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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Makin' Bacon and Burying Treasure

Since time and tide wait for no man, yesterday I got hot on the charcuterie trail.  I had the belly from my half hog, the jowl, and the sirloin all to get salted down before they turned.

I researched many sources, from watching Benton Country Ham and Bacon videos with Allan Benton to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Steve Lamb at River Cottage to our Charcuterie book by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (which for some reason we refer to as 'the Ruhlman'), and settled on Ruhlman's cure, River Cottage's seasoning, and Benton's timing.

Why would I go to all this trouble?  I can't eat sugar, honey, or maple syrup (or corn syrup or sweeteners, etc.) and you can't find bacon made without them.  It turns out that sugar is added only to displace some of the salt so that your bacon doesn't get too salty.  But since I'm also hypertensive, I can't leave out the sugar altogether because super salty bacon would not be the right answer, either. So what to do? Date sugar, coconut sugar, and palm sugar are all on the 'maybe' list (as opposed to the out and out 'no' list), so I elected to build my cure with coconut sugar, as it's the most like brown sugar in flavor, and let's face- also because I couldn't find the palm sugar.

Ruhlman advises a pound of kosher salt, eight ounces of granulated sugar, and two ounces of pink salt, the latter of which we happened to have still from when Steve pickled the beef tongue a couple of years ago - which was delicious, by the way- it tasted just like an excellent pastrami- so that's what I used for the cure.

Mixed bacon
Fearnley-Whittingstall (who was once nicknamed Fearlessly-Eatsitall for cooking up and eating road kill) and Lamb both advised juniper berries and bay leaf as flavoring for bacon, and since I had both and wanted to try it, I did, on only one of the four pieces of belly in my possession.  I also flavored one with mace and marjoram, and one with crushed allspice (also on the 'maybe' list), and I left the largest one plain.  Everybody got rubbed in cure, dropped into a labeled Ziploc bag, and refrigerated after flavorings were added.  All, except the plain one, which was too large for a gallon Ziploc- that one had to be wrapped up in cling wrap.

Most of the instructions for curing that I found have you leaving the belly in the cure for five to seven days, but since Allan Benton makes the best bacon in the country, I'll leave it to cure for ten days like he does.  Then it needs to be rinsed and patted dry, and hung to dry and age for several days.  Only then can I think about smoking it.  More on that later.

Buried treasure
River Cottage also has a Food Tube video on Youtube for making a prosciutto-style ham out of a little british cut called a 'chump joint', which sits between the leg and the loin.  I wanted to try this, so Dennis at Mt Angel Meat Company boned a sirloin for me, which is in roughly the same location on the hog and is the best he could do for not being familiar with the chump joint.  The sirloin was packed, or rather, buried in straight kosher salt.

Cure timing on the container
According to Lamb (whose name is hilariously ironic, if you think about it), the Golden Rule is three days in salt per kilo of meat and fat, so since my sirloin weighed 1.648 kilos, I need to leave it in the salt for 4.944 days, or five days.  Then it comes out of the salt, the salt gets wiped off (but not rinsed) and the meat gets hung to dry for three months.  I will have to risk picking up fridge flavors by putting it into the fridge to dry because I can't keep it cool enough for three months.  I may start out with hanging it in the garage every night or leaving it there and monitoring the temperature. Not sure, but I'll keep you posted on that.

Then finally, the guanciale.  The jowl's curing and drying into a guanciale is kind of a cross between the two previous treatments; the cure is mixed from salt, sugar (coconut sugar, in my case), garlic, black peppercorns and thyme, and the jowl rests in it for four to six days. Then it's rinsed, dried, punctured, and hung up to dry for one to three weeks.  In the world of charcuterie, it's as close to instant gratification as you can get.

In any case, getting them all salted down and into the fridge means that all my hog pieces have been dealt with in one way or the other and I can relax about them.

Which also means that I can now turn my attention back to the garden...

Friday, April 24, 2015

Half Hog, 2.0

A couple of years ago when Steve and I bought our first half hog, we had a less than desirable experience with it.  First- I'd been told the hogs would be ready in October, and when I spoke with the owner, I asked her about feed prices going up and how that would affect her.  She expressed surprise that I would know about that.  So you can understand why I was surprised when she called me in August to tell me that my hog was done and to call the butcher for cutting instructions.  This was a full two months earlier than I had been told, and since I'd already paid for the whole thing, it meant I was getting far less pork for my money.  I think I worked it out to being a little over $8.00 a pound, which did not make me happy.  Then when we got down to 4 Star Meats in Eugene, they could not find our order, and we waited forty minutes for them to find it.  Plus, we had to pay them $65.00 for cutting on top of the pork and they did a really crappy job; the meat was not trimmed well at all.  This half hog purchase was all around not a good experience.  Needless to say, I would not use either of these outfits ever again.

This time, though, was a terrific experience.  The first good thing was the pork itself; Stroupe Family Farm in Aurora rears their hogs on grass, and supplements with fruits and vegetables- no animal products, and no commercial feed.  The second thing was that I got ten percent off my order because I'd been given a coupon by the S and H Logging driver when he delivered my mulch order; I didn't know the folks that own S and H Logging also have a family farm, so that was a bit of a revelation and I took advantage of the information.  The third awesome thing was the price, which was $2.95 a pound, based on hanging weight; this translated to $4.10 a pound by the time we were all done, and I'm not counting the extras I brought home, like the leaf and body fat, skin and bones, all of which I will use.  

The beef locker at Mt. Angel
The fourth awesome thing was the butcher, Mt. Angel Meat Company in Mt. Angel, Oregon, which by the way, I did not have to pay for because the butchering was included as part of the deal that Stroupe has with them.  The owner, Eric, was great and I was delighted when he was so agreeable to my coming in to watch my hog get cut up.  I asked if I could, and I really expected him to say no, so when he told me that he liked to think he had an open door business and sure, I could watch, I was probably a little over excited.  I got to go do that yesterday.

The owner, Eric
Eric had his butchering supervisor Dennis cut my hog and Dennis did just a great job.  He was really good about explaining what he was doing, and since I'd studied up ahead of time on pork cuts before going down there, we had a good conversation, and I know even more about the cuts of pork than I did before. 

Dennis cutting my chops
Dennis was also really good about making suggestions as we went, so I really think I got the most (and best) out of this half hog.  My hanging weight was 141 pounds, and I brought home 121 pounds. I did not bring home the trotters, the kidney, and the tail, and I'm going to guess the balance of waste was the small skin oddments, and perhaps the head, which was gone by the time I got there.

Just for kicks, here is what I had him cut:

2 bone-in shoulder roasts 
1 bone-in picnic
1 boneless sirloin (for a small [meaning fast] prosciutto-style ham)
1 spare ribs
1 baby back ribs
many boneless loin chops, some for schnitzel
4 leg cutlets (which he put through the tenderizer for schnitzel- this is the cut he likes to use for his own schnitzel)
1 tenderloin (and he left the fat on for me at my request)
2 fresh hocks (for a German dish Steve LOVES)
1 jowl (for guanciale)
1 belly (in 4 pieces) for bacon, which I'll cure and smoke
2 small, odd belly pieces Dennis said to cure because they're too good to waste
21 pounds of sausage 

Plus the leaf fat, the fat (which I'll render with the shoulder roasts) the larger pieces of skin (which Dennis said is good for wrapping other, leaner things or making pork rinds) and the bones.  I did not have him bone the shoulder and picnic but he did bone the sirloin for me.  I also did not go for a whole ham this time because I'd want to do it as a prosciutto and it's just not the right time of year for it. Prosciutto has to hang for several months and it's going to get too hot for that; ideally, prosciutto should be made in the autumn. 

Bryce vacuum packing belly
Additionally, Bryce did a great job of vacuum packaging the meat for me- he took the time to  lay out all my chops so that they made pretty packages, which I appreciated.  All in all, a really great experience and I was struck by the good attitudes everyone I dealt with had, in spite of what they do for a living.  
Lexy labeling and boxing my order
Or maybe because of what they do for a living. Maybe it's just working for Eric.  I don't know, but I am so doing this again.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bee Season and Updates

What is that?

Is that honey?

No, it's just a beeswax/avocado oil mix for sealing my new bee hive (and all this time you thought I've been resting on my laurels).  I've been busy!

I built myself a Warre hive, which was easier to do than the bee boat, as Steve calls it.*  Today I sealed it, for next week (Wednesday, to be precise) the bees will be here!

I have a busy week next week.  On Monday, I go pay for the half hog I ordered.  On Tuesday and Wednesday the fence guys will be here building me two new fences.  They are going to finish (they had better**) just in time for me to set up the hive and run over to Ruhl Bee in Gladstone to go get the bees.  The fence company is really squeaking it in, because the spot I'd earmarked for the hive before the fence blew down was right by the fence. If the fence timing was a canal, and the bees' arrival was a boat, you would hear a lot of screeching as it scraped by, that's how close we are.

Then Thursday I drive down to Mt Angel Meat Co., in Mt. Angel, Oregon to watch my hog half get cut up.  I am unusually excited about this partly because I'm going to learn how it's done, and partly because I am getting fresh pork belly which I will salt cure and smoke for my own bacon.  Finding sugar free bacon has been something of a holy grail, so I'll add it to the list of pork products I have to produce for myself. Actually, it's a pretty short list: sugar and seed free sausage and now sugar and seed free bacon.  Probably the best thing about this pork is that it was reared on a 400 acre farm on grass with the occasional vegetable and fruit thrown in.  It had a happy life with only one bad day, which is what we've been looking for.

This past Monday I was lucky enough to go morel hunting with my friend Rae and her husband. I've decided that R-A-E stands for Really Accurate Eyesight, because just a little while after telling me the story of how last year she spotted the first morel from the car going twenty miles an hour down the hill, she did it again.  You wouldn't know what a hell of a trick this is unless you've spent all your mushroom hunting time walking slowly with your eyes down, scanning, scanning, scanning and still coming up with nothing.  She's amazing. We (that's an editorial we- I didn't find anything) only got five, so it would seem we were a little early.  As I said, I didn't find any myself, but at least now I know what I'm looking for and where to look, so I learned something.  We also found an old King bolete, so know I know what they look like too, but wrong season for them.  Plus, it was a lovely day to tromp in the woods. And then Rae's hubby spotted a grouse and pointed it out, which I had never seen before; now I also know what a grouse looks like.  I can see why they call it a prairie chicken.

The garden has been agonizingly slow going this spring; I think I was too early and it's been too cold.  All the more argument for a hoop house or green house.  The weather is heating up to the seventies and low eighties this weekend, so maybe stuff will take off now. It's been really frustrating, though.  I have herbs and cucurbits starting to come up; they should be ready to put in the ground (probably under cover) next month.  I also have sweet potato pips started on the island in the kitchen.  Those are going in the wire baskets which we've moved to the deck.  That should be a good and hot environment for them.

Maybe I should try okra on the deck...hmmm...

*In reality, it's called a Kenya top bar hive.
** They told me it would take one and a half days.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Free Online Homegrown Food Summit Next Week

I just found out there will be a free online homegrown food summit next week- I've already signed up for it and you can too right here.

Some of the presenters will be (and these are just the folks I've heard of before- there are a lot more that I haven't to whom I'm looking forward to hearing): Toby Hemenway, Paul Wheaton, Sally Fallon, Joel Salatin and John Jeavons.

Topics include (but aren't limited to): permaculture guilds, gardening without irrigation, straw bale gardening, picking the right chickens for the backyard, rainwater harvesting, beginners guide to deer hunting, rabbits, aquaponics, and lots more.

It runs from April 6 through April 12 and they'll post five presentations a day starting at 6:00 AM eastern time on Monday, and the five presentations will be available for twenty-four hours.

So if you couldn't get to the Mother Earth News Fair, here's a chance to learn useful things for free.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fighting The Good Fight

I would rate the protection of our seed heritage right up there with breathing. Well, certainly right up there with eating, which is almost as important.  The way the exchange puts it, "with the growth of hybrid seeds in the last century, much of the world’s connection to saving seeds from their own garden has crumbled. This results in a separation between our food, our gardens, and the seeds from which they spring."

As homesteaders and householders we absolutely have to be able to access open pollinated and heirloom seed so that at anytime necessary or practicable we can save our own seed, and it's not only important for the sake of thrift but also in terms of developing our own landraces. Tomatoes come to mind as the most adaptable seed you can stick in your garden- once you find something you like, tomato plants from seed saved from year to year only become more acclimatized to your garden and do better every year.

I'll be honest- I have only made small forays into seed saving, but I still grow only heirloom and open pollinated seed on the off chance that someday I'll actually need to save my seed.  But in the meantime, I've been a member of the Seed Savers Exchange for several years now, mostly because I think what they do is incredibly important, to everyone.  So important that I would still be a member even if I didn't grow a garden.  In fact, it's been a couple of seasons since I last ordered seed from them, but continue my membership I will.  The other cool thing about membership is that if you're looking for something obscure, chances are somebody somewhere is growing it and you can find it in the Yearbook.  That's how I found my German Queen tomato a few years ago; I obtained them from a gardener in Wisconsin.  He kindly threw in a few seeds from another strain of tomato as a gift.

April is membership month for the Seed Savers Exchange, and memberships start at $40 a year- $30 if you're a senior or student.  If you're in the fight to grow your own food, you owe it to yourself and everyone who comes behind you to help the Seed Savers Exchange with their work.

Memberships can be obtained here.