Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meat Meet!

Over the weekend of March 25, I attended the Carolina Meat Conference and met a bunch of great folks, talked up the pastured pork project (here's a video link to my endeavors, for the uninitiated), and generally confirmed for my self that - yes- studying pigs and pork across the Carolinas is a worthy endeavor. Imagine my relief.

Among the many events I participated in, the most engaging and performative (showing, not just telling!) were the butchery programs.  The Butcher's Guild was founded by Marissa Guggiana and Tia Harrison

both from the Bay Area, and both of them were on hand to co-ordinate a butchery class for novices and home chefs.  

Here's a link to Tia teaching us how to extract a pork shoulder. And here I saw off a pork shank.

I also had some great conversations with Tia and Marissa about the limitations of processing facilities, the perilous grip of food aggregators on small farmers and meat purveyors, and the prohibitive costs of land in Northern California, all of which conspire to make locally raised pork and beef extremely difficult to find, even in that mecca of foodiedom.  Marissa and Tia were great to talk with, and I look forward to getting back to San Francisco to check out their food.
The other exceptional culinary experience was meeting Craig Deihl, executive chef at Cypress in Charleston SC. (and current James Beard finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast).  I knew of Craig, because he had been working with the ALBC on developing a "cook sheet" for the American Guinea Hog - that is, a chef's guide to how to utilize each part of this animal.  Indeed, the ALBC is currently carrying out a swine initiative, which will entail developing a definition of Heritage Breed Swine, and profiles of seven other breeds of pig.

In addition to demonstrating some mad knife skillz (disassembling an entire lamb carcass for the crowd, 

as well as boning out an entire half-pig for the professional chefs – including this demonstration of how to turn a ham into multiple cuts for either charcuterie, or profitable restaurant portion, sirloin cuts) Deihl also brought with him an array of unbelievably good charcuterie.  His pork butter is simultaneously ethereal and gutsy.  It's a bit like rillettes, but rather than using all pork shoulder- itself a pretty inexpensive cut – Deihl takes fat back, renders it for lard, and then saves the bits and pieces of intrafat muscle (not exactly cracklin, more like streak o' lean in old-timey salt pork), and melts them down. He then roasts garlic and rosemary, adds them to the meat trimmings, and whips the whole concoction together with fluffy lard.  It is ridiculously good – salty, creamy, meaty depth of flavor. Wow. Craig regaled me with stories of how to extract the maximum use out of a whole hog, and tracing his interests in this kind of cooking back to his early interests in taking apart and rebuilding junker cars.  "The Art of Transformation", as he put it, turning otherwise useless matter – like the scraps of meat in render lard – into pure gold (like that pork butter) Here, Craig bones out a whole pork loin for the chefs.

The organizers of the conference – Casey McCissick and Jennifer Curtis with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and NC Choices, did a really fine job of putting together a compelling program.  The opening discussion of the relationship between meat producers and processors hit on some of the most difficult issue facing our food system today.  And the afternoon discussion of the Ethics of Marketing, which touched on questions of transparency and certification, was highly informative, and contentious in a very productive way.  Do you want a third party to certify the quality of the meat you consume?  Does a USDA label certifying that the meat you're buying is organic make a difference to you? Are these labels simply arbitrary criteria that the most powerful interests in the market use to drive smaller competitors out of business? Or do they assure some measure of quality control for consumers who might otherwise have no way of knowing anything about the food they eat? If you can meet your farmer, visit their farm, touch their animals – great. That's a wonderful way of developing trust, and assuring some kind of quality in your food.  But what about the consumers – still the overwhelming majority of us – who can't take the time or have the inclination to gather this information?  Can third party certifications – like those from the Animal Welfare Institute, or RAFI – the Rural Advancement Foundation International - help assure healthy food, sound environments, and workers' right?  How can we trust the very certification processes that are meant to generate trust? These aren't easy questions to answer, but the discussion had the room rocking.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tasso Time

Next up in the Charcutepalooza for April: Tasso.  Tasso is more or less a condiment, a bit of smoky meat that is added to gumbos and jambalayas in classic New Orleans dishes.  I've never made any, or even purchased any. If I've eaten it, it's only because it's been cooked into some of the fine gumbos I've eaten across Nawlins.

So here's how I did it:

This is the curing mixture I used. On the plate is a cinnamon stick then (clockwise) some thyme- not the usual thing, but thyme is a nice flavor with pork - a good dose of paprika, a bigger dose of cayenne, then some onion powder and garlic powder.  These are my new "go to" ingredients- they add a super depth of flavor, and they pervade the taste of whatever dish you use them to season.  In a pot of braised greens, fantastic. 

In addition to these spices you need, of course, a goodly amount of salt, and some black pepper.  Almost every recipe I've read for tasso uses white pepper, as well, but I didn't have any.  But, I went out later in the day, did get some white pepper, and added that to the mix.

Note that I also show some pink salt here.  Lots of folks think this is necessary, since you're curing the "ham", and nitrates are necessary for curing. But, you're also hot smoking the tasso, which I think kills anything that needs killing, and I'm not committed to the pretty pink hue of my hot smoked pork. So I didn't actually put any in my cure. 

Here's the pork I decided to use for tasso. Traditionally, tasso is made from a Boston butt, sliced into boneless steaks; actually, I think it's even more traditional to use trim from a cajun boucherie, which is approximated by the highly marbled (and usually cheap) shoulder meat. But I couldn't find a small Boston butt - we had a huge run on shoulders at the Carrboro Farmers' Market last Saturday - so, instead, I'm using a ham steak.  A ham steak is a cross-sectioned cut of a ham - which is to say, the rear leg of a porker.  This pasture-raised beauty is so well marbled (look at at it up close!) that I'm not at all worried about reducing the fattiness that I'd find in a shoulder.  

I cut the ham steak into strips (and trimmed off some of the exterior fat, to use for cooking later) and . . .

 . . . threw the cure into a large ziploc bog, added the ham, and shook it up to coat the whole thing.  This  bag o' ham stayed in my fridge for 4 days - which is maybe too much, but probably fine.

This morning, I got my smoking rig set up.  I use a method that's been hailed in any number of DIY media, an electric hot plate in an old grill bucket (a really old Weber kettle grill that I bought from my neighbor for $3), with a metal pan for the wood set right on top of the burner.

Here's how it looks when it's ready to go: hot plate, wood pan, grill rack, and oven thermometer. 

We're here in North Carolina, so of course I'm using hickory for smoking.  Pecan is the wood you'd use in Louisiana, but they're both nut woods, so the flavor should be similar.  Nobody ever objected to hickory smoked pork shoulder...

 Here's the pile of ham after it's half-week cure in the ziploc.

And here it is laid out in the smoking kettle.  

This contraption will smoke away on the porch for, oh four hours, or so.  I was surprised to find that the hot plate doesn't generate all that much heat. I've got it cranked to high under a pan full of hickory, and the thermometer just cracks 200º.  Which, in fact, is perfect, because you don't want to get the fire above 225º for the length of the smoking process.

And here it is! A little less than 4 hours smoking - which, alas, was a tad too much.  Not way too much, but I don't think I needed to keep it going that long.  But, I'm not eating a slab of tasso for dinner, so the fact that it's a bit dry will be countered by the fact that it will get thrown into nice juicy gumbos and etoufées.

A tinge of a smoke ring here, if you look close, but a really nice crust, and the flavor is pretty great.  Hot! But complex, and actually tender meat.  Ready to gumbo!!

I'm on my way to this Meat Conference over the weekend - including a butchery program headed up by the Butcher's Guild, which will make a major contribution to my research (he said optimistically), and should be of interest to the charcuterie minions.  Report to come!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Slaughterhouse Rules: Glimpses of the Inconvenient

Let me begin with something a tad more appealing. Here's what you do with that guanciale you've been curing in your garage for about a month.  Slice it slightly thick,

 then cut your Brussels sprouts in half

and put all in a pan.  I added two cloves of crushed garlic, and about a teaspoon of olive oil to the mix, and then put it all in a preheated 410º oven.  After maybe 15 minutes, here's what you get:

When I met my wife she told me she couldn't stand Brussels sprouts.  Many a night, of late, she has eaten a large pan of these and nothing else for dinner.

Ok, now on to the more difficult topic.  A local, but not insignificant controversy has arisen over the status of meat processing facilities (yep, slaughterhouses) here in Central North Carolina.  For me, the question emerged in anticipation of a talk by Temple Grandin at Duke a few weeks back.  Prior to her appearance, I heard from a colleague (I need to be careful here, since I am not yet ready to make public all of these parties in a way that discloses any confidences) that a number of local livestock farmers were eager to hear her comments, because they were so dissatisfied with the processors available to them.  This was interpreted - not by me - to mean that the slaughter facilities here were inhumane, handling animals in a haphazard fashion, failing to provide a stress-free demise for their subjects.  This really surprised me, as I had visited some of these facilities - I helped to load Thanksgiving turkeys on the conveyors that stun the birds before they are, well, eviscerated; and I had visited the main mammal slaughter facility in the Piedmont, as well, whose office prominently displays its certificate of approval from the demanding Animal Welfare Institute; and (if you're not too squeamish) you can watch the video I took of a pig slaughtered and dressed for barbecue here - and I had never heard complaints of animal abuse from farmers, many of whom DEEPLY care about the animals they raise.

I have, on the other hand, heard repeatedly about the serious limitations that processing presents for livestock farmers.  There's no question but that the demise of the meat processing industry is the most serious impediment to the expansion of "small"  or medium scaled farms of the kind that might offer a viable alternative to the industrial meat most readily, pervasively, and cheaply available in this country.  The costs of processing are often prohibitive for smaller farms, and reliable slaughterhouses are increasingly inaccessible. Andrea Weigl's story in the Raleigh News & Observer summarizes the issues nicely. More on this below.  

So Temple Grandin comes to Durham and, amid her many comments on animal behavior, neuroscience, and "thinking in pictures," remarks that she's just been told that local slaughter facilities are "not good" here in North Carolina.  Indeed, she says, this is a story she hears regularly.  What you need to do, she says, is work with your other producers (farmers) to see through the changes that need to be made to make these small processors more accountable.  It may take money, it will take time, but it's what needs to be done to make these slaughterhouses run the right way.  Grandin went on to say that slaughter was one of the areas where "Big Ag does a much better job than Small Ag."  Grandin is quite proud of the auditing protocol she's worked out for very large scale industrial slaughter facilities - plants run by such aggregators as Cargill, and all of the meat sold by McDonald's and Wendy's is now processed at facilities that have met her criteria.  There's no doubt but that these are significant accomplishments.  And it's not surprising to find that large purveyors like these, purveyors whose interest is in the product they put on their shelves and provide their customers, would focus in particular on processing as a concern.  McDonald's, Wendy's, Cargill, they all package a product - food - that is produced by an industrial procedure that converts animals into meat at a processing plant . It also makes for a great public relations story. Even consumers who never eat a Big Mac can feel better about McD's for their humane slaughter facilities.

Yet, admirable as these changes are, they belie a much wider story that might actually help us understand WHY "Small Ag" processing is so problematic, and - while they represent improvements in the humane slaughter of thousands of industrially produced animals - how these changes contribute to the degradation of a great many animals and the farmers who raise them.  How can this be? Well, the Big Ag with whom Temple Grandin has worked has, in the last generation, made a point of driving meat processors out of business.  The profitability of industrial meat depends upon a system of vertical integration, one in which animals are produced according to very rigorous (often genetically specified) standards, fed, watered, exposed to light and air, etc in keeping with exacting protocols that are dictated by a meat packer.  When you buy a Perdue chicken, Perdue has made these husbandry requirements a contractual obligation of the farmer who raises their chickens.

And here's the thing: Perdue (or Smithfield, or Hormel, or Tysons, or Cargill it's all the same) doesn't actually OWN the chickens (pigs, cows, lambs . . .) it processes.  It displaces the expensive, messy, unpredictable components of the meat business - namely, raising animals - on to the farmer.  In turn, farmers accept contracts from the integrators; all of their animals must be raised and sold in keeping with industry standards. What enforces these contracts? Why not just tell Smithfield, "I'm tired of these confinement pigs,  I think I'll raise Gloucestershire Old Spots on  pasture next year and see what the market will bring in"?  What makes integration work is that Big Ag - the meat packers - have required that you raise their animals according to their specs, and this requires a LOT of inputs.  Infrastructure like breeding houses, and lighting, and feed mixes, and confinement flooring are all extensive and expensive - most farmers have purchased the inputs required of them through the use of loans provided to them by  - you guessed it  - the integrators.  So once you're in, you're hooked.  The loan has to be paid off, and the processor can liquidate your property if you fail to provide the requisite product you owe them.

This kind of system works  - which is to say, keeps meat prices low and lots and lots of animals and farmers in line - though scale.  Standardization is all but impossible to enforce or implement for small farms with only a few dozen pigs, or sheep.  But as the scale increases, so does profitability.  What the integrators have done, then, is gotten big enough that they've been able to drive REGIONAL competitors out of work.  If you raise pigs for Smithfield, they can only be processed in a Smithfield plant; and if you're not raising Smithfield pigs, they can't be processed in a Smithfield facility.  In practical terms what this means for the pig farmer is that either you're raising thousands of pigs in confinement, or you've gotten out of pig farming altogether, because you can't sell your meat as cheaply as Smithfield. Well, once farmers stop raising pigs (cows, sheep, chickens) except for those that are raising theirs under contract production, who is going to get their animals processed by small-scale slaughterhouses?  As it happens here in Central North Carolina, no one (or almost).  I wish I could cite the data more concretely here, but many a farmer and resident of Eastern North Carolina has told me that, in living memory, every county had three or four slaughterhouses that could handle the pigs (cow, sheep) raised by county residents. Having a pig, they said, was like money in the bank.  If you needed some cash at hand, you took your pig to slaughter and sold the meat to hungry neighbors.  Today, there is exactly one slaughter house that handles pigs between Raleigh and Wilmington. One. Except, of course, for the Smithfield facility that processes 32,000 pigs. Every day. Every single damn day.

And one independent plant for poultry - in the entire state.  What, then, about those complaints about local slaughter facilities and inhumane slaughter? I have to admit that the claims I HAVE heard about meat processing present it as a huge challenge.  The skills of slaughtering - a grueling, dangerous, complicated job - have become so demeaned and degraded of late, that it is really hard to find processors who know how to cut and trim meat of consistent quality. Who's going to go into processing when the meat packing elephant in the room is likely to crush you before you can stand up? If you have to drive half way across the state to process chickens, at a cost of $3 per bird (and more to cut and package the bird into salable parts), when you add up the costs in time, fuel, and slaughter it's hard to imagine why anyone would raise chickens for anyone but Tysons.  I can sell you what I promise you is the very best Thanksgiving turkey you will ever eat (help me out fellow diners who have eaten this turkey! Shout out! Can't a blogger get some love?) And it will cost you about $100 for a 15 pound bird.  Still hungry? (Hope so!)

Temple Grandin's protocols are unimpeachable. But her politics (by her own admission, not her strong suit, or her interest) are more muddy.  The Big Ag her work has enhanced makes slaughter a less brutal and degrading process.  But the political economic structures through which their slaughter procedures are improved have positively undermined the well being of farmers as well as their animals - both those in the system, and struggling outside of it.  Industrially produced animals are not merely put to death by Cargill, Smithfield, Tysons, et al, they LIVE and are raised according to protocols that require confinement, genetically modified feeds, sub-therapeutic antibiotic regimes, etc.  Humane animal slaughter built at the cost of unimaginable (non)human animal lives.  Not an easy trade-off.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Home Deli

I decided to finish off the corned beef earlier than expected. The cut I was corning was smaller than a full sized, entire brisket, so I thought a 10 day cure would make it too salty.  Instead, on day six, I took the brisket from the brine and boiled it up.

And here it is, cured, boiled and simmered for, oh, two plus hours.

And started slicing.  One really interesting thing to note. As the beef brined, it turned pretty pallid and grey-green, pretty much as you'd expect for a slab of meat stuck in salt water for a week.  But I had included saltpeter in the cure, which is supposed to prevent exactly this discoloration.  Well, as you can see, once the beef was simmered, it turned a perfectly pleasing pink, just as you'd hoped it would.  So the nitrates must be activated by heat- any food science folks care to comment (does ANYONE care to comment?? On ANYTHING.   Yours, the lonely blogger)

I've got enough out of my 3 plus pounds of brisket to make probably 12-15 sandwiches, so I sliced some more up and brought it over to my friend, Margaret, whose daughter, Sophie, had broken her wrist.  What could be more comforting than corned beef on rye?!  Well, they liked it, so I figured it was safe to try...

Here are the Reubens on the skillet.  Crispy goodness already.  I really wanted to use some of April Mcgreger's Farmer's Daughter sauerkraut, but the whole town is sold out. And April was right in my own house over the weekend - why did I let her leave without putting some cabbage up to cure on the spot!?! In any event, the sauerkraut and ementhaler I used were more than fine.

I have no idea when - or if - I'll be making corned beef again.  It's certainly one of the easiest forms of charcuterie to prepare - really there's nothing to it, but the waiting. And it's good, don't get me wrong. And as in all of these endeavors, there's a palpable degree of satisfaction that comes from knowing that you've created the food yourself, attended to its transformations, modified the mixture according to your own observations.  These are new pleasures, never before associated - for me - with corned beef.  But I think I prefer the whole deli experience for my reuben sandwich.  And, if you push me a little bit, I think I'd rather make a good, oniony brown pot-roasted brisket for the few times a decade I make a brisket.  

Oh, don't let me end this on such a disparaging downer.  It's corned beef! It's sauerkraut and cheese - I made the whole damned thing myself, bringing joy to friends and neighbors. Delicious!

End of kvelling.