believe that attribution is only partly true. In other words, the reason I believe my fat never crisped into cracklings (and therefore did not burn) and the reason I didn’t have any piggie odor to my lard is the same—Tink’s did a great job in giving me very little meat and skin with the fat.

What little protein there was, I trimmed away and rendered separately as an experiment.

All that remained after removing the pure fat.

Sure enough, the lard separately rendered from fat and protein did have a strong piggie scent.

Browned protein and fat cracklings.

The purer fat did not.

The purer fat also did not produce cracklings, which I now believe must contain a good percentage of protein to crisp and brown or to “burn” if allowed to cook further.  Or maybe my cracklings sans protein did not burn because of my next observation.

At no point are we instructed to stir, fold, or otherwise turn the contents of the crock. I did it anyway, for better or worse, because it seemed the fat along edges and bottom was definitely turning brown while the fat in the center remained raw and unchanged. Maybe this is why I didn’t get the “separation” of fat from cracklings or the crisping she described, but after a few hours, I wasn’t seeing that happen anyway so I erred on the side of not causing a fire (I guess).

Lard oil beginning to render from fat. (NOTE: The edges browning while the fat at the center looks uncooked.)

Now, for what went right. As an initial matter, using the Crockpot is a stroke of genius. A virtually odorless process that was totally controllable, the end result of rendering in the Crockpot was just was as article described.

The crock also seemed to make it easier to manipulate the fat than any oven-based method I’d read about, as it sat open and reachable right on the countertop, and yet was still gentler-heating than my stove-top experiment. In fact, it was a happy compromise of the benefits of both traditional methods. And when I got tired of rendering, I put on the glass lid and stuck the crock in the refrigerator so I could restart it the next day.

Also, grinding the fat as the author suggests seems to have facilitated a more even release of oil. Because I found the instructions online (including the suggestion to ask the farmer to grind the fat for better results) only after I’d already received the fat, I hadn’t asked Tink’s for pre-ground fatback. But perhaps that was better anyway. Grinding it myself gave me a chance to trim off the protein beforehand, and grinding wasn’t such a big deal using the little chopping attachment to my Cuisinart stick blender and would have been even less of a big deal in a real food processor.

Step 1: Fat strips ready to be diced.
Step 2: Diced fat ready to be ground.

 

 

 

Step 3: Ground fat. NOTE: I only filled the bowl about half full. Any more prevented an even grind and actually took longer.

After reading the instructions, I naively assumed lard making was simply a matter of heat-for-a-few-hours-strain-pour-chill. Not so!  I was totally unprepared for the huge chunk of time rendering this amount was going to take out of two days.  

Oil being strained through double layered cheese cloth over the colander.

But, at the end of the (second) day, I got a gallon of really high quality lard for my $5 and am happy to have one half gallon of lard in the fridge and another in the freezer. In the final analysis, I will definitely render my own lard again—but hopefully not for another year or so.

"Hot" lard oil on the left; solid, cooled lard on the right.

Rawr!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while suffering through extremes in temperature or moisture-levels:

Could eating poo-burgers save the Earth?,” Jess Zimmerman, June 17, 2011, Grist.org.

Farm pork not going anywhere,” Tom Laskawy, June 15, 2011, Grist.org.

How pasta became the world’s favourite food ,” Caroline McClatchy, June 15, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

The Scariest Chart About Seafood You’ll See This Year,” Daniel Fromson, June 14, 2011, TheAtlantic.com.

Buy a half-gallon of sugar water at KFC, give a dollar to diabetes research,” Jess Zimmerman, June 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Cheap food: Not what’s for dinner anymore?,” Tom Philpott, June 10, 2011, Grist.org.

Organic Farmers v. Monsanto,” June 10, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Drought gardening: How will horticulturists cope?,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

E. coli: Germany says worst of illness is over,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

http://www.grist.org/food/2011-06-07-contaminated-compost-toxins-might-lurk-in-that-bag-youre-buying,” Tom Laskawy, June 7, 2011, Grist.org.

Chef Secrets: Extra Pickle Juice, Please,” James Mulcahy, Zagat.com.

Real Bacon is the Real Breakfast of Real Champions

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d sip a pina colada with it!

So the other day at the Rosewood Market, the local real food market in Columbia, S.C., when I saw a certain nondescript package in the freezer section, I nearly jumped for joy. I held back on the jumping though for fear of frightening the other shoppers, but only just barely.

What the nondescript package contained was the most magical and elusive substance I have ever encountered—real bacon. I don’t mean the crap that passes as bacon in most refrigerator sections of even the finest grocery stores. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods!) I mean Caw Caw Creek Farm’s pasture-raised, salt and sugar cured, untrimmed, thick-sliced, beautiful, life-changing, forever bacon. And it was good. Very good.

To prepare, I spared no expense. First, I thawed overnight in the refrigerator.

Then, I lovingly placed two (no more, no less) strips on a small jelly roll pan (with 3/4″ sides). The sides on this pan are very important for reserving the 1/2 cup of oil that will render out of the bacon. Yes, folks, that’s a full 1/4 cup of delicious oil per slice you can save to make everything else you cook incredible too. (This bacon just gives and gives. It’s a giver.)

Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 425 degrees. I placed the pan containing the bacon in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned, the fat is slightly tinged with color, and the whole situation is just about floating.

After carefully removing the pan (so as not to slosh the hot oil) and allowing it to cool, I removed the bacon slices and experienced a flavor and texture that is the stuff of legend. Meaty, melty, comforting, and filling—this was simply the single best food I have ever experienced. Simply bacon.

I’m not sure I can go back to the undersized, over-trimmed, chemically-manipulated stuff I’ve called bacon before this. From now on, I believe I shall refer to this vastly inferior product as “breakfast meat” or “bacon-like product.” If a waiter is confused, that’s his bad luck. Whatever he brings me will suck anyway.

Bon appetite!

Grandma Genevieve’s Strawberry Shortcake

During my brief sojourn to the Motherland a few weeks ago, I happened upon a truck advertising authentic Ponchatoula strawberries. While I have no quarrel with strawberries from Alabama in principle, I’ve never tasted any as sweet and with such well-balanced acid as those from the Mississippi River’s alluvial plain. Naturally, I bought half a flat (about 6 pints) first and planned what I would do with them later.

Then it finally occurred to me to do something I’d wanted to for more than 17 years—obtain and manufacture my Grandmother’s very rustic strawberry shortcake recipe. I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere, and for me, it is the preeminent version of the Spring classic. Everything else is, in my opinion, just the ruination of perfectly wonderful strawberries.

Determined to share the love while attempting to reconstruct our heritage in produce, I commandeered my nieces for some of the less hazardous preparation tasks. And so we began by rinsing and removing the tops from the excellently sweet and ripe (though unfortunately small) late season berries.

At the same time, I began preparing three refrigerated pie crusts according to the directions. The first time I used preprepared crusts, I went for the ubiquitous Pillsbury but thought it had too distinctive a “Pillsbury” aftertaste.  Recently, I made it again and used this kind, which was much better:

Now admittedly this was a concession. The real recipe provides the following instructions, however, for the purist: Combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup Crisco or lard, and one egg with enough water to form a soft dough. Make three balls, roll each out and bake flat until light brown tile. (I would recommend a 400-degree oven for 9 to 11 minutes.) Cool.

Either way, you will note the crust is rolled out to a circle with a diameter of about 14 inches. Cosmetic perfection is optional as all but one of these crusts will be totally covered with mashed strawberries.  Also, do NOT prick the crust before baking.  I have found bubbles are not only okay but are preferred.

While the three crusts are baking, you will want to begin work on the strawberry filling. To accomplish this component, my Grandmother used to laboriously mash the rinsed and topped berries with a fork in a bowl, one small quantity at a time. 

When my very brilliant nine-year-old niece, Ellie, tried that method, however, she sprayed strawberry juice all over the place and the front of her shirt and it took for-ev-er. I wasn’t any better at it. But because she had so much time to think, Ellie actually suggested an improvement to the method that produced a superior mash, eliminated mess, saved time, and was a heck of a lot more fun—we bagged ’em in a gallon sized Ziploc freezer back and whacked ’em with a rolling pin.

The only danger appeared to be bursting the sealed bag like a balloon as the berries were smashed. Therefore, from time-to-time, we “burped” the bag to keep air to a minimum. Mission accomplished. Thank you, Ellie!

To the strawberry mash, we added 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. If the strawberries are already sweet enough, however, it seems this step may be omitted. But we kept with tradition in this instance and it didn’t seem to hurt the taste any.

By now, surely, the pie crusts have been removed from the oven and are cooling, so it must be time for the (sort of) pastry cream. Grandma’s recipe for the pastry cream omits the flour typically used and calls for using evaporated milk and water. I dumped that bit and came up with the following: Beat in a small saucepan 4 egg yolks until lemon colored. To the egg yolks, whisk in 1-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream, 3/4 cup half-and-half, 2 tsp vanilla, and 2 cups of sugar and cook over medium-high heat until the mixture begins to form foamy bubbles and coats the back of a spoon. Do NOT boil!

To assemble, get a big heavy bowl, preferably one made of glazed stoneware. Place the first crust on the bottom of the bowl.

If the crust is too large for the bowl, just gently break it into large pieces and evenly distribute them. Top with a little less than half of the strawberry mixture. Follow the strawberries with a second crust. Again, piecing it together is fine, if the crust is too large. Distribute the rest of the strawberry mixture over this crust and top with the third crust.

Because I wanted mine to look nice and because it didn’t fit, I trimmed the edge of the crust with kitchen shears until it sat level in the bowl on top of the fruit.

Then I poured about half of the pastry cream over the top of the layers, letting it run down the inside of the bowl to touch the layers below. The remainder of the cream was reserved for serving. I then allowed the bowl to sit for about an hour before serving to soften the crusts just a little.

To serve, I cut down through the layers of the “cake” and spooned it into individual bowls. The remaining pastry cream was ladled over each.

The result was pure love. It was just as I remembered it tasting and everyone who has tried it since has commented on the fabulous contrasts between the sweet berries and the savory crust, and between the crunchy pie crusts and the silky cream. Nice.

So if you’ve got a mess of fresh strawberries available to you this Memorial Day weekend, why not try this gloriously easy and amazingly delicious pastry?

Bon Appetite!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while hanging out in the Nicholas Pavilion of the PGA Regions Tradition golf tournament at Shoal Creek Country this weekend:

Girl Scouts censor Facebook criticism of palm oil in cookies,” Glenn Hurowitz, May 5, 2011, Grist.org.

Forget About Horses: A Bourbon Picking Guide for Derby Day, and Every Day,” Tony Sachs, May 6, 2011, HuffingtonPost.com.

How Food Explains the World,” Joshua Keating, May/June 2011, ForeignPolicy.com.

Bad seeds: A plan to phase out the $5 billion in ‘direct payment’ agricultural subsidies,” Jake Caldwell, May 4, 2011, Grist.org.

Strawberry grower shows how to make a profit without poisons ,” ONEARTH, April 26, 2011, Grist.org.

Do You Know How Many Genetically Modified Foods You’re Eating? 8 to Pay Attention To ,” Lisa Gosselin, April 25, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture,” Tom Philpott, April 22, 2011, Grist.org.

Worried about fake food dyes? 4 tips to avoid them,” Brierly Wright, April 1, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Bees feed us: now they need our help,” The Slow Food USA Blog, March 2, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.