Maybe some of you remember that I raise pigs every year. I get the piglets in the early summer and we take them to harvest (or slaughter) in very early winter. This year I raised three pigs and I have been trying in earnest to cook all the different cuts of meat so they tasted exceptional – thereby doing justice to the animals i raised.
This is much easier said than done. I’m a self-taught cook and not a chef by any means. Every year, I ask for cookbooks for Christmas. My go-to books this winter are Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Pork and Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie: The Craft of Smoking, Salting, and Curing. We’ve also been reading mainstream books about raising food -- including Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The Farmer and I know we are living a life these two authors probably would love to live – raising our own meat in a good and respectful way. Perhaps you too have read these books – they were both on the bestseller’s lists for months.
Taking care of the animals, once they are slaughtered and in the freezer, is different from feeding and caring for them daily. It starts out with the order at the slaughterhouse. The butcher asks me lots of questions which I just hope I answer correctly. Not that there is a right or wrong answer. My answers though will determine how I cook the meat and fit it into our daily schedule. It’s different than going to the grocery store and picking up a pork loin.
The butcher, with his New Hampshire Yankee accent, asks me questions: Chops – how thick? Loins – how many ribs? Shoulders – fresh or smoked?; Do you want your hocks smoked or fresh?; Hams – fresh or smoked? Hams – sliced, whole, or half? Bacon (or belly fat) smoked or fresh? Do you want the feet?
Over the past few years, I have figured out how to answer him by trial and error. I’m slowly figuring out how to cook different cuts to make them taste the best they can. There are lots of parts of a pig, once slaughtered, that most American people never deal with (the French on the other hand have a use for everything!). I am taking it as a challenge and learning as I go – similar to experimenting with a new knitting technique such as fair isle or lace or cables. It’s a fun way to spend a cold winter season – reading, planning and cooking.
Every year, the butcher asks me “Do you want the fat back?” I, of course, with my waste not - want not philosophy, have always aswered “yes.” I am inheretly frugal. Although not a Yankee by birth, I seem to be picking up lots of my adopted New England's traits. When Julia and I pick up the pigs (or pork as we now refer to them), there are enormous slabs of fat attached to the skin of the pig plopped atop of the banana boxes loaded with perfectly wrapped loins, shoulders, and ribs. The hair has been shaved from the skin – but they look like they should – the skin from the animals I have been feeding for five or six months.
When I get home from the slaughterhouse, I stuff all it in the freezer. Slowly, I work my way through the pile of meat over a few months, moving aside the backfat each time I have to dig for the perfect roast. The past few years, after months of moving the backfat around, I have given up and fed it to the chickens.
I’m proud to say that this year, this didn’t happen. For the past few weekends, I have been working on my “lard project.” When I began, The Farmer was not at all startled. In fact he was encouraging. He told me that there was always a large square box of lard in his refrigerator when he was growing up. His mother did make the most amazing pies and evidently her secret ingredient was lard.
I have persevered. It started out slow. For my first batch, I followed the instructions found in Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Pork and cut the fat up into tiny 1/2" inch squares. It wasn’t easy – I had to use surgical scissors to hack through the skin. Then I baked it at 350 degrees until it smelled done and there was lots of liquid in the bottom of the 8” sided pot I used. The tall pot is essential - so that the fat doesn’t burn and catch fire in the oven. But honestly, that cutting into small pieces was a nightmare. It took so long, I cursed my way through it. The fat cooked slowly and started to smell a bit like roast pork. When it was done after a few hours, there was a large amount of clear liquid in the bottom of the pot and lots of mighty crunchy bits of pigskin or "cracklings" floating around. We shared them with my chickens after tasting a few.
This weekend, with the advice of my friend Kay who owns a bakery and is a chef, I cut the backfat into pieces about 4 to 5” square. This was a huge timesaver. When the fat was rendered (that is the proper term), I strained the liquid through a fine sieve into some canning jars and stashed them in the fridge wondering what I was going to do with all of it.
I made some oat biscuits substituting the lard for butter weight for weight and they were really flaky and tasty. I’m not much of a pie baker but I think I’ll try some crusts for chicken and meat pot pies this winter.
Do you have lard-y memories of earlier days? What were the favorite recipes your grandma cooked with lard? I’ve got a bunch of it and I’ve got to cook my way through it somehow! Any help will be greatly appreciated.
Here are some good lardy links to read if you are interested.
From Food and Wine: Lard - The New Health Food
From The Seattle Times: The Real Thing