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!

Farm Burger–The Best Thing to Happen to the Hamburger in (at Least) 35 Years

In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.

Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.

Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.

That’s right. Most, if not all, of their meat is sourced from an affiliated farm, Moonshine Meats, while the veggies grow up on the nearby Full Moon Cooperative.

The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.

Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.

The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!

There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!

My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.

I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.

The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.

On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.

I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.

The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.

In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.

Rawr!
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