Saturday, October 3, 2015

Berkshire Pork Cheek Agnolotti

October's dropping temperatures are the perfect excuse to prepare some warming braised dishes.  One often-overlooked (but very delicious!) cut is the pork cheek.  While a "pork jowl" is the whole outer side cut of the pig's face, including plenty of firm fat, the cheek is just the center muscle located on the interior of the jowl.  North Woods Ranch has beautifully marbled pork cheeks for sale, thanks to a lifetime of outdoor exercise, rooting for plants, and chewing in the pasture.
Berkshire Pork Cheeks
Pork cheeks are small, weighing only about a half pound or so, but still require a few hours in a low oven to tenderize the meat and collagen.  I just place them in a small casserole dish, cover them with pork stock, and add a bit of thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf.  Pop into a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes until the stock begins to simmer, then turn the oven down to 325 and let the cheeks gently percolate in the oven for another two hours.  The result is tender chunks of meat with a rich, slightly sticky texture thanks to the collagen breaking down into savory gelatin.
At this point, the pig cheeks can be cubed up and served as a stew, or the braising liquid can be thinned out and turned into a lovely pork soup with the addition of some vegetables or beans.  I find the meat very rich, so I like to shred or finely cube the cooked pork cheeks, then mix them with other ingredients.  With autumn in the air, I decided to use this meat as a filling for squash pasta.
Candy Roaster Squash
I came across this beautiful but bizarre looking 10lb Candy Roaster squash, thanks to a local farm I like to frequent at the market.  The Candy Roaster has very firm, sweet flesh when cooked, but sweet potatoes can be substituted in this recipe as well. 
Mixing equal parts roasted squash with shredded pork cheek, I seasoned the squash and cheek mixture with salt, plenty of black pepper (the robust taste of the pork cheeks can take it), and fresh minced sage.
This mixture became the base of my pork cheek and squash agnolotti pasta.  You can use homemade paste, or buy fresh pasta sheets at the market to save time.  I like making agnolotti as they are much quicker and easier than ravioli or tortellini.

Simply take a sheet of pasta, place two teaspoons of the pork cheek mixture along the bottom third of the pasta sheet.  Dampen the area on the sides of each mixture to help the pasta seal to itself.

Next, roll the bottom third of the pasta up onto the middle third, covering the little squash/meat dumplings.  Then roll the pasta onto the final third, sealing up the little pouches.  Press around the pasta filling with your hands to help form a tight seal.  I find it's easiest to roll 4 agnolotti at a time, but you can do more or less depending on your level of expertise.
And that's it.  You don't need to seal the lip of the pasta, as this creates a nice little nook for sauce to collect.  Then boil the pasta for 2-3 minutes until tender, saucing the agnolotti in a skillet with a bit of the braising liquid, some brown butter, and a few sage leaves. 
Autumn never tasted so good!
Berkshire Pork Cheek Agnolotti
Recipe at a Glance:
1.5 lbs pork cheeks
1.5 lbs roasted squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato
1 bay leaf
2 cups pork stock
1 sprig tyme
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Homemade semolina pasta dough, or store-bought sheets of fresh pasta
6 oz butter
Small bunch of fresh sage leaves.

Cover the pork cheese in the pork stock in a shallow roasting pan.  Add the bay, thyme, and some salt and pepper.  Cover the pan tightly with greased parchment paper, then foil.  Place into a 350 F oven for 45 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 325 and cook for two more hours, until pork cheeks are tender.

Remove the pan from the oven and uncover the pan.  Let the pork cheeks cool in the liquid while you roast the squash and make the pasta dough.

Shred the cooked pork meat and fat, then mix together with the mashed, roasted squash.  Season with more salt and pepper, and a small amount of minced fresh sage.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Form the agnolotti as described above.  When the water comes to a boil, add the agnolotti and boil for 2-3 minutes until dough is tender.  Melt the butter in a skillet until brown and nutty, then add 1/2 cup of the pork cheese braising liquid to the browned butter.  When the agnolotti are done, toss in the skillet with the hot butter/stock mixture.

Serve with a few leaves of fresh sage.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Berkshire Pork Belly Tacos

I love that more people are looking closer at pork belly.  There is so much more to pork belly than just smoking it into bacon--pork belly is wonderful to savor on its own.  North Woods Ranch's pasture-raised pigs produce large, meaty bellies with wonderfully light, creamy fat streaking through the meat.  If you've never tried pork belly on it's own, this is a great recipe to start out.
Pork belly tacos highlight the rich and meaty nature of this cut.  They're wonderful as an appetizer or served at a cookout.  To start, season the pork with equal parts salt and sugar and allow the belly to sit overnight in the refrigerator.  This will help to firm up the belly by removing excess water.  In this recipe, a small amount of sodium nitrite was used to help retain the color of the pork, but it can be omitted.
The next day, rinse off the belly to remove any excess salt and sugar.  Pork belly is very easy to cook, as the fat makes it very forgiving and almost impossible to overcook.  The trick is to poach the belly at a bare simmer.  Too high of a temperature will render out the fat and toughen the meat.  After about three hours of poaching, the belly should be tender; check it by inserting a butter knife into the center of the belly.  If the knife slides easily through both the fat and meat, its done.
North Woods Ranch's Berkshire Pork Belly
Pork belly taco's are delicious in any season, but with fall around the corner I suggest using the classic pairing of apples and pork.  To cut the richness of the belly, an apple or pear butter has a tang of acidity that's perfect as a base.  I have recently discovered local Pennsylvania Asian pear groves.  Coopersburg, PA's Subarashii Kudamono produces both Asian pears and pear butter that's definitely worth seeking out. Its absolutely delicious, and I was thrilled with how well it paired with the pork for this dish.
Asian Pear Butter
While the pork belly is ready-to-eat right after poaching, it can also be cooled for easier slicing.  Grilling the slices gives the pork a nice visual appeal with the added benefit of adding a savory char to the taste.
Playing off the apple theme, I topped off the tacos with an apple and turnip slaw. All in all, these tacos were little mouthfuls of porky joy.

Recipe at a Glance:
- 1 pork belly, about 1.5-2 lbs
- 1/4 C sugar
- 1/4 C salt
- 1 tsp sodium nitrite (optional)
- Apple or pear butter
- Flour or corn tortillas (pick your favorite)

Apple Turnip Slaw
- 2 tart apples, skin on
- 2 small white turnips (or substitute radishes)
- 1 lime
- 1/2 C Greek-style yogurt
- 1 stick celery
- 1/4 red onion
- Few sprigs cilantro, chopped
- Salt to taste

For the Pork Belly:
Cover the belly in the salt and sugar (and sodium nitrite, if using) in a small container.  Cover and refrigerate for 18-24 hours.  The next day, bring a shallow pan of water to a bare simmer.  Rinse off the pork belly and poach for 3-4 hours, until tender.

Remove the pork belly from the poaching water and allow to cool in the fridge to firm up the fat.  Slice the pork belly into thick slabs once cool.

Preheat a grill or a cast-iron grilling pan.  Grill the pork belly until warmed through, about 2 minutes per side.  Serve on tortillas with apple butter smeared on the inside, then top with slaw.

Slice all vegetables into thin sticks, about 1-1.5 inches long.  Toss with yogurt, lime juice, and salt.  Garnish with cilantro.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cooking and Grilling with Berkshire Caul Fat

At this point in August the summer grilling season is in high gear.  The farmer’s markets are in full swing, the weather is perfect for cooking outdoors, and there are still autumn months of tailgating to fill with charcoal and wood smoke.
It’s also time to embrace the majesty of caul fat on the grill.  Caul fat is a membrane that secures a pig’s internal organs.  In practicing good animal husbandry, North Woods Ranch makes sure to save this valuable fat from their heritage breed hogs.  Caul fat, although not a common item, is very easy for novices to work with in the kitchen.
Unwrapping a package of caul fat reveals a thin, transparent sheet of membrane with a lacy web of fat striations woven throughout.  When cooked, the fat begins to render out and the membrane crisps up like a sausage casing.  These two qualities make caul fat perfect for wrapping up kebabs on the grill.   
The fat bastes the meat, keeping everything moist and juicy, while the membrane keeps any stray onion or pepper pieces from falling off into the grill as they soften on the kebab skewer.  Plus, caul fat seals up tightly as it cooks so there is no need to secure the fat with string or wooden picks.
Along with kebabs caul fat is perfect for making larger, burger-sized patties, which Italian and French recipes call crepinettes.  If you’re dealing with a loose meat mixture, like the Berkshire pork, spinach, olive, and preserved lemon pictured here, caul fat is great for ensuring a solid patty that won’t fall apart on the grill.
Once the kebabs or crepinettes have finished cooking on the grill, the caul fat can be eaten and enjoyed like a sausage casing, or removed if desired.   
Eating caul fat is much like eating the skin on a roast chicken; some people will always remove it, others can’t imagine passing it up.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Berkshire Canadian Bacon with Artichokes and Poached Eggs

Bacon comes in a range of cuts from a fatty jowl bacon to a classic belly bacon to a lean, meaty Canadian bacon.  Canadian bacon, while a leaner cut in the world of bacon, has a wonderful smoky flavor and dense texture.  This makes it perfect for lighter dishes or dishes that already have enough rich ingredients, such as this recipe’s soft-poached eggs.
A riff on the classic Eggs Benedict, this recipe skips the bread and replaces it with an artichoke and mushroom base.  This is perfect for summer, where the richness of the Canadian bacon and poached egg are off-set by the vegetables.
To start cut off the stem and top half of the artichokes, leaving behind the middle part of the artichoke.  Artichokes discolor when cut, so place them in a pot filled with water and the juice of one lemon.   

Once all the artichokes are trimmed, place the pot of artichokes on the stove and bring the water to a simmer.  Cook the artichokes for 20-25 minutes, or until the tines of a fork easily pierce the center.  Next drain the water and allow the bases to cool slightly.  While still warm, scoop out the fibrous choke in the center of the artichoke base.  A serrated grapefruit spoon is perfect for scooping out the core.  After the center is cleaned, remove the hard outer leaves around the base.  This will give you a shallow bowl that’s completely edible.

Alternatively, artichoke bases can be purchased pre-trimmed in a can.
Next, heat a large skillet with oil or lard and sauté the white button mushrooms.  The mushrooms will become a bed for the egg, so they shouldn’t be over cooked.  After 4-6 minutes on medium-high heat the mushrooms will be soft and tender.  Place the mushrooms and the juices from the pan into a blender with salt, pepper, the leaves from one sprig of rosemary, and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard.  Puree the mushrooms into a creamy mousse, occasionally scraping down the sides of the blender to ensure a smooth puree.  Leave the mushroom puree in the closed blender to stay warm.
Return the skillet to the heat along with a small pot of water to poach the eggs.  While the water is coming to a boil, fry the Canadian bacon until brown and crispy.  When the water comes to a boil, crack each egg (two per artichoke) into an individual ramekin, then sprinkle a few dashes of white or apple cider vinegar over each egg in the ramekin.  The vinegar will help the egg white to firm up around the yolk before going into the poaching water.  Remove the pot from the heat, then gently lower each egg into the pot.  Cover the pot with the lid and allow the eggs to poach for 3-4 minutes for a soft poached egg.
To assemble, place an artichoke bottom onto each plate and spoon the mushroom puree into the artichoke bowl.  Place two eggs on top of the mushrooms, and finally, top it off with a few slices of crispy Canadian bacon and a garnish of minced rosemary.

Recipe at a Glance:
(Serves Four)
4 Artichoke bottoms (trimmed and poached as above, or purchased in a can)
1 lb white button mushrooms 
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon strong Dijon mustard
12 oz North Woods Ranch Canadian Bacon
1 sprig rosemary, minced
8 eggs, cracked into ramekins and drizzled with vinegar to set the whites

If using purchased artichoke bottoms, rinse them and warm them in hot water while prepping the rest of the recipe.

Saute the mushrooms in butter over medium high heat until tender, about 4-6 minutes.  Add mushrooms, mustard, and half the minced rosemary to a blender or food processor.  Puree until smooth, then add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and preheat a large greased skillet.  When the water comes to a boil, gently drop in the eggs and turn the heat off the pot of water.  Cover the pot with a lid.

In the greased skillet, cook the Canadian bacon until crispy.  After 3-4 minutes, remove the eggs and let them drain on a kitchen towel.

Place one artichoke bottom on each plate, then fill with the mushroom puree.  Top with two eggs and a few slices of Canadian bacon.  Garnish with minced rosemary.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Grilled Berkshire Pork Chops with Cherries

Fruit and pork are classic partners, but things get a bit more interesting when a bit of smoke and a sizzling char are added to the mix.  Next time grilled pork chops are on the weekend menu, consider adding a grilled fruit element as a topping or sauce.
Starting with beautiful pasture-raise pork chops from North Woods Ranch, lightly salt and pepper the chops on both sides, letting them come to room temperature for about 30 minutes before grilling.
For fruit, choose whatever looks best at the market.  Cherries have been plentiful here in Pennsylvania due to the abundant amount of rain, but try new fruits as the seasons and produce changes.
As with pan-searing a chop, start the chops on medium heat.  For a charcoal grill, this would be off to one side of the live coals where the heat is not as intense.  While the pork chops are off to one side of the heat, the fruit should be set right over the hottest part of the grill.  Due to the soft nature and high water content of fruit, they need an intense blast of heat to get some charring.  
 Two to three minutes should be enough and will keep them from becoming too soft and pulpy. To grill the fruit, a non-stick grilling basket is a great tool, plus they’re widely available at grocery stores during the summer.  A bowl made of aluminum foil and greased with oil is an OK stand in for one-time use. 

A good plan is to preheat the grilling basket when the pork chops first go down.  After 4-5 minutes, flip the pork chops, then add the cherries (unpitted to help retain their shape) to the preheated basket.  After 2 minutes, stir or shake the basket to move the fruit around.  The skins of the cherries will be blistered and slightly charred.  The goal in this step is to add some savory, smoky notes to the sweet, acidic nature of the fruit. 
To finish the grilled cherry topping, cut the cherries in half and remove the pits.  A sprig of rosemary, minced fine, adds a slightly resinous and fresh herbal flavor the cherries.  Due to the intense heat of the grill the cherries will have a tender, yielding texture and can be spooned over each pork chop like a chutney.  Later in the season, try this with quartered peaches and thyme or blackberries and basil.
Recipe at a Glance:
1 pork chop per person, rubbed with salt and pepper
2-3 oz of fruit per person (a generous amount to get a bit of fruit on each bite)
Sprig of herbs

Soak a few blocks 2x2" of hard wood in water.

Start a fire in your grill with a chimney starter and lump charcoal.  When the coals are half on fire, dump them out and place the grill grate on top to allow it to preheat.  Once all the coals are lit/white, brush the grill with a wire brush, then oil it.  Add the damp wood to the hot coals to add some smoke.

Lay the pork chops down in the middle of the grill, on indirect heat.  Set a perforated grilling basket down on the hottest part of the grill.  If the grilling basket is not made of non-stick material, grease the basket before setting it on the grill.  Cover the grill.

After 4-5minutes, turn the chops over, and add the fruit to the preheated basket.  Cover the grill again.   Check the fruit after 2 minutes.  If charred and blistered, remove from heat.  Otherwise, continue cooking for another minute.

Cook the chops to your preference, and remove the pits/stones from the cooked fruit.  Mince the herbs and stir into the fruit.  Plate the chops and spoon a generous amount of the grilled fruit on top.  If the fruit turns out to be too under-ripe/acidic, sweeten it with agave syrup (mostly fructose) or honey.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Making Beef Suet Bird Feeders at Home

Making your own suet bird treats is a fun craft for the afternoon and can easily produce enough suet blocks to last a season.  Starting from scratch, with real grass-fed beef suet, is the best way to ensure your feathered friends are getting a healthy and safe treat.
Rendering beef suet is easier than making lard, although the steps are pretty similar. While lard needs to be finely chopped or ground to help the rendering process, beef fat is naturally crumbly and can be separated with just your fingers or by crushing it with a rolling pin.  
North Woods Ranch Beef Suet

Place the crumbled suet into a heavy bottomed pot with enough water to cover the bottom of the pot ¼ inch.  The water will keep the suet from scorching in the pot.   
By the time the water evaporates into steam, enough of the suet will have rendered into liquid fat, called tallow.  Stir the pot occasionally to help the suet melt easily.  

While the fat is rendering, choose what mix-ins you’d like to add to the suet and combine them in a large mixing bowl.  Niger seeds and oatmeal have worked well for us in Central PA, but you can find Audubon and birding websites that will list a whole range of seeds, nuts, and grains that various species enjoy
 When the fat turns clear, pour equal amounts of liquid fat into the mixing bowl with your chosen blend of bird seed.  Stir the fat and seeds together.  As the fat cools, it will turn opaque and lock the seeds into place.  Pour the still warm mixture into a loaf pan, ramekin, or mold of your choosing to set the shape.  Old plastic deli take-away cups produce nice round molds, while square tofu containers produce sturdy bricks. Let the mold cool overnight in the fridge.
 After it cools, you can remove the suit block from the mold and put it into a suet holder (like the cage model featured) or simply tie it to a tree.  The oats will absorb some of the warm fat, which will make the blocks very hard and keep them in one solid piece.
If you’ve never left suet out for birds, don’t worry if you don’t see any visitors right away.  It might take a couple of days for birds to discover the suet and feel safe eating from it.
Finished Block of Bird Suet
Recipe at a Glance:
4 lbs of North Woods Ranch Beef Suet
2 lbs of organic oats
2 lbs seeds (use the above link to find what birds in your area eat).  These photos depict Niger seeds.

Save Extra Suet for Roasting Potatoes
Crumble the fat into small pieces with your fingers or a potato masher.  Put the fat into a pot with a small amount of water to prevent scorching.  Bring the pot to a boil and stir often.

When the water evaporates enough of the fat should have rendered to keep the suet moist and to prevent burning.  Lower the heat to medium and continue to stir occasionally, as the fat continues to render out over the next hour.  

When the suet has rendered out most of its fat, pour the tallow into a large bowl with the oats and seeds.  Stir to evenly distribute the seeds and oats.  Pour the suet mixture into molds and allow to cool.  When the mixture becomes opaque, place it in the fridge to solidify overnight.

The next day remove the molds from the fridge and turn upside down.  Due to the high fat content a solid wack with your palm or a spoon should make the suet block easily drop out of the mold.
Set in your favorite birding spot and watch your feathered friends enjoy the fruits of your labor!