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!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stir-Fried Berkshire Ground Pork and Pork Liver

I love Southern Korean cuisine.  Especially fascinating to me is how South Korean recipes mix and layer proteins.  It’s quite common to find pork and tofu all in the same dish; there’s no a mindset of “tofu is only for vegetarian meals.”  Similarly, offal is also included in dishes alongside mainstays like chicken breast or strips of beef.
North Woods Ranch Berkshire Pork Stir Fry
Back in my own kitchen, I’ve found this technique is great for introducing friends to offal and organs.  Plus, the bright flavors and aromas of ginger, garlic, scallions and chilies are perfect for exciting the palate and still standing up to the flavor of liver or kidney.  The stir fry I describe in this post is perfect for people curious about exploring the delicious world of organs.

When doing a stir fry at home I normally divide the ingredients into two skillets, but a large wok could also work.  Piling all the ingredients into a single large pot, would overcrowd them, causing them to steam and stew, rather than fry.
For this recipe, I used one pound of North Wood’s Ranch Berkshire ground pork and one pound of their sliced liver.  Thinly sliced pork kidneys are also a traditional ingredient in many Asian stir fries, especially in Sichuan, China and could be used as an alternative for liver.
Many PA farmer's markets offer log-grown shiitakes this time of year.
To start I chopped up all the vegetables and started cooking them in one skillet. In my second skillet I started cooking the meat.  For the shiitakes I removed the stems (which are inedible but very good compost) and then sliced the caps into strips.  I also cut the onions and bok choy into narrow strips as well, so everything cooked evenly.  To season the vegetables I went with the bright taste of ginger, grating a tablespoon or two over the skillet.  The water I added to wash out the ginger from the grater’s teeth will create a small amount of steam, which will help the greens to wilt and incorporate into the mushrooms and onions.
First Additions to the Pan
As an aside, I also really love this ceramic grater. I use it regularly for both ginger and horseradish.  The box-style metal graters always seems to get clogged, but this ceramic plate just grates it into a fine paste without any waste.  To get all the ginger out I pour a tablespoon or two of water over the center of the plate, which washes out any stuck pieces and goes into the dish.  
To prep the meat, I just crumbled up the ground Berkshire pork and chopped the liver into small cubes.  Ground pork takes a little longer to cook than liver, so I started the pork in the pan first.  Once the pork was beginning to brown, I added in my next ingredients: cubes of liver.   This is also the time I added my spices and seasoning: soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, five spice powder, Szechuan pepper, and toasted sesame seeds.  Alternatively, there are some very good bottled sauces available in grocery stores, that you can use to season the meat, rather than making a sauce from scratch.

Liver cooks quickly, so I checked the doneness of my pork liver every minute or so to avoid the toughness that comes with overcooking it.
Adding the Liver Cubes and Bok Choy
Finally, to finish the dish, I made a large bed with the cooked vegetables in the bottom of a bowl, then added a large scoop of the seasoned pork.  I garnished it with some fresh scallion and a little more soy sauce and sesame oil to taste.  All in all, this is a wonderful mix of savory pork, rich liver, and zesty greens, mushrooms, and scallions. I hope you enjoy it, too!
Recipe at a Glance:
- 1 lb pork liver, cut into 1/2" cubes
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 lb Chinese greens, such as Bok Choy
- 3/4 lb shiitake mushrooms
- 1 medium onion
- 2-3 scallions
- 1-2" piece of peeled ginger
- 2 garlic cloves

For the Sauce
- 2 Tbl sesame oil
- 1 Tbl fish sauce
- 1 tsp Szechuan pepper
- 1.5 Tbl toastes sesame seeds
- 1 tsp Chinese Five Spice powder
- 3 Tbl soy sauce or tamari

Grease two 12" skillets.  Grate the ginger finely, using a tablespoon or two of water to loosen any stuck ginger fibers.

Remove the stems from the shiitakes, the roots from the scallions, and peel the onion.  Mice the garlic.  Slice all of the vegetables into 1/3" - 1/2" strips, except the scallions.  Slice the scallions into fine rings, saving a small handful of sliced scallion to use as a finishing garnish.

Heat the skillets to medium high heat.  Brown the ground pork in one of the skillets.  In the second, begin to cook the onions and mushrooms.  When the pork is browned with some pink remaining, add the liver and all the seasonings, then cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring often.  When the onions begin to turn translucent, add the bok choy, garlic, and scallions.  Add the ginger and ginger water, which will help to steam the greens.

Check the pork liver to see when it is just cooked through, then remove from heat.  When the stems of the bok choy are tender, remove from heat.  Some additional salt may be needed for seasoning the greens.

Lay down a bed of sauteed mushrooms, onions, and bok choy, then top with the seasoned pork mixture.  Garnish with the reserved scallions.