Monday, November 17, 2008

How To Cut Up A Pig

Yesterday, I saw a half a pig cut up before my very eyes.

At a Slow Food event at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE), master butcher Rudi Weid broke down a small Berkshire pig that had lived a good life up at Tamarack Hollow Farm in Vermont. Proceeds from the event benefitted Slow Food Harvest Time education programs in East Harlem and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Butcher Weid not only wielded the knife masterfully (as well as a handsaw and cleaver, both passed down to him from his father, from whom he learned his craft), but also proffered a unique perspective.

Although the somewhat self-selected crowd - those eager to watch pig butchery on a sunny Sunday afternoon - was probably already passionate about sustainable food production, Weid talked a lot about the differences between industrial pork and the heritage, happy pork we were about to enjoy. He mostly talked in concrete butcher's terms about the difference in the color and feel of different qualities of meat, though, which kept it interesting. He recalled butchering a pig for a North Carolina demonstration, for example, where the pork was flecked with little exploded red synapses (correct terminology?) as it had been severely stressed when it was butchered. He noted that the beef of cows who had suffered in death was typically extremely dark.

He didn't dwell on the injustice of cruelty to animals, as one might have expected, but simply got on with it. When someone from the audience asked him how one becomes a butcher today, and how long one typically apprenticed, he paused and, ever stoic, held up a box cutter. "This is what you need to become a butcher today," he said. "It's all pre-cut. Just open the box." He seemed highly dubious that the art of butchery would be revived by the legions of slow food enthusiasts any time soon.

But Weid seemed very happy with the quality of our pig's meat. It was a good deal darker and firmer than supermarket "meat," he noted. He pulled out the kidney and the internal fat (leaf lard) then cut off the head, indicating that it would make a mighty fine head cheese. He then cut off the hind leg (ham) and delicately deboned it. He moved up to the front quarters, where he removed the shoulder (aka Boston butt) and front leg (picnic ham). He proceeded in a most sculptor-like fashion to the center cut, which is apparently the only section of the pig typically sold in supermarkets these days. Weid gracefully pulled off the spare ribs, carved off thick strips of back and belly fat, and finally extracted the loin with babyback ribs still attached. This large rib roast is where you find the - you guessed it - pork chops, should you choose to cut it into pieces.

After the lengthly demonstration, we were served lovely bits of the other half of the pig that had already been prepared: the ham (which bore no resemblance to the ham of my childhood Chistmas dinners, rosy and smooth but was rather turkey-like, white and somewhat dry.) Also, the shoulder, and super fatty belly, and the insane crackling, which was like chicken skin squared. At the same time, Rogue Ales conducted a little tasting. We tried the Juniper Pale Ale, which was my favorite - refreshing and herbal, the American Amber Ale, which was sort of round and coffee-like, and the Satin Rogue Red, which I thought tasted like horses (and not necessarily in a good way) and the which Rogue lady described as resin-y. Dry hops are added to it after it been brewed, so it has this extremely hoppy thing going on. Finally, we tried the Chocolate Stout, which was so chocolately and kind of creamy. I liked it a lot but thought it would have paired better with chocolate cake than with pork.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


There is something about the sudden shift towards fall -- the slight nip in the air, the rustle of drying leaves overhead, drained somewhat of their bright green color -- that makes me feel a little frantic to preserve what's left of summer. Summer's bounty, that is.

So I recently got with the times and started making all manners of jam. Thus far I have made shiro plum-vanilla, apricot-brown sugar and cherry tomato-cinnamon. I finally acquired a fantastic book on jam that everyone raves about, Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber, who lives in Alsace and is pretty much the world's authority on jam, and who has proved quite the inspiration. There are so many recipes in the book that I am eager to try. I had better get with it, too, because locally grown fruit (with the obvious exception of apples and pears) is quickly beginning to vanish from my local co-op. Blackberries and blue, which were for a moment so plentiful, are nowhere to be seen. One recipe that I am particularly keen to try is apple-celery-mountain honey, which sounds intriguingly alpine.

Blue Apron Fine Foods in Park Slope has started carrying my cherry tomato jam. I'll be conducting a tasting there on October 4th -- do come by!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

zucchini blossoms

snagged these lovely blossoms at the farmers' market this morning...

neighborhood fruit

I spied this laden peach tree while walking down 4th Avenue the other day (corner of Bergen St.? - must verify). It appeared to be part of a community garden and was quite ripe for the picking! Was proud to see that New York has plenty of fallen fruit, too! Admittedly, my sources tell me that Los Angeles is positively dripping with it.
And is organized to the extent that Fallen Fruit has compiled incredibly detailed maps indicating where the loquats lurk. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

vertical farm

This story in today's NY Times about buildings as vertical farms is so great. Sky scrapers would rely solely on renewable energy like solar and wind, and could provide sustenance for thousands of people. Wall-e would be heartened, I'm sure, to imagine a city built of edible plants, instead of garbage. Take that, New Museum 'After Nature' exhibition. This seems like the ultimate manifestation of urban gardening - imagine reaching out the window of your office cubicle and plucking a fresh cucumber for lunch.

On a similar note, I'm looking forward to heading over to PS 1 to check out
PF 1 (public farm 1), an urban farm concept, complete with a chicken coop, that evokes the look of "a flying carpet landing in the PS 1 courtyard." PF 1 was the Young Architect Project's winning project this year, and is the design concept of husband and wife team WORK architecture

Friday, July 11, 2008

tomato love

Spent yesterday morning tending the garden my little brother and I planted at my dad's house
. The little tomato seedlings have grown dramatically in just a few weeks, and many of the lower branches are already beaded with small green tomatoes. It seems as though the tomatoes like to lay relatively low. We planted a good spread of heirlooms and hybrid varietals -- Sweet 100, Black Russian, Early Girl, Better Boy, the requisite Beefsteak. Although this is the third summer we have planted this garden, we are still decidedly amateur: as might seem obvious from these pictures, space limitations and gardening zeal resulted in the unfortunate (yet familiar) effect of overcrowding. The crooked, leafy arms of the plants had grown thoroughly entangled, and many slouched low to the ground, unable to support their own weight. The web of green emits an incredibly heady scent of tomato-y goodness, smelling more intensely like tomatoes than the fruit themselves. That said, it was a bit of a job to gingerly pry them apart and steady them upright with stakes and those neat metal basket contraptions. A few limbs were accidentally snapped and had to be unceremoniously cast aside. I nipped the rampant clover-like weed's from the bed, showered the freshly-secured plants with the watering can and finally secured them with fairly high security chicken-wire-esque fencing, necessary to ward off the wily local suburban rabbit population. A shadier bed across the way boasts thriving cucumber and melon plants, bountiful basil, parsley and chives, and some shriveled dill, which I can't quite figure out if it requires more water or sun...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

aeolian bounty

I've just returned from vacation in Panarea, the tiniest of the Aeolian Islands, just off the North coast of Sicily. The 1 million year old island feels pretty primordial, save for the small village stretched across three small hamlets, which is Greek in aspect (bright white stucco buildings, blue shutters, grapevines and bougainvillea cascading everywhere). Stunningly remote, situated between Lipari and Salina, the most developed of the islands (which are still relatively wild), and Stromboli, a still-active volcano which smokes moodily and sends sparks shooting into the clear night sky, the "traffic" is limited to just one or two boats a day -- especially in the low season. Most of the island is a designated nature reserve: cliffs jutting out of the almost navy blue sea; cacti and caper bushes abound. The island is impressively green in other senses as well: only electric "cars" (really golf carts) and scooters are able to squeeze through the fruit-tree shaded narrow lanes, and most of the inhabitants grow their own vegetable gardens, which sprout up in front and back yards, on terraces, and in between buildings like weeds.  (Pictured above, a néspole tree, bearing fruits that I've never before come across that look a bit like apricots and taste more like papaya and are called "medlars" in english. Also, leaves of a burgeoning fig tree, the fruits plentiful, but sadly, still hard and green.) 
Witness flourishing - and flowering! - zucchini plants.
A clever - and I think chic - way to stake tomatoes. 

A little bit of this and that -- fennel, lettuce, red onions....The soil is dry but rich and the sun is so strong! Sicily is the Southern-most point in Europe -- in fact, much of it is further South than Tunis, Tunisia.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

i scream, you scream

Word on the street is that Blue Marble Ice Cream of Boerum Hill is due to start making appearances at Brooklyn Flea next week. Plus, they are opening a new branch at 186 Underhill Ave. in Prospect Heights. This is great news all around as the ice cream shop's hip young owners, Jennie Dundas and Alexis Meisin, are committed to using sustainable ingredients, including grass-fed Ronnybrook milk, and materials in their shops. I also appreciate their discipline in keeping their flavor options short and sweet. 
(illustration credit: Kate Wilson)

spring sprung

The first spring vegetables at the market these past few weeks have been a revelation. It seems like they sprung up literally out of nowhere. T.S. Eliot wrote, "April is the cruelest month," but frankly, I disagree. April -- and May -- are awesome. The slender asparagus and pink-stemmed clusters of dark crinkly spinach make me swoon while walking through the greenmarket after work. The most exciting produce I have gotten my hands on so far, I found at my local food co-op, interestingly enough. Ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and daylily shoots, oh my! As for the ramps, I nibbled them a bit but have yet to properly cook with them. The leaves -- which I'm not sure are technically edible, but never mind -- are very tasty. Mildly garlicky, with a similar texture to the daylily shoots, in fact, that I threw into a salad. I'm thinking ramp risotto. I guess I'm a little nervous about somehow wasting their glorious local springiness on an unworthy or muddled dish. But I'd better hop to it as they won't stay spry for long. Ramps on toast, anyone?

Friday, May 2, 2008

flying fish

I hate to keep citing the Times but the fact is that they are so on the ball when it comes to sustainable agriculture. A really solid story ran last week about the actual cost of shipping our food to and fro. The piece explores the implications of catching fish in Norway, sending them to China to be filetted, and then flying them back to Norway to be sold, for example. A more in depth piece examining how exactly food miles are racked up and what implications they might have (or not) ran in the New Yorker last month. 

Apparently, they are using mushrooms to soak up dioxin leached from a lumber mill in Fort Bragg, CA. This story bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of one of Hayao Miyazaki's first films, Kaze no tani no Naushi


Some people think "heirloom" is just another word for "fancy," not realizing the great importance of preserving our heritage crops, admittedly a tiny sliver of the biodiversity of the earth that is rapidly decreasing, but one that is easy to relate to: you can taste the sweetness of saving and reintroducing these seeds and breeds. In this context, a heirloom is not necessarily a plant passed down through generations like a locket or a set of candle sticks, but rather an open-pollinated cultivar. Open pollination is pollination by natural means: via insects, birds or the wind. Because breeding is uncontrolled and the pollen (male) plant unknown, open pollination results in increased variety in genetic traits and, indeed, increased biodiversity. This method was commonplace before industrial agriculture took hold. Before industrial ag's vast monoculture farms cloaked the countryside, a much wider variety of crops were raised, crops which were often deeply rooted in their particular terroir, having adapted over time to their particular soil and climate conditions. 

(photo credit: NY Times)

Kim Severson's recent story in the Times spoke to the idea of raising -- and eating -- heirloom and heritage species to keep them from going extinct. She references Gary Paul Nabhan's new book, Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods (Chelsea Green), which explores the stories behind 93 endangered ingredients central to American culture and recipes that use them. The idea is that you've got to eat something to save it -- unless of course that something, like the flying squirrel, is so endangered that it needs to be left alone for a bit. This article made me think back to the biodiversity class I took last year, in which we learned about conservation efforts that people were making to artificially bring scattered populations of orangutans, say, together in an effort to enlarge the gene pool in which they were cross-pollinating. It strikes me as strange -- if hugely important -- that we are taking strides to reconnect these small, isolated animal communities, mostly because it is of course due to humanity's own actions, in the form of rain forest deforestation or what might simply be called suburbia, that they became displaced. My biodiversity professor seemed certain that humans' time on earth was extremely limited, especially at the rate we are now polluting the planet. It is awfully sad how we as a species are the most destructive force on the planet, and how without humans, all of the other animal and plant kingdoms would seemingly flourish, keeping each other in check.

sustainable attainable

I so enjoyed Michael Pollan's recent New York Times article, Why Bother. In fact, I had been kicking around the idea of growing herbs and maybe a veg or two on the roof. While not exactly the perfect roof for a garden -- note the slight slope and lack of formalities like a ledge or amenable surface not to mention patio furniture -- I am optimistic nonetheless. All the more so now that Pollan has made such a persuasive point about the importance of taking part in growing your own food, and the great sense of satisfaction and well-being it offers. I am ready for that. As I'm not sure how strong my roof is -- or if I'm even really 'allowed' up there -- I am thinking of planting in containers. Either low plastic trays. Or, because plastic is not my favorite material, old baskets. If I can find some old baskets that have low enough sides that they won't topple in the breeze, that is. As Pollan suggests, perhaps this might even inspire me to compost! 
On a related note, I am itching to acquire a copy of the recently published  Edible Estates by architect-activist Fritz Haeg (Metropolis Books). A beautiful book featuring front lawns laden with havestable gardens in lieu of vanity lawns. The project, which has been underway since July 2005, has transformed several lawns from Haeg's native Los Angeles to as far away as London. The book chronicles the metamorphoses of the first four front lawns. Oh, and Michael Pollan is one of its contributors.