Sunday, February 22, 2015

Scottish Highland Chuck Roast a la Chartreuse

Now that Pennsylvania is in the deep of winter, I wanted to make a great slow cooked meal using North Woods Ranch’s Scottish Highland beef.  For this recipe I used a chuck roast, which is similar to the rolled rump roast, but chuck has a few more muscle groups and a bit more fat.  To compare the two, cooking a rump roast will produce thick slices of lean beef, while a chuck roast produces a more traditional pot roast with chunks of tender, moist beef just falling apart.
Scottish Highland Chuck Roast
To start this dish, I sautéed a mix of onions, celery, and carrots with lard in a large, oven safe pot.  Once the vegetables had softened, I removed them from the pot and set them aside to make room for the beef.  Being a large roast, I seasoned the meat generously with salt and browned it on all sides in the hot lard.  Just like the rump roast, I left the netting on while cooking.  When the roast was browned on all sides, the vegetables went back in the pot, and I deglazed the bottom with beef stock.

This was where I changed things up a bit from my previous rump roast post.  While I braised that roast in wine, I used canned whole tomatoes for this recipe.  The tomatoes added a bit of acidity to the dish and rounded out the flavor by adding a rosy hue.  I crushed the whole plum tomatoes a bit with my hand, but just enough that the tomatoes are still in chunks.  
Topping up the pot with enough stock to cover the roast, I brought the liquid in the pot to a simmer.  Once the liquid is simmering on the stove top, the pot gets covered and placed it into the oven.  Again, like with the rolled rump roast, I keep an eye on the pot, and slowly turn down the heat every hour or so to keep the liquid at a gentle simmer.  This roast cooked at just shy of eight hours, with the last four hours cooking at 275 F.
I knew the roast was done when the meat easily pulled away in tender strands with just a fork. I could have stopped there, but I wanted to take it a step further.  As I mentioned earlier, chuck roast has several muscles in it.  So when the netting is cut away from the chuck roast, the tender meat will neatly fall apart into a few large chunks, naturally separating at the different muscles seams.

There’s an old French tradition called la Chartreuse, which puts the meat in a ceramic mold surrounded by a covering of vegetables.  It could be strips of carrot, eggplant, squash, or leafy greens.  The dish is finished when the vegetable-swaddled meat is turned out from from the mold and displayed on a dish. 
In my version, I blanched the outer leaves of a cabbage until they were tender, then placed the cabbage leaves in small bowls.  I filled each leaf with a mixture of cooked, shredded, chuck roast and added a bit of the roasting liquid.  Folding the bottoms of the leaves up, I pushed down on each meat parcel to compact it a bit, and tucked them into little ramekins. Then I turned the ramekins over onto the serving plates to unmold the parcels.  I finished it off by drizzling a bit more of the braising liquid on top of each cabbage bundle. This also helped to the dish moist.  If this sounds like pigs in a blanket, you’re not far off.
Braised Chuck Roast Wrapped in Cabbage
I love Italian gremolata, a finishing touch added to slow-braised dishes.  For this dish, I minced together raw garlic, lemon zest and parsley and lightly sprinkled it over the meat (traditionally veal osso bucco).  The bright, sharp flavor is a wonderful contrast to the deep, savory flavor of the long-cooked meat.  To complete my dish, I dug up a horseradish root from the garden, peeled it, and microplaned a fluffy cloud on top of the cabbages.  It looked like a dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but it packed a bit more punch.  Because it was grated so fine, each bite had a quick “pop!” of horseradish without overpowering the intense, savory flavor of beef.

Recipe at a Glance:
  • 3-4lb chuck roast
  • 28 oz can whole plum/roma tomatoes
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, sliced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 12-16 oz stock (enough to cover roast)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Small knob of fresh horseradish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat a small amount of oil in a large pot. Brown the roast on all sides, then remove from pot and set aside.  Add chopped vegetables (except garlic, which can burn easily) to pot and cook until browned and beginning to soften, stirring regularly.  

Once vegetables are browned, add garlic and cook for one minute.  Return roast to pot, along with any juices the roast may have dripped out.

Pour stock into pot and stir up the bottom of the pot to deglaze.  Add tomatoes and stock to cover and bring to a simmer on the stove top.  Once the stock is simmering, cover pot and place in oven.  Braise for 6-8 hours, slowly reducing heat to keep the liquid at a gentle simmer.

Once tender, remove from oven and let rest for 30 minutes or so before cutting up.Peel rind from horseradish and use a fine microplane or grater to garnish with a few fluffy piles of grated horseradish.  Serve with roasted squash and potatoes with more of the braising liquid drizzled over.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Enriching Stock with Pork Skin

In an earlier post I covered how to make homemade stock.  From that basic recipe, I’d like to introduce a slight alteration that procures a richer, more unctuous stock.  The basic recipe is the same, but this stock is fortified by poaching pork skin along with the bones, vegetables, and herbs.  
Berkshire Pork Skin and Bones
Adding the skins to a broth extracts gelatin, which is why this stock takes on a semi-firm, wobbly texture when chilled.  When hot, the stock has a rich, umami flavor that can enhance just a few boiled vegetables for a delicious soup.
North Woods Ranch sells packets of skin that come in large sheets.  I find it’s easy to flatten out the skin across a large cutting board and cut it into 4”x4” squares.  Then, I add two squares of pork skin per gallon of water to the stock.  In goes the bones and vegetables and slowly simmer as usual.  I pack up the unused skin into a freezer bag to store for future stock-making days, separating each layer of skin with wax paper for easy removal later.
Filling up the Stock Pot

Jellied Stock



Here in mid-February Pennsylvania, few things are as comforting as a bowl of hot stock.  In the notion of “let thy food be thy medicine,” adding skin to dishes is a good source of collagen, gelatin, and amino acids.  Plus, in my opinion, a warming stock is much more satisfying and delicious than gobbling down gelatin supplements or collagen pills.



Once the stock is done, the cooked skin can be sliced into small cubes and eaten with the soup or stew.  If I’m not going to include the skin in the soup, I’ll pull it out and make a crispy crunchy treat of chicharrones with them, as discussed here.
Now, even if I’m not making stock, there are other ways to still get the benefits of cooking with pasture-raised pork skin.  In an old recipe for cassoulet, I found they recommend tying small bundles of pork skin up to simmer along with the beans.  
Tying up Skin, Bay, and Thyme
 Spring boarding off this idea, it’s easy to make a little bouquet garni by tying a bundle of herbs around a roll of skin and securing it with butcher’s twine.  Traditionally, a bouquet garni would use a large outer leaf of a leek to secure the herbs, but I’ve become quite taken with these little skin rolls even without the leek leaf.
Pork Skin Bouquet Garni

I use these small bundles to enrich beans, soups, stews, or to help thicken sauces with a glossy dose of gelatin.  I find these herbal pork skin sachets are great to simmer with beef or pork stock and garlic to create a lip-smacking sauce to drizzle over chops or braised meats.

 Recipe at a Glace:
4 lbs pork bones
2 sections of pork skin (about 4"x4")
1/2 lb carrots, chopped into large chunks
1/2 lb celery, cut into 2-3 lengths per stalk
1 lbs onions, cut into quarters
1 head garlic, cut in half cross-wise
1 bay leaf
1 tsp black peppercorns
Enough water to cover.

Place all ingredients in a large, heavy bottomed pot.  A pot with a thick metal base will distribute the heat from the stove better, preventing hot spots where skin or vegetables might stick and burn on the bottom.

Cover the ingredients with cold water and bring up to a slow simmer.  A fast boil can leach proteins out of the bones that will give the stock a cloudy appearance and muddied flavor.

Gently simmer stock for 4-6 hours.  If the water begins to evaporate so much that the ingredients are no long covered, top up with water.

Strain the stock and pour into jars to cool.  If you'll be freezing jars of excess stock, make sure to leave some headspace in each jar for the stock to expand.  Otherwise the stock may expand and crack the jar.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Making Berkshire Jowl Bacon: Part 2 of 2

In my first post on how to make jowl bacon, I described the first steps on getting your curing started. In this post here, Part 2, I cover how to bring your curing jowl bacon to completion.
After a day on cure, the water in the jowl should have leached out and turned the curing salt and sugar into a wet paste.  Flip the jowl each day and check to make sure the jowl is still covered in cure.  If a bit of the cure dribbles off leaving a bare spot on the jowl, just smear some back on to cover it.

The jowl is done curing when the meat on the jowl feels a bit firmer, like a well-cooked steak.  The fat on the jowl has so little water to lose that it really won’t feel much different than it did at the start.  My jowl took four days to cure. When the jowl is done, rinse off any excess cure and pat the jowl dry with a towel.  In these photos, I added a lot of black peppercorns in the beginning for flavor.  Since they were pressed firmly into the jowl, I didn’t lose too many when rinsing off the salt and sugar.

While the jowl could be smoked right now, it is better to let the jowl dry out in the fridge for a day.  This will form what is called a pellicle: a dry, slightly tacky surface on the meat.  The smoke will have a much better adhesion to the surface of the jowl with a pellicle, which gives a stronger smoke flavor in the final product.  Just place the jowl on a roasting rack placed on a baking sheet and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
Jowl Rinsed of the Excess Cure
The next day it is ready to smoke!  If you already have a smoker, you’re set to go.  If not, you can smoke this using a kettle-grill.  This is a bit more work, since you need to keep the coals in the grill hot enough to smoke the wood, but not so hot that you roast the bacon.  There are enough suggestions, tips, and forums on smoking with kettle grills to fill an encyclopedia, so it’s best to do some internet sleuthing and see what works best for you and your grill model.

One resource on smoking on a kettle grill: (http://smokenatorforum.proboards.com/thread/281/smoked-bacon-on-weber)

In a nutshell, the jowl should be smoked for 2-3 hours around 200 F until the jowl hits 155 F.  While some people like to smoke jowls and bacon for twelve hours or more, that seems a bit excessive to me. It makes sense that a commercial operation doing 100 lb batches might need that long.  But three hours is plenty of time for just one jowl, with a small surface area, to get a good coating of smoke.  After a while you’re just going to be wasting wood and not creating any additional flavors.
Berkshire Jowl Bacon After Smoking
Once the jowl is cooked, it’s best to let it firm up in the fridge to slice easier.  But nibbling off a little end of hot, fresh-from-the-smoker jowl is always a good idea.  Do not be alarmed if the jowl tastes very salty when eating a first slice from the edge.  The edges, which have had more exposure to the cure, will be saltier than the rest of the jowl.  Some recipes even recommend saving these jowl ends for stewing, as you would bacon ends.
And that’s it!  Slice it thinly with a knife, crisp up in a hot skillet, and enjoy the porky fruits of your labor.  Though keep in mind, if this seems like too big of a project, North Woods Ranch has delicious ready-to-cook smoked and cured jowls ready for the frying pan.

Recipe at a Glance:
1 Full Berkshire Pork Jowl
¼ Cup Kosher Sea Salt
¼ Cup Light Brown Sugar
2 Teaspoons Instacure #1 Sodium Nitrite
3 Tablespoons Coarsely Cracked Black Pepper

Combine all ingredients in a ceramic or plastic container (not a reactive metal like aluminum or cast iron).  Make sure the curing salts and sugars are evenly placed over the jowl.  Put the jowl in a refrigerator and flip once a day to evenly distribute the cure.  

After four days, the jowl can be rinsed in cold water of any excess cure. Let the jowl dry in the refrigerator overnight, then hot smoke it at 200 F until it reaches 160 F internal temp.  Slice the bacon for rashers, or keep it in chunks for stewing and braising.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Making Pork Skin Cracklings and Chicharrones

Growing up, I didn’t think much of pork rinds.  They seemed to live only in truck stops, nestled between corn nuts and those orange circus peanuts that taste like Styrofoam rolled in confectioner’s sugar.  Only later, reading old Time-Life cook books, did I become excited about “cracklin’s.”  Pictures of community pig butchering in the rural south amazed me; it seemed to be more of a party than a harvest.  In the center of one photo was an enormous fire pit holding a cast-iron kettle full of bubbling, rendered lard.  The caption explained that the skin of the pigs was fried in the lard for a snack while the family prepared the rest of the meat.
Pork Skin Landscape
The cauldron-fried cracklings were miles away from those plastic baggies I had seen in the gas station.  They also looked different in the cook book; not puffy like the bagged variety, but more like thick, crispy strips.  As time went on, I realized there are two main types of pork rinds: cracklings and chicharrones.  Cracklings are the thicker, more rustic strips of crispy pork skin.  It’s also the type of pork skin you’re likely to get with a skin-on ham roast.  The fat between the skin and meat gently renders out, while the skin crisps and puffs slightly.  The result is a slightly crispy, slightly chewy pork skin that is very savory.

On the other side, chicharrones are the name for Mexican-style pork rinds, and what I saw in the gas station years ago.  These are about ten times as puffy as cracklings and have the texture of a cheese puff.  Chicarrones have also become the darling of many famous restaurants in the past few years, from Momofuku and the Breslin in NYC to southern stars like Husk and 610 Magnolia.
I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to make cracklings or chicharrones with my North Woods Ranch pork skin, so I decided to make both.  Both recipes started the same, I gently poached the pork skin in water for about 1.5-2 hours. I knew the skin was fully cooked when it could easily be pierced with a butter knife.  Once tender, I removed the skin from the pot, patted off any excess water, and refrigerated the skin in a covered container.  For my cracklings, I was inspired by the British chef and champion of offal, Fergus Henderson.  He actually confits the skin in lard, then smears the skin with more lard to store it.  I skipped the confit step, which seemed to be unique to his recipe for “pork scratchings." I just boiled them in water, but I did smear a bit of lard on top of the skin destined to be cracklings.

The cracklings were very simple.  I preheated an oven to 350 F, then arranged the boiled skin with lard on a baking rack set on top of a baking sheet.  As the skin baked, the lard rendered down over the skin, crisping the surface.  Once fully cooked, the skin puffed up slightly and took on a golden color.  The resulting crackling was quite tasty, although some thicker parts of skin were more chewy than crisp.  I’ve read that a convection oven will give you a better puff because the hot air circulates more, but I found that a regular oven still produces delicious results.
The chicharrones were a bit more work, but produced a more captivating final product.  After boiling and cooling the skin, I scraped the skin to remove all the excess fat from the underside.  I found that using the back of a knife was the best way to complete this task. It scraped the fat off without cutting into the skin.  After scraping all the fat of the skin, I cut them into small squares and dehydrated them overnight.  The smell of drying skin gave my house a…peculiar…odor.  I suggest if you try this at home, to put the dehydrator in the garage or other out of the way location.
Once dried, the pig skin was ready to cook!  The dried skin looked like brittle, crystalline sheets of sugar.  I filled a heavy Dutch oven half-way with peanut oil and heated it to 375 F (ghee oil would also work).  Then the fun part began.  Frying a chicharrones was like watching a pork skin transmogrify into a pork skin butterfly.  The thin fragment of skin quivered in the oil, and then burst open, almost like it was foaming up.   
As soon as the puffing stopped, I removed the skin from the oil and dusted it with salt, pepper, and chile powder (optional).  I found metal chopsticks were perfect for swirling and retrieving the skin from the oil, but tongs would be fine too.
While reading about different ways to cook pork skin, I was surprised to learn they’re actually not that nutritionally bad if made at home.  Because skin is mostly protein and fat, it has no carbs and (unless you go really heavy on the salt) will have less sodium than the truck stop varieties.  Plus, by purchasing skin from pastured Berkshire hogs, you’re getting more flavor and a better product than from skin of industrially raised hogs

Cooking and puffing the chicharrones is a lot of fun, and since they are best hot out of the oil you should have your guests gather around to see the glass-like shards of dried skin explode into a porky cloud.  Just don't have them gather too close to the pot of bubbling oil.

Recipe at a Glance: Pork Rinds
- Any amount of pork skins

Cover the pork skins in cold water and simmer over low heat for 1.5-2 hours, topping up water if needed to keep skins covered.  Once skins can be easily pierced with a butter knife, remove from water and allow to cool.

Once cool, you can bake them in a 350 F oven on a wire rack for pork cracklings.

Alternatively, for chicharrones, scrape the undersides of the cooked skins with a pastry scraper, back of a knife, or off-set spatula.  Remove as much of the fat as possible, leaving just the skin behind. Cut the skin into 3"x3" squares or so and lay them out in a food dehydrator for 12 hours until crisp and slightly opaque.

Heat a cast iron pot or home deep-fryer half-way full with oil and heat oil to 375 F.  Add the pork rinds one at a time and swirl in the oil to help cook evenly.  As soon as the skin puffs up and no more flat, crystalline areas remain, remove from oil and season to taste.  Enjoy right away.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Grassfed Beef Meatballs


I’ve been making these meatballs for several years now, and they’re wonderful for a quick lunch that can be prepared ahead of time.  My wife sticks to lean proteins, but roast chicken can get tiresome quickly, so I make these for her on a regular basis.  These meatballs are also convenient for days when there isn’t a microwave handy, as these meatballs are just as tasty when eaten cold.  Usually, people get hung-up on the whole “eating cold ground beef” thing.  Most of us have seen the forgotten hamburgers sitting around at a cookout with the grease from the burgers caking them with a white, waxy glaze.  So let’s totally banish that image. These meatballs are good hot or cold.
The trick to this recipe is to use grass-fed, pasture-raised beef.  The grind from these cows is incredibly lean and very flavorful.  I usually make these when I’ve got dinner going, as they’re simple to whip up.  A package of North Woods’ ground beef usually makes enough for three lunch portions.  Just mince up an onion or shallot (usually whatever I’m using for dinner that night), a clove of garlic, and knead that into a pound or so of ground beef. I use an egg to help bind everything and leave out the traditional breadcrumbs you see most meatball recipes. The breadcrumbs would trap the fat that otherwise renders off into the pan during cooking, so eliminating the breadcrumbs helps keep these meatballs lean and without any of that clinging fat.
For seasoning, you can go any route you like.  I’ve been using dried oregano, thyme, and sesame seeds lately, but mustard powder or curry powder are also great combinations.  Just go a little heavier than you normally would, if you plan to eat these cold, as cold meat can mute flavorings.  Add some salt and pepper to taste, then roll into the mixture into little balls and place on a non-stick baking sheet (silpats work great).  Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until cooked through.
Portioned and Ready for the Start of the Week
The results are very tasty little meatballs, and great for a healthy lunch during a busy work day.  Over time, I have played around with the recipe quite a bit, but it all started with a gyro recipe. If you did want to cycle back to the original recipe, they’re perfect stuffed into a pita with Greek yogurt, dill, and lemon.

Recipe at a Glance:
1 lb ground grass-fed beef
1 egg
1 shallot or half a medium onion, minced
2 tsp favorite seasoning blend (curry, za'atar, Mrs. Dash, etc)

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Mix all ingredients together and form into small balls.  Place on a greased baking sheet and cook for 15-18 minutes until cooked through.

Serve plain or stuffed into warmed pitas.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Berkshire Pork Shoulder with Sauerkraut

Symbolism abounds at the start of a New Year, especially when it comes to traditional foods.  Coin-shaped lentils are served to ensure wealth, while chicken and turkey are shunned as they scratch in the dirt for food, as if scraping by in poverty.  Furthermore, unlike the chicken that scrapes backwards, the pig roots forward in progress. As such, the portly pig gets a much better deal on New Year’s, being a traditional celebratory food, as well as an animal that’s usually harvested in the winter.  In fact, many people believe pork is the classic dish for New Year’s Day.

North Woods Ranch Pork Butt
Whatever your reasons for cooking pork, it’s hard to go wrong with the classic New Year’s Day dinner of pork and sauerkraut. Both are traditional winter foods and pair perfectly together. It’s a rich, hearty dish that can easily feed a crowd with minimal work.  It also keeps very well, so you can reheat it in the coming days while you begin working on all your 2015 resolutions.  
For this dish, I used a large Berkshire pork shoulder (often called "pork butt", because it comes from the butt-end of the shoulder).  I chose this cut because it had a lot of flavorful meat on it. The shoulder gets a lot of exercise as the pigs move around North Woods Ranch, which makes it an intensely flavorful cut of meat to cook.  Ringing the shoulder’s outer edge is a generous layer of fat that slowly renders out during cooking.  This fat enriches the sauce while keeping the dish moist and succulent. A large cut like this, with multiple muscle groups all joining together, benefits from slow and gentle cooking.  Some people have a tradition of starting the pork on New Year’s Eve, so it cooks all night in the previous year and is served in the new year.  If you have a crock pot, this might be a good time to get it ready.
Rendering out Berkshire Bacon
To start this dish render out some fat from North Wood’s bacon in a large oven-safe pot, cooking it until the bacon is crisp and brown.  This bacon will be used later on, so put it aside and try to keep your family from eating it all.  While the bacon is frying, preheat the oven to 350 F.
Searing the Pork
Next, sear the pork roast in the bacon fat on both sides to get a nice golden-brown crust.  Once the pork is browned, add 3-4 sliced onions and a bay leaf.  Turn the heat down to medium and let the onions soften.  When the onions are soft and translucent, add half a bottle of dry white wine or hard cider to deglaze the bottom of the pan.  I used a bottle of Riesling, as I enjoy the slightly sharper flavor of the wine.  Cider works well, too, but produces a sweeter, fruitier sauce.
Adding the Riesling
After the wine, top up the pan with stock to just cover the pork, then bring the wine and stock mixture to a simmer on the stove top.  Once it’s bubbling, cover the pot with a lid and place it in the oven.  About every hour or so, turn the temperature down by 25 F to keep the liquid at a very slow, gentle simmer.  Eventually the meat should be gently braising at about 275 F.
I cooked this pork shoulder for 6 hours, or until I could easily pull off a few strands of meat with a fork.   At this point, it's time to add the sauerkraut.  Be careful about salting this dish too much early on, as the sauerkraut and bacon will add their own salt to the sauce.
To cook the sauerkraut, give it a good rinse to get off any excess salt, then pack it in around the now-tender pork in the roasting pot.  You can also add some tart cooking apples, the reserved bacon crumbles, and a bit of freshly minced garlic at this time.  Now cover the pot again and return it to the oven for an hour to let the sauerkraut soften and soak up the porky juices.  After adding the sauerkraut, you’ll probably have to raise the temperature to bring the liquid back to a simmer.
Ready to Serve!
Once the sauerkraut is tender, the dish is ready to serve!  Give it a quick taste to see if you need to add extra salt or pepper.  You can pair this with whatever you like, from potatoes to roasted squash.  I served this dish with spatzle noodles and a tart applesauce my mother had made earlier in the fall.  I think some sharpness, such as the applesauce, is nice in a rich, slow-cooked dish like this.  You might try horseradish or sharp mustard, depending on your tastes.
Pork, Sauerkraut, Spatzel, and Applesauce
 From North Woods Ranch to your table, Happy New Year!

Recipe at a Glance:
1 pork butt (4-5 lbs)
8 oz bacon, sliced into 1/2" strips
1/2 of a 750 ml bottle riesling
3 medium sized onions, sliced
12-16 oz pork or beef stock
2 tart cooking apples, like Granny Smith or Sheep's Nose
3 cloves garlic

In a large, oven-safe pan, render out the fat from bacon until brown and crisp.  Remove the cooked bacon and reserve.  Brown the pork shoulder in the bacon drippings on both sides until brown and crusty.

Add the sliced onions and stir around the bottom of the pot, working the onions underneath the pork butt.  When the onions are soft and translucent, add the wine.  Scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze.  Add enough stock to cover the roast, and then bring to a simmer on the stovetop.

Cover the pan and place in a 350 F oven.  After an hour, check to see that the sauce is still bubbling gently.  Then turn the oven down to 325.  Continue this each hour until the roast is gently cooking at 275 F.  Check the pork after 5 hours to see if it's tender enough to be shredded with a dinner fork.  If not, let it continue to cook for another hour.

When the pork is tender, prepare the sauerkraut, garlic, and apples.  Rinse the sauerkraut under cold water and squeeze dry.  Mince the garlic, then core and slice the apple.  Add all of these ingredients to the pot, nestling them in and around the pork roast.  Bring the oven back to 350 F and cook at a simmer for one hour.

After an hour, check the pork and sauerkraut.  Add additional salt and pepper if needed.  At any point, if the pork looks to be loosing too much liquid to evaporation, top up with additional stock.

Serve each guest a large helping of pork and sauerkraut, making sure to toast both the past year and the coming new year!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Berkshire Pig's Tail with Beans


I didn’t grow up eating offal, but not because it wasn’t around. When I was growing up, my mother would often eat different types of offal: liver, the occasional chicken heart, gizzards—you get the idea. Now, as an adult focused on using all of the animal, offal has a whole new importance for me.  In the kitchen, working with offal and understanding the different ways to cook it is an on-going adventure.  Sure, I love reading the blogs of offal-fanatics, but sometimes I wonder if they are preaching to the choir. One of my goals is to encourage people who are curious, yet less familiar, with offal to try some of these delicious and easy dishes made from less-than-conventional cuts of meat.  
Committing to a big slab of liver or a bowl of tripe for dinner can be a bit much for many people, which is completely understandable.  I like to suggest that people should begin by using offal as a component in a dish, rather than starting with the organ meat at the center of the plate.  Plus, by using the whole animal in smaller amounts—but more often—in your cooking, you really get to appreciate nose-to-tail cooking across a range of dishes.

Let’s begin at the end.  A pig’s end.  The tail of a pig is a wonderful ingredient to have stashed in your freezer.  Rich with skin, fat, meat, and bones, a pig’s tail can enhance a number of dishes, from soups and stews to baked beans - the focus of today’s post.  Beans and pig tails are a perfect pairing.  The two humble ingredients work together to create a rich, savory pot of beans for the perfect warming dish on a cold day.
I soaked a pound of snowcap beans overnight, but any variety of dried beans would do.  Then I nestled the pig tail into the bottom of the pot with the soaked beans, finally adding enough water to cover up the beans.  I also added an onion and a whole clove for flavor.  Then, I gently cooked the beans and tail in a 300-325°F oven at a gentle simmer.  The beans get plump and begin to soften, while the tail slowly renders out its fat and coats the cooking beans.  As time goes on, the skin of the tail also softens and adds gelatin to the beans, giving the entire dish a rich, unctuous mouth feel. 
Cooking times can vary based on the size and age of the dried beans; newer crops usually cook faster, as do smaller beans, like pigeon peas compared to large dried lava beans.  I suggest planning for 3-4 hours of cooking time.

I didn’t salt the beans until the last hour of cooking, as I think that helps to keep the skins of the beans from splitting.  Along with salt, I added a ¼ cup of molasses and two tablespoons of dried mustard powder, which gave the dish a thick, savory-sweet sauce. 

I like serving the dish by filling up a bowl of beans and broiling a chunk of the tail in the over until it gets brown and crispy.  That’s it – the humble and often overlooked tail becomes a delicious and satisfying dinner!

Recipe at a Glance:
- 1 pig's tail
- 1 lb dried beans, soaked for 8 hours or overnight
- 1 medium onion
- 1 clove
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 2 tablespoons dried mustard powder
- salt and pepper to taste.

Rinse the beans and soak overnight.  The next morning, put the beans in a pot with a the pig tail, onion, and clove.  Put in a 325 F oven for 3-4 hours.  If the beans seem  hard and mealy in the center, cook for another hour or two.  When beans are tender, add salt, molasses, and mustard.

Cook beans uncovered for one hour more to thicken sauce.  Serve in bowls with a segment of pig's tail on top.  To make the tails crispy, place under the oven broiler on high for 2-4 minutes.