Sunday, April 19, 2015

Making Berkshire Lard at Home

When I started cooking with lard, I had a hard time seeing why people were so religious with their affection for lard pastries and pie crusts.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized I was cooking with bad lard.  The only lard I could find anywhere was a commercial brand mixed with the preservatives BTH and BHA to keep it from going rancid, plus hydrogenated fats.  When I came around to real, natural lard from pasture-raised pigs, it was like a light bulb finally clicked.

Berkshire Lard
Comparing commercial blocks of industrial lard to natural, homemade lard is like comparing meat from a industrially raised animal to meat from a pasture-raised, heirloom breed animal that lived a natural, healthy life.  The natural choice has an unparalleled depth of flavor and delivers exceptional results in the kitchen.

Much like making your own stock, making lard is easy, requiring just a little effort and some time.  The good news is that most of that time is leaving the lard alone on the stove to slowly render down.  Plus, lard lasts a long time (especially frozen in mason jars), so I just make one large batch two or three times a year.
Thick block of back fat (L) and ropey sheets of leaf lard (R)

Lard can be made with two types of fat: leaf lard, which is internal fat from around the kidneys, and back fat, which is the fat that lies just below the skin on the pig’s back and sides.  Lard cognoscenti prefer leaf lard, which has a very delicate flavor and produces exceptionally flaky pie crusts.  Lard from back fat shouldn’t be disregarded, as it is still a wonderful cooking fat and performs well in pastries.

Making lard only requires a heavy-bottomed pot and a strainer or sieve of some type.  The pork fat will naturally render out its fat at low temperatures, but it helps to have a ½” of water in your pot.  This water will keep the lard from sticking to the bottom of the pot and browning during the initial cooking.  As the fat slowly warms and renders out the lard, the water will evaporate and leave behind beautiful, clear lard.
To help the lard render out quickly, it’s best to increase the surface area of the fat either by dicing the fat with a knife or extruding it through the smallest plate of a meat grinder.  The first time I made lard I just chopped it into 1”x1” cubes, which produced great lard, but took a loooong time.  The smaller the pieces of fat, the quicker the lard can render out.
Once the lard and starting water are simmering in a pot the process is pretty much hands off, aside from the occasional stirring of the pot.  Keep the heat low; high heat will cause the fat to sear and brown, which isn’t terrible but will make the lard taste like roasted drippings, rather than a neutral fat.  After about 2-3 hours of steady simmering, the cubes of fat will sink to the bottom of the pot and look almost translucent.  This is when it’s time to pour off the lard.  I put the bulk of my lard into 8oz and 16 oz mason jars, which makes it easy to measure out a cup or pound of fat for a recipe. 
At the bottom of the pot will be all the small cubes of fat, which still have some fat in them.  To extract all the fat from them, I wring them out in an old towel or press out the still warm lard using a potato ricer.  This lard should be put aside for sautéing, as it has a stronger flavor than the lard that floated to the top of the pot.   
Greaves, pressed of all their fat and ready to mix into cornbread or biscuits
The leftover nubbins of fat, called greaves, shouldn’t be discarded; they’re a great addition to cornbread or a buckwheat pilaf.  I add a 1/2 cup of greaves to my favorite cornbread recipe for a delicious batch of cracklin' cornbread!

Recipe at a glance:
Any quantity of pork back fat or leaf lard.

1.) Cut the fat into small cubes, or grind it using a meat grinder or pulsing in food processor.

2.) In a pot large enough to easily hold all of the diced fat, cover the bottom of the pot with 1/2" of water to keep the fat from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Add all of the fat and place the pot on the stove and turn heat to medium.  Once the water beings to simmer, the fat will render out.  Once all of the water has evaporated, there should be plenty of rendered fat to keep the fat moist and avoid sticking.

3.) Cook for 2-3 hours.  If you're rendering out large cubes of fat, the rendering will go slower and additional time will be needed.

4.) When the cubes of fat have shriveled and sunk to the bottom, take the lard off the heat.  Ladle off the liquid fat into clean mason jars.  Once cool, screw lids onto the jars and refrigerate for three months or freeze to keep longer.

5.)  At the bottom of the pot will be the greaves, which can be squeeze for the remaining lard.  Save the greaves, which will add some fat and a good amount of flavor to dishes.  Greaves freeze very well, just like lard.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Berkshire Pate de Campagne with Wigle Rye Whiskey

In the immortal words of Carol Cutler, author of the 1983 cook book Pâté“A pâté is nothing more than French meat loaf that’s had a couple of cocktails.”  I love that quote, as it takes away a lot of the mystique about pate, making it feel more accessible to the home cook. Plus, it really hammers home the idea that, just as meatloaf recipes vary widely in ingredients, so can pate recipes. I am often surprised by the number of misconceptions people have about pate. 
Many think “pate” means that the dish is made entirely of liver, and others conflate pate with foie gras, or fattened goose or duck liver. In reality, some pates have no liver, some have a little, and some are bursting with liver.  Just like many people have their own favorite meatloaf recipe, which may vary tremendously from family to family, the ingredients and composition of a pate all comes down to the cook’s personal preference.
Berkshire Pork Liver
I think a country-style pate, or pate de champagne, is a perfect introduction to pate making, so that will the focus of this post. This kind of pate is rustic and has a coarse texture--it is quite different from the smooth mousse-like texture many people associate with the term “pate.”  While some pates contain a mix of meat, poultry, and game, this recipe is entirely pork from North Woods Ranch’s Berkshire pigs.  This pate is half ground pork and half pork liver, with the liver cut into bite-sizes pieces.

Wigle Rye Whiskey
To season this pate, I like the traditional mix of onion, garlic, thyme, and bay. Many pate recipes also include brandy, sherry, or another liqueur to round out the flavor of the dish.  For a bit of local flavor, I decided to substitute Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey. Wigle makes a range of spirits, but I love their Monongahela Rye for its big, spicy aroma and smooth finish.  I think it is a perfect match for the flavor of the pork liver, without overwhelming the rest of the ingredients.

Assembling the pate is very straightforward – just mix all the ingredients together and bind with an egg or two.  One optional step is to sauté the liver for two minutes in a skillet. This firms up the liver and gives it an extra savory flavor.  Next, the ground pork and cubed liver are mixed with two eggs, Wigel rye, chopped onion, thyme, minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.  When everything is mixed together evenly, I fry a small patty of pate to see if extra salt is needed.

Returning to the notion of pate-as-meatloaf, many pates are wrapped in some kind of outer layer of fat, just as many meat loafs are wrapped in bacon. Fresh pork belly or caul fat is often used to wrap the pate, but I decided to use North Wood’s jowl bacon.
Happy with my seasonings and my wrappings, the pate is packed into a covered loaf pan or terrine mold for cooking in a 325 F oven. To help the pate cook evenly, I cook it in a water bath, or bain marie, which is simply a baking pan filled with hot water. There should be enough water to come halfway up the sides of the loaf pan.  Once the pate reaches an internal temperature of 160 F (about 1.5 hours), I remove it from the oven and let it cool for an hour or so.
To get a firm, sliceable texture, the pate can be weighted down and left to sit overnight in the fridge. To weigh the pate down, I leave the pate in its mold and place two large cans of whole tomatoes on top of the pate to press down the meat overnight. The flavor of a pate, just like a stew, improves greatly the next day.
For serving, I like to enjoy the pate sliced thickly and served with toasted bread.  A fruit spread offers a wonderful contrast to the hearty flavor of the pork--consider tart apple butter or a fruit chutney.  For this pate, I played off the smooth notes from the rye whiskey by pairing it with a fig and rye chutney.
Before I finish up, I want to explain why this type of recipe is so exciting to me. Think about it--in a single dish the pig’s liver, jowl, and meat are all being used. Pate is an easy way to enjoy the entire animal, nose-to-tail. While being easy to prepare, it is also a dish that will delight even those who have hesitations or reservations about about going whole hog for offal.

Recipe at a Glance
1 lb pork liver
1 lb ground pork meat
12 ounces sliced jowl bacon or belly bacon
1/4 cup rye whiskey 
1 medium onion chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp fresh thyme, minced
2 tsp fresh parsley, minced
2 tsp salt 
2 eggs, lightly beaten to blend
1 tsp white pepper, ground
2 fresh bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 325 F.  Cut the liver into 1/2" cubes and saute in a pan over high heat.  The liver just needs to be seared to add flavor, it doesn't need to be cooked through.  Remove from the pan after two minutes and set aside to cool.

Mix all the ingredients, except for the bay leaves and bacon, together in a large bowl.  Mix for 3-4 minutes by hand, which will make the meat mixture take on a tacky, sticky texture and produce a better bind.  

In a six cup loaf pan or terrine mold, layer the bacon across the terrine loaf so that it will wrap the finished pate.  Pack the meat mixture into the pan, pressing down on the mixture to pack it together tightly.  Fold the ends of bacon over the top of the pate, then lay down the bay leaves on top.  Cover the pan with a lid or a greased piece of foil.

Put a large pan of water into the preheated oven and place the pan with the pate into the larger pan.  Pour enough hot water in to the larger pan to come half-way up the pate pan.

Bake for 75-90 minutes, or until the pate reaches 155 F.  Let the pate cool overnight before slicing.  For a denser textured pate, weigh down the pate with large cans of tomatoes or beans overnight.