For the Love of Lard (Pig Fat is Back)

An early spate of frigid weather brings on cravings for rich treats.
Lard biscuits

Last week, I picked up a half share of pig, all neatly cut and packaged. (Giving thanks for our beleaguered small-scale meat processing plants.) But I forgot to ask the butcher to reserve the pig fat, including the smooth back fat and the lumpy leaf lard.

In the average hog, about 16 percent of the total yield is fat. From a heritage pig like the one I bought from Amaranta Farm, the ratio of fat to lean is even higher. So it’s worth claiming your share if you buy directly from a pork producer. This is one of joys of whole animal eating, learning to use, and perhaps to love, all the cuts.

Lard is simply all this fat melted down and strained and preserved. (Find a pictorial tutorial on rendering lard here). Lard is fat, pure and simple. And there are lots of reasons to love cooking with lard–again.

In my chest freezer I discovered a stash. It was portioned and wrapped, ready for use, a treasure I’d hardly remembered rendering and storing from a previous year’s pig. It was high time to put it to use for the holidays. I defrosted and unwrapped one of the bundles. It was off-white, silken smooth and smelling ever so faintly of frying bacon.

I started with a batch of tamales for a cocktail party. I used a tablespoon to flavor the olive oil in a batch of minestrone soup. I made biscuits (following the principles I learned here) and pie crust (find my favorite recipe here).

And then I made biscuits again.

Lard biscuit with cherry jam

What I discovered about making biscuits is that butter is good but lard is better.

For one thing, working the fat into the flour is much easier. Using my hands to make the dough, I picked up handfuls of flour and rubbed my thumb back and forth over my fingers to break up the fat to the size of small marbles. As the lard cooperated so much better than butter, I didn’t have to work the dough as much. Once mixed with the liquid, the dough was smoother and easier to handle, so again, I gentled it into shape, which makes for the most tender biscuits.

And I swear it was the lard that made these the flakiest, most silken biscuits I’ve ever produced. The fact that they had a mysterious savory flavor only added to their homespun charm.

[And by the way, in case you need another reason to try this recipe, the rubbing technique I’ve described is great practice for learning how to make pie dough. It’s one I learned from Marion Cunningham as described to Jeffrey Steingarten in The Man Who Ate Everything.]

So yes, this incredibly tasty, abundant and useful fat is back for keeps in the kitchen. Use it wisely.

Very Tender Biscuits, with or without Lard

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) cold lard or butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup cold milk (not nonfat)
1/4 cup plain yogurt (not nonfat)
3 tablespoons melted butter

  1.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Drop the cubes of lard around the bowl. Using your hands, rub the pieces of large with handfuls of flour to make small marble sized pieces and flatten them. Drop those pieces into the bowl and continue picking up handfuls of lard and flour until the lard is in ragged small pieces. If you pick up a handful of flour and squeeze, it will mostly stick together. This flattening technique makes the flakiest biscuits.
  3. Add the milk and the yogurt and use a fork to blend the liquid ingredients into the dry. Work with light strokes, turning the bowl. Stir until the flour is nearly all incorporated. Turn the contents of the bowl on the countertop. Use your hands, lightly dusted, with flour to collect the dough into a cohesive piece. With a light touch, pat the dough into a rough round about 1 1/2 inches thick.
  4. Use a can or a biscuit cutter (sharp edges make the tallest biscuits), cut the dough into rounds and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Collect the remaining dough gently and cut out more rounds, repeating until all the dough is used. (Your last biscuit might be a little taster for the baker.)
  5. Use a pastry brush to glaze the tops with butter. Be generous and use it all.
  6. Bake the biscuits until lightly golden brown, 14-16 minutes.

Short Ribs, Deconstructed

Not all short ribs are equal.
short ribs

Short ribs–although they may all be called by the same name–come in many forms.

There are the the single bone, English-style short ribs with a thick ribbon of meat attached, terrific for braising in beer or wine with a bit of tomato and aromatics (like this recipe: beef stew with a bone). There are the thin flanken or Korean-style short ribs, which are cross-cut sections that, once marinated, cook quickly over a grill or in a sauté pan (like this recipe: eat with your hands). Both of these are what you’ll find in restaurants, cooked to succulence and what I crave at home during this season. (Yes, there is already snow covering the ground here; so much for raking.)

But, if you buy a beef share, either a half or quarter, or even if you buy individual cuts directly from a rancher, the short ribs you end up with often are neither of these. Instead of these beefy short ribs generally found in the rib section, what whole animal buyers get is from the plate where the meat is more sparse, the bone thicker and the fat prevalent. Open a package of short ribs from your butcher, and you’ll often find a mixture of more and less meaty short ribs.

What to do?

I’m picky about the short ribs I use for braising. If there’sat least a one-and-a-half but preferably two-inch section of ruby meat running through the short ribs, I’ll trim them up and take the time to prepare them for a main dish. But more often than not, my short ribs are measly on the meat. (And bear in mind that the meat shrinks significantly after cooking.)

That’s when I get out the stockpot and make what many are now calling bone broth. Or, in old-fashioned terms, beef broth.

I make small batches of broth this way for a mid-week meal of minestrone, pho, French onion or beef barley soup and for weekend pot roasts, bolognese sauce and risotto.

beef barley soup

Or you can sip it and drink to your health.

There’s nothing to it–other than two to four hours of unattended simmering. You can even make it in a large slow cooker.

You’ll end up with some bits of meat and plenty of grass-fed beef tallow–a long-lasting cooking fat that’s got the nutritional benefits and flavor that is putting it back on the “good to eat” list for some–and an elixing broth that you could never, ever get from a can or carton.

Short Rib Stock, aka Bone Broth

Makes about 6 cups

3-4 pounds beef short ribs*
kosher salt
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
8 whole peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon dried
1 bay leaf

  1. Rub the ribs with the salt, and put them in a stockpot or slow cooker. Add the onion, carrots, tomato paste, peppercorns, thyme, and bay leaf. Pour 1 1/2 quarts cool water over the bones.
  2. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat (or high in a slow cooker). Use a slotted spoon or ladle to skim the foam and particles that rise to the surface. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and adjust it as necessary to maintain a slow, steady stream of small bubbles for 2-4 hours. The longer the stock simmers, the stronger it will be.
  3. Use tongs to transfer the short ribs into a bowl and set them aside. When the short ribs are cool enough to handle, trim the meat from the bones, discarding all the bones and excess fat.
  4. Strain the stock through a fine-meshed strainer, discarding the vegetables. If you intend to use the stock immediately, leave it undisturbed for 10 minutes then de-fat by ladling off and discarding any yellowish liquid from the surface. Or, place the stock uncovered in the refrigerator to chill at least 6 hours until the fat congeals into a thin layer on top. Use a spoon to lift off the fat and save it for cooking. Store the broth in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

*For a deeper flavor, roast the short ribs on a sheet pan in a 400-degree F oven until very well-browned on both sides.

November is for Canning, No Kidding!

The reward is a black bean quesadilla with homemade roasted salsa.
roasted salsa on black bean quesadilla

In the 14 years I’ve been canning, this is by far the latest! November is hunting season here, elk specifically, and the time for stew and sweaters. Not canning!

But this year, late summer stretched into mid-October and found us still plucking cherry tomatoes and zucchini from our raised beds through the end of the month. Molly harvested two lemon cucumbers on November 2nd.

The late, late, late frost means that there was still a lot of goods in the ground, and I found myself volunteering to help friends for the past week bring in the last of their own harvest. Volunteering might be a sneaky way of “helping myself,” because inevitably, lending a hand to a grower means you don’t leave the field or greenhouse empty handed. And that’s how I found myself in the throes of fall with a list of canning to-dos that stunned me:

  • pickle beets
  • can piccalilli
  • roast & freeze ratatouille
  • make pesto (cilantro & basil)
  • blanch & freeze beans
  • ferment pickles

And the most surprising of all, can tomatoes and salsa. Fresh tomatoes in November? You bet (this year, but not likely next…?)

After pulling out all the tomato plants in Beth’s greenhouse last week, there were plenty of ripe tomatoes to store. And so we put up jars of whole peeled and roasted tomatoes in quarts. “I mourn this season, really,” Beth said as we worked in my kitchen. “It really means the end of the best food.” True enough and all the more reason to put it all in a jar.

Yesterday, we made the salsa. Having spent a lot of time in Mexico and cooking with some restaurateurs there, I can honestly say there isn’t a brand on the market worth the jar it’s canned in. Whether it is too thick with tomato paste, too sweet or too overpowering of dried onion and spices, the fact is that salsa is best when fresh, so how do you make canned salsa taste good?

Roast! That is, cook the tomatoes and peppers in the oven at 425-450 degrees F until they are blistered all over.

The roasting process concentrates the sweetness of the tomatoes and peppers while providing the complex flavors from caramelization, or the good bubbled-up char I like to get on the veggies from roasting in a hot oven. If you’re not going to preserve this salsa in jars at room temperature, you can wing it, combining the garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers with salt and lime juice to suit your taste.

The caveat is when you want to preserve in jars.

roasted salsa

That’s when you want to be sure to follow the procedures detailed at the USDA’s Center for Home Food Preservation that includes an entire section on tomatoes. Trouble is, this excellent site does not (yet) have a recipe for a fire-roasted salsa, one that’s been tested to provide enough acidity (a pH at or below 4.6) in the finished product to be safe (i.e. to prevent the growth of botulism).

Happily, I found two different but quite similar recipes from good sources: Canned Tomato Salsa, Simply Recipes & Canning Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa Recipe, Mother Earth News

Here’s what they have in common:

  • both are based on 5 pounds of tomatoes with 1 cup of vinegar, which makes them easy to follow
  • you can safely substitute bottled lemon juice for the vinegar, according to the USDA, which I did because I prefer the taste
  • you can also mix up the varieties of pepper, combining sweet and hot to your taste so long as the ratios by weight stay the same
  • the amount of salt and the use of dried spices are up to your own taste

By following the ratios in these recipes and our own tastes, Beth and I ended up with 21 quarts of fall harvest salsa with the most excellent chunky consistency.

Since it snowed last night, this surely is the end of home-grown produce, but the good news is that it’s possible to save a lot of it in jars to eat and relish in the new season before us.

Rancher & Farmer Wisdom

Patrick Thiel of Prairie Creek Farm knows the ins & outs of spuds
Patrick Thiel

By far, my most favorite part of running the Lostine Tavern is talking with, learning from and purchasing foods from the array of local producers here in the Wallowas.

I’m lucky, because I’ve known most of the them for years now. But I am only beginning to grasp their deep knowledge of their products and how it can help us make better food. A potato is not just a potato, an egg is not like another egg, and no two types of beef are the same. The natural and seasonal variations are the culinary beauty of locally produced foods.

It reminds me of when I was in Provence and a grower had giant stalks of cardoons–a vegetable related to thistle–and he told me the best way to prepare it. Similarly, in Mexico, it was talking to the chile vendors that I learned how to make enchilada sauce and mole.

So I pay attention when a rancher tells me that their Corriente beef is best cooked no more than medium rare. Or grower who informs me to wait on the parsnips until spring when they’ll be sweeter. Or that the purple majesty potato will be perfect for roasting.

There is a lot to learn from these folks. I’m listening.

We need to listen to them for other reasons, too. Because it’s not enough to celebrate farmers and ranchers. We need to find ways to support them so that sustainable agriculture is just that. Sustaining as a livelihood for those who dedicate their lives to raising good food.

I certainly don’t have solutions, but this op-ed I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, Has Farm-to-Table Helped the Actual Farmer Yet? is a summary of some thoughts I’ve had. I’m hoping it kicks off a nice, long dialog.

Go ahead, I’m listening.

Let’s Stop & Have Tea

(Re)start wherever you are.
My chai

Last weekend at the tavern, I served dinner to a woman who told me she’s been a longtime follower of this blog.

“Gosh, I haven’t written anything in so long!” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I wish you would again.”

That small suggestion, added to my own inner voice to get back to my blog brings me here again at last. It’s been eight lightning-quick months since the Lostine Tavern opened, and I’m just finding my writing life again.

Whew! I don’t think I possibly could catch you up with all of it. In fact, that’s the daunting part that’s kept me from coming to these “pages” with episodes from the local foods lifestyle.

You know that feeling, don’t you? The card you don’t send to an old friend because you feel the need to write a long letter instead of a simple but heartfelt message. But it’s the act of reaching out that’s the important part. Not even what you say or how you say it or how long the paragraphs.

“To begin, begin,” wrote Wordsworth. We’re all too busy to catch up, so let’s just begin…again.

Hello. It’s good to be back in touch. There is a lot going on here–the routine, the unpredictable, the exciting, the inspiring.

On days like today when I’m not completely overwhelmed, when I appreciate how we are managing to open the doors regularly and feed people good, mostly local food, when I can lift my head out of my to-do lists, I’ll pause to fill you in on what’s on our plates.

In the meantime, sip on this homemade chai I’ve been enjoying on my day off. I make mine with whole pastured milk and honey from 6Ranch.

Talk soon.

Pastured Milk Chai Tea with Honey

Of course you can use any milk or a combination of milk and water (up to half and half), but whole pastured milk is the very best way to enjoy this tea. The blend of aromatics–including fennel, orange and vanilla–is my spin on the traditional chai mix.

3 cups whole pastured milk
3 2-inch long strips orange rind
6 1/4-inch coins fresh ginger
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
6 cardamom pods, cracked
1/8 teaspoon whole fennel seed
pinch cayenne
3 drops vanilla
4 teaspoons best quality black tea
1/4 cup honey or more to taste
candied ginger (optional)

  1. Bring the milk to a simmer in a saucepan with the orange rind, ginger, cloves, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, fennel seed, cayenne and vanilla. Cover and steep off the heat for 15-20 minutes.
  2. Strain the aromatics from the milk and return it to the pot.
  3. Heat the milk to a simmer and add the tea and honey. Stir, cover the pot and steep for 4 minutes.
  4. Strain the chai and serve yourself with a couple pieces of candied ginger. Store any extra in the fridge and reheat on the stove top or microwave.