Friday, May 29, 2015

How to Make Pork Skin Dog Treats at Home

I'm not sure if this post is better described as a recipe or as a craft project, but your dog will see these pork skin chews as a real treat no matter what you call the process.
Our wonderful pup is seventy pounds of fuzzy, adorable joy.  We're particular about what he eats, but who wouldn't be?  We've read and heard of too many horror stories detailing the commercial pet food industry as a catch-all for anything and everything.

While our dog enjoys unbleached rawhide rolls (made in the USA) on occasion, they're not the easiest thing for him to digest.  While talking to Oliver at North Woods Ranch, he mentioned pork skin was a much better alternative.  I've written about using North Wood's pork skin for cracklin's and making homemade stock, so it only seemed natural that a food I'd be willing to eat myself would also be a good choice for my dog.
Making pork skin treats for your own dog is actually very simple.  If you can bring a pot of water to a simmer, you're halfway there.
Start by rolling out the pork skin and cutting it into thick strips.  It'll shrink a bit, so aim for about 2" wide strips.  Put the strips into a pot of water and simmer for about 90 minutes.  This will tenderize the skin and also soften any fat attached to the skin.
Remove the excess fat by using the flat back of a knife to scrape the soft white fat away.  After cooking the skin will be opaque, so it's easy to identify the white layer of fat.  While this fat might be too rich to give your dog as a treat, it's still perfect for greasing a skillet or cooking potatoes.
Once most of the fat is gone, it's time to firm up the skin into chewy treats.  My original plan was to braid the skin for thicker chews, but it didn't work as I had planned. So I just rolled them up like a paper towel roll. I don't think my dog minded, though.
Finally, I dried the skin in a dehydrator for 8-10 hours.  If you don't have a dehydrator handy, an oven set to low (170 F) would work. The skin changed from a cloudy, opaque look to a shiny, almost-clear appearance as it dried. 
Average Size of the Pork Chews
As an added treat, I did a test run and basted a couple in a little bit of Berkshire pork blood.  For those, I heated the blood in a skillet for 2-3 minutes to thicken it, then brushed it on like a BBQ sauce before dehydrating the skin.

As any pet owner will admit, they know their own pet best.  If your dog is the type to swallow large hunks of rawhide, pork skin will not slow their aggressive chewing.  The best course of action is to keep an eye on your pet to make sure they're not eating too much/too large of pieces in their animal excitement for something extra delicious.

For one package of skin, I ended up with nine "sticks," plus 3-4 broken pieces from my initial attempt to braid the pork strips.
Bonne Bouche ate two before I snapped this photo

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Berkshire Pork Chops with Kohlrabi Apple Slaw

Thick-cut pork chops may not be the first thing to come to mind when one thinks "quick dinner," but they're a personal favorite of mine after discovering a trick in an old issue of Cooks Illustrated magazine.
Delicious Berkshire Pork Chops from North Woods Ranch
A tough pork chop is a shame, but thankfully its easy to avoid with a simple technique.  What is the trick?  Start cooking the pork chop in a cold pan.  I didn't believe it when I read the CI article, but it's worked for me for years.  The musculature in a pork chop is so dense that it can actually squeeze out its own juices when shocked by a smoking hot pan.  By starting pork chops in a cold, greased skillet and turning the heat to medium, the meat gently acclimates to the warmer temperatures and doesn't squeeze out all the delicious juices.
But what about a seared brown crust?  Don't worry, just keep flipping the pork chops every 4-5 minutes until cooked to your preference. The bronze crust will develop over time, as the exterior of the chop slowly browns and caramelizes.
After the First Flip: Browning Beginning to Develop
For 3/4" inch pork chops from North Woods Ranch, I find it takes 20-25 minutes to get to my preferred state of medium-doness.  In that time, I can quickly fix up a side dish of something light and fresh.
I love raw vegetable slaws because they're so quick and versatile.  A nice side dish can be nothing more than carrot shredded on a box grater and tossed with lemon juice and yogurt.  For Berkshire pork chops this beautiful, I wanted to dress things up a bit and went with a combination of kohlrabi, Granny Smith apple, and carrot.  To start, I whisked together a dressing of apple cider vinegar, honey, celery seed, and black pepper in a large bowl.  Then I started in on the vegetables.
Sadly underused, kohlrabi is a member of the turnip family, and it looks like a little alien head that was planted in the ground.  It's delicious served raw like jicama, or it can be boiled or roasted like turnips.  Either way it's fresh and crunchy with a very mild flavor in comparison to turnips.

For this vegetable slaw I peeled the kohlrabi and cut it into matchstick shapes. Then I used the peeler to cut long ribbons of the carrot.  To give the slaw a sweet and tart note, I also cut a large, unpeeled Granny Smith apple into matchsticks.  All the slaw ingredients got mixed together, then tossed in the bowl to be coated in the dressing.
Kohlrabi Apple Slaw
At this point, the pork chops were a beautiful mahogany brown on the surface and cooked through to my liking.  I removed them from the skillet and deglazed the pan with a bit of apple cider vinegar to play off the flavoring in the slaw.  Scraping up all the browned fond on the bottom of pan, I had a simple pan sauce perfect for pouring over the chops. All in all, It was a delicious dinner put together in about 30 minutes.
North Woods Chops with Kohlrabi Slaw
Recipe at a Glance:
This recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, or googolplexed out to serve more
- 2 Berkshire pork chops
- 1 tbsp lard or oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

- 2-3 medium (lemon-sized) kohlrabi
- 1 tart apple
- 1 medium carrot
-1/4 tsp celery seed
- 1 tsp raw honey
- 2  tbsp apple cider vinegar

Take the pork chops out of the fridge to help get the chill of the refrigerator off.  Thirty minutes is ideal, if you have the time.  Salt and pepper the pork chops on both sides, then grease a cold skillet with oil and lard.  Place the pork chops in the skillet and turn the heat on to Medium.  Let the pork chops slowly cook for 15-20 minutes in the pan, turning occasionally.  Keep an eye on the pork chops and prepare the slaw.

Peel the kohlrabi and wash the carrot and apple.  Slice the kohlrabi and apple into matchsticks.  Using a vegetable peeler, peel long curls of carrot and mix in with the kohlrabi.  In a bowl, add the apple cider vinegar, honey, celery seed, and salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk to blend, then add vegetables and toss to coat with dressing.

When pork chops are at preferred level of doneness, remove from pan and put on a plate.  Add the two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to the hot skillet and scrape up the browned bits and drippings.  If the vinegar reduces too quickly and the pan is going dry, add a tablespoon of water.  Pour the vinegar and drippings pan sauce over the pork chops.  Finish by adding a pile of kohlrabi apple slaw to each plate.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Pork Tongue with Lentils and Salsa Verde

When I first became serious about cooking offal, I had great success with tongue right off the bat. Because tongue is very similar to skeletal muscle cuts, the process of cooking tongue was actually quite familiar.  Like brisket or eye of round, tongue has a similarly dense texture with long striations, making it easy to braise and then slice against the grain, and is wonderfully rich and savory.  Tongue also contains a good amount of collagen, which gives it a lip-smacking quality like oxtail or pork hocks.
Berkshire Pork Tongues
I especially like cooking pork tongues, as their 6-8 oz size makes it easy to portion one per person.  For this recipe I used two pork tongues from North Woods Ranch Berkshire hogs. To start, tenderize the tongues by gently simmering them on the stove top for two hours cooking.  I seasoned the tongues with sea salt and put them in a small pot with pork stock, a bay leaf, and a small bundle of thyme. To check doneness, a knife should easily slide into the tongue without any resistance.

Tongues After Cooking: Notice the membrane is distinctly white
Once the tongues are cooked, they’re almost ready to eat.  The only special treatment a tongue requires in the kitchen is to peel off the thick, leathery membrane.  It’s not as tricky as it might seem--cooking turns the outer membrane of the tongue an opaque white, making it easy to identify where the membrane ends and the meat begins.  It’s best to peel the tongues while they’re still warm.  Just begin at one edge and peel like an orange; the membrane will come off in strips.  Occasionally a section might be “stuck” to the meat, but these bits of membrane can just be nicked off with the tip of a sharp knife.

While working on the tongue, I find it’s a good time to get a side dish cooking.  A quick dish of earthy lentils pairs perfectly with the full flavor of the tongue.  I reuse the tongue’s cooking liquid by bringing it back to a boil, adding in my lentils, and simmering them until tender.

To serve the tongue slice it horizontally from tip to base, cutting against the grain of the meat to produce tender slices.  The base may have some fatty sections, which can be trimmed off if desired.  

With the rich meat of the tongue and the earthly lentils, I brighten up the flavors by finishing off the dish with something like an Italian salsa verde, which is simply parsley, rosemary, garlic, capers and olive oil.  Pureed together, the sauce should be a little looser than a pesto, since there are no nuts or cheese in salsa verde to thicken it.  With a fresh herbal flavor and a piquant note from the garlic and capers, it’s perfect for spooning over the tongue, or almost any braised meat.

Recipe at a Glance
- 2 pork tongues
- 1 pint of pork or vegetable stock
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 1 cup of dried black lentils
- 1/2 bunch of parsley (about 1 cup, roughly chopped)
- 4 oz olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 sprig rosemary, leaves removed from stem
- 2 tsp capers (rinsed)
- Salt and pepper to taste (capers will add some salt)

Bring the stock to a boil in a small pot.  Add the tongues, bay leaf, and a bit of sea salt (more if your stock is unsalted) to the pot.  Reduce to a simmer and cook at a gentle simmer on the stove top, or braise in the oven at 325 F.  Tongues should be done after two hours, or give another 20 minutes or so until tender.

Remove the tongues from the liquid and allow to cool slightly on a plate.  Bring the braising liquid back to a boil and add the lentils, then cover the pot and lower heat to a simmer.  Depending on the type of lentils, they'll be tender in 15-20 minutes.  Taste one at the 15 minute mark, adding more liquid if necessary to keep lentils covered.  When cooked, adjust seasoning and discard bay leaf.

To make the salsa verde, puree the parsley, olive oil, garlic, capers, and rosemary leaves in a blender until smooth.  Taste and adjust the salt if necessary.  

When the tongues are cool enough to handle, but still warm, peel off the outer membrane, starting from the underside and pulling up to the top of the tongue.  Remove any "stuck" sections of membrane with a knife.

To serve, lay down a bed of lentils, then a spoonful of salsa verde.  Slice the tongue against the grain and place on the salsa verde.  Sprinkle with more sea salt and pepper.