Monday, November 24, 2014

Making Berkshire Jowl Bacon: Part 1 of 2

Say “bacon” and most people think of crispy, smoky slices of pork belly sizzling away in the skillet.  But there’s a world of bacon beyond the belly, and jowl bacon is one of my favorites.  Also called “side bacon” or more recently “face bacon,” jowl bacon is perfect for autumn dishes, as it brings the fat and flavor of a smoked hock, but it can still be fried crisp like traditional belly bacon.  It’s also the cut I’d recommend if you’re considering doing some home curing for the first time.
North Woods Ranch Berkshire Jowl
Why?  The jowl has a thick layer of fat on top with the meat nestled gently inside.  When it comes to curing, fat is easy to cure because it is very dense and has little water in it.  You really can’t over-salt a slab of fat – it simply cannot absorb enough salt to taste over salted.  So if this is your first time curing bacon, the jowl is very forgiving in the curing process.  Plus, jowls cure very quickly: a slab of belly bacon takes 5-7 days to cure, but you can cure a jowl in 3-4 days.

To start, lay the jowl on your cutting board with the thick, fat side down.  Facing up should be a deep red oval of meat. This meat is the actual cheek muscle.  You don't want to use this muscle for the jowl bacon, so cut out the red circle of cheek meat and reserve it for braising in a nice stew.  Hiding all around the cheek is soft fat that feels like cottage cheese, and mixed into this fat are a ton of salivary glands.
Trimming a Full Jowl for Bacon
Next, slice parallel to the cutting board to remove all that smooshy fat and the salivary glands.  We want only the thick, firm fat for the jowl bacon, so slice all the soft fat away.  If need to, go back with the knife and scrape away any remaining soft fat to reveal the firm jowl fat below.  The jowl fat feels like cold clay, and it’s easy to differentiate it from the soft fat and salivary glands.

Now, prep your cure.  I like to keep it simple with salt, sugar, and lots of black pepper.  Because I use jowl bacon in savory dishes like sweet potato hash and sides of mustard greens, I usually don’t do a sweet cure.  If you like, feel free to add maple syrup or molasses. Alternatively, you could go with rosemary, garlic, red pepper, and bay for a more pronounced, herbal flavor.  Below is the basic dry rub for the jowl:

¼ Cup Kosher Sea Salt
¼ Cup Light Brown Sugar

2 Teaspoons Instacure #1 Sodium Nitrite
3 Tablespoons Coarsely Cracked Black Pepper

I add sodium nitrite to my cure to prevent botulism. When meat is smoked, it is placed in an oxygen-free environment, which increases the likelihood of botulism spores.  If you prefer, there are a number of plant-based alternatives, like celery powder, that can replace sodium nitrite.  The choice is up to you.
Berkshire Jowl Packed in Cure and Black Pepper
Allow the jowl to sit in a large bag in the fridge for three days. As time goes on, the salt cure causes the water to be pulled out from the jowl. This turns the dry cure into a runny paste.  While the jowl is in the fridge, be sure to turn the bag daily to help distribute the cure evenly. Once the jowl is done curing, its off to be smoked, which we'll cover in Part 2 of this post.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Braised Scottish Highland Short Ribs

Autumn’s falling leaves and dropping temperatures always make me excited for braised dishes.  Slowly simmering all day, filling your house with savory aromas, it’s wonderful to be greeted by such classic comfort-food after raking leaves.  Of all the meats your can braise, I find short ribs to be the most user-friendly.  This cut, as you can guess by the name, comes from trimming off the ends of the ribs.  Short ribs come in tidy little squares or rectangles with a large cube of meat attached to a plank of bone.
What’s great about short ribs is that they’re easy to portion (one per person for a light lunch, two for dinner, or three if you’re feeling extravagant) and they reheat very easily.  At home, it’s just my wife and I, so I’ll usually cook up a pot of eight or twelve ribs on a Sunday, then during the week we can quickly warm up a pair at a time for a nourishing and near-effortless dinner.  Unlike a roast, there’s no carving, and don’t worry about the bone; it easily pops out after cooking, like pulling a stem from a grape.

To get started, season the short ribs generously with salt and pepper.  Then sear in a hot, oven-safe pan using oil or lard until they become deeply mahogany colored.  As the short ribs brown in the pan, chop up some onion, celery, and carrots.  I usually do: 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrots. When I cooked the short ribs here, I had six short ribs and used two medium cooking onions, two ribs of celery, and a large carrot. You don’t need a lot, just enough to add some extra flavor and sweetness into your braising liquid—feel free to scale up or down to taste.  As you’re prepping the vegetables, flip the ribs around in the pan to brown all the sides.
Once the short ribs have browned, remove them from the heat and cook off the chopped vegetables in the pan with the short rib drippings.  This will help to add another level of savory flavor to the dish.  After the vegetables are browned and softened, pour in some beef stock and scrape up all the browned bits at the bottom of the pan.  While I love using my homemade stock, these short ribs also work particularly well when using boxed stock.  Notice how the ribs are cut across the bone to expose the interior?  That helps pull out the flavor from the bones during cooking, just as if you were making a mini batch of stock.  

Nestle the short ribs back into the pan with the cooked vegetables and top them up with stock so they’re just covered.  I like to add some fresh thyme and bay leaves, but rosemary, dried mushrooms reconstituted in water, or dried chilies would all be great variations.
So that’s it for the heavy-lifting required for this recipe.  Cover the pan and pop into a 325°F oven for 5-6 hours and you’re done.  Conventionally farmed short ribs only take 3-4 hours, but these Scottish Highland cows have been building up their muscles, hiking up and down the pasture.  That makes their meat more flavorful, but it also means they’ll take longer to become tender.  Normally, I’ll start these in the morning and let them spend the day in the oven, turning it down to 300°F after about an hour in the oven and 275°F another two hours after that, just hot enough to keep the meat at a gentle simmer. The meat will be more than happy to luxuriate in its braising liquids for a bit longer, because short ribs have a good deal of intramuscular fat and collagen. So if you have the time, a slow, 8-10 hour braise would really allow the fat to render out, the collagen breaks down into gelatin, and just make a meltingly tender dish. As you might imagine, this is a fantastic use for a crock pot, if you have one. 
Braised Scottish Highland Short Ribs
When serving the short ribs, you could make the dish hearty by piling two ribs and a ladleful of the sauce over a plate of Pennsylvania Dutch egg noodles.  However, I find that we enjoy pairing the short ribs with cooked vegetables as a nice foil to the intensely-flavored short ribs. Blanched leeks are probably our favorite, as they collect all that wonderful sauce in their numerous overlapping layers, and nicely complementing the richness of the meat.

Finally, like all braised dishes, these short ribs only get better the next day.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Introducing Ranch Friend and Food Writer Nick Benard

We’re excited to introduce a ranch friend, Nick Benard, as a new member of the North Woods Ranch community.  Starting this month, Nick will be contributing to our blog by writing about his favorite recipes and culinary adventures with North Woods Ranch beef and pork.
Nick has a lifelong passion for food and writing. He spent nine years working in the specialty food industry at a cheese importing company.  Today, he works at the iconic Nittany Lion Inn at the Penn State University, where Nick handles their in-house curing, sausage making, and charcuterie.  In between, Nick has worked to learn as much as possible about food and the process behind traditional, artisan foods.  This has taken him to visiting artisanal cheese makers from Wisconsin to the mountains of Switzerland.  

On the meat side of things, Nick spent a week shadowing the charcuterie specialists at the Underground Meat Collective in Madison, Wisconsin.  He also participated in Mosefund Farm’s Pigstock, a three day on-farm workshop of slaughtering a Mangalitsa pig, cleaning and preparing the offal, and seam butchering the carcass, all under the watchful eye of Christoph Wiesner, Butcher and President of the Austrian Mangalitsa Breeders’ Association. Nick is an avid cook book reader and enjoys writing about his own cooking experiences.
Nick with Two of Our Berkshire Hogs
Expect to see a range of new posts coming, using our Scottish Highland Cattle and Berkshire hogs. Blog posts will range from simple weeknight dinners to larger projects for home chefs looking to make their own bacon, kielbasa, pate, and ham featuring North Woods Ranch on his personal blog the Culinary Pen.  In the meantime, feel free to check out some of Nick’s past posts featuring North Woods Ranch on his personal blog.