Archive for Ingredients

Thank the Lard!

lardsmall.JPGLook what I got from the farmer down the road: gorgeous, creamy leaf lard!

What’s that? Did you whisper “Ew, lard!”?
Take a deep breath, it will be OK. The weird, illicit shiver Americans get when they hear someone say “lard” is rather new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of “lard” as an insult dates only from the 1940s.

See, chances are your great-grandmother cooked with lard. Likely your grandmother did too. (There’s a reason older people remember “grandma’s pie” and “grandma’s fried chicken” so fondly.) They probably only switched to poisonous hydrogenated vegetable shortening in the fifties or sixties, when “experts” started to warn about the dangers of saturated fats, and Procter & Gamble picked up on it in their Crisco* advertising. (“It’s all vegetable. It’s digestible!”)

Funny thing is, according to the USDA, lard contains more monounsaturated fatty acids (think olive oil) than saturated ones. Here’s the fatty acid breakdown for one tablespoon of lard: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 5.8g monounsaturated; 5g saturated. (For reference, a tablespoon of butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.) So even if you buy the “saturated fat is the devil” theory (and I don’t), lard is not unhealthy.

So how did we get to the point where the word “lard” must be said with a whisper and a giggle? It’s really rather strange. People sigh about indulging in “too much” butter. But if you suggest using butter in cooking, no one looks at you in horror. The word “butter” doesn’t evoke gasps or blushes.

Whatever the issue, I think it’s time we got over it. Lard is a wonderful cooking fat. There’s nothing in the world that can equal a leaf lard pie crust for flakiness.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy real lard in the grocery store. Grocery store lard is partially hydrogenated to give it a uniform texture and a longer shelf life. (It’s really just Crisco made from industrial pig fat instead of industrial soy and cottonseed oils.)

There are a couple of places online that sell pure rendered lard from happy (read: well-treated on small farms) pigs. Mother Linda’s is one, though she doesn’t always have enough to supply all her customers. And there’s at least one supplier on LocalHarvest that will ship.

It’s much easier to get lard from a local pig farmer or butcher in fresh, unrendered form. This means you need to melt it down yourself. But that’s not so hard. It’s really rather fun.

If you want to use your lard to make pie crusts, try to get leaf lard (the soft, creamy fat from around the pig’s kidneys). It has a unique crystalline structure that makes incredibly flaky pastry. Fatback is a harder fat from (you guessed it) along the back of the pig. It’s old time Appalachian food—the classic addition to a pot of greens. (Farmers sometimes also sell mixed fat from other parts of the pig, but the quality isn’t as good.)

To render lard, just chop it up the best you can (smaller pieces will render faster) and put it in a heavy pot with a bit of water on the bottom. Put the pot on low heat. Stir as often as you can remember. It will take hours to render. You can speed the process up a little by squishing the whole bit with a potato masher once it’s started to melt. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up. It will make the lard taste greasy and fried.

When the unmelted bits start to sink, strain off the nice, clear lard. This is the stuff for pie crusts. If it looks like there’s still a lot of fat on what’s left, put it back on the heat to render some more. This second batch will be stronger tasting than the first, but still useful for things like cornbread and greens—and frying, of course.

Strain your rendered lard through cheesecloth into clean jars. You can store the extra in the freezer.

Happy baking!

*Yes, I know there’s “zero trans-fat per serving” Crisco now. Turns out that may be even more poisonous than the original. Are you surprised?

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Preserving the harvest: peppers aren’t patient either.

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First it was ten gallons of tomatoes to can, then six pecks of peppers to roast.

These were “seconds” from a local farmer—the slightly overripe or funny-shaped peppers he can’t sell to restaurants. At $6 a peck, they were absolutely worth it. But patient? No.

These peppers were really, really ripe. And that means really, really sweet. But it also means we had to drop everything to process them right away. And considering we had quite a few other harvest tasks to get to (cucumbers that needed pickling, beer that needed bottling, corn that needed shelling), that was a bit of a pain.

First we had to clean them. Rinse, cut out the bad spots, repeat. Many, many, many times. The boy was grumbling: “Are we really going to need so many roasted peppers this winter?”

After they were all cleaned, it was roasting time. We did some outside on our little grill and some in the oven under the broiler. They need to be nice and blistered and black so the skin will come off after a bit of steaming. (Put them in a closed pot to cool and they’ll slowly steam themselves.)

The next morning, peeling. This is a sticky business. You need a bowl for peppers, a bowl for peels, and a bowl of water for rinsing your hands. Careful not to waste the tasty “liquor” at the bottom of the steaming pot. (Some people peel outside because of the mess, but we live on a farm, so flies are a problem. I just resigned myself to mopping the kitchen floor.)

Part way through peeling, the boy tasted a bit of pepper. Wide eyes. “Oh, wow.” No more complaining from him.

The flavor really is amazing. So much better than any roasted peppers you can buy in a jar. Intensely sweet and bright and peppery.

We put ours in quart jars, destined for our new chest freezer. (You could pressure can them, but that’s a pain, and I don’t have a pressure cooker big enough for quart jars. You can also keep them in the fridge for quite a while if you make sure the tops of the peppers are always covered in olive oil.) We got about twelve quarts, not counting all the ones we’ve eaten in the past few days.

(Goat burgers with roasted peppers and zucchini relish? So good.)

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Preserving the harvest: tomatoes don’t wait.

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I. Have. Been. Canning.

I saw our neighbor at the farmers’ market last week. She said “Hey, do you want any tomatoes? I have extra.”

With my food-hoarding instincts, there’s no way I could pass that up.

Ten gallons later….

Well, let’s just say it’s hot in the kitchen.

If you haven’t tried canning, tomatoes are a good way to start. Home-canned tomatoes are so much better than store-bought.

You can actually just toss the cleaned tomatoes in jars and can them that way (“raw pack”), but I like to get the skins off first. Tradition says to dunk them in hot water for a minute or so to make them easier to peel, but I think that’s messy and you lose a lot of the lovely tomato essence in the boiling water.

A few years ago Jeffrey Hamelman showed me a better way. Jeffrey is a baker, and he roasts his tomatoes in the oven before he cans them. This way the juices are concentrated rather than diluted, and the skins are loose enough that you can usually pull them off with a pair of tongs. Much less messy. Just put a pan of tomatoes in a 350 degree oven for a half hour or so. They’re ready when the skins start to split.

And I make tomato paste with the skins and the leftover juice. Cook them down over low heat for a couple of hours, stirring often. When the skins are pretty translucent, strain the mix (or use a food mill). Then put it back on the stove over low heat until it’s as thick as you want it.

Back to the kitchen. (My salsa isn’t canned yet.)

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Local Strawberry Shortcake

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I made strawberry shortcake for a friend’s wedding last month. The wedding guests kept saying it was the best strawberry shortcake they’d ever had. There’s a very good reason for that: almost all the ingredients were local. That is, they were grown or made within 100 miles of the wedding, which was held in Marlboro, Vermont.

The ingredients:

Strawberries and Maple Syrup from Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro, Vermont.

Cream from Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont.

Rhubarb from Tom and Dawn Huenink in Marlboro, Vermont (heirloom rhubarb plants originally from the MacArthurs of MacArthur Road in Marlboro).

Maple Sugar from Highland Sugarworks in Websterville, Vermont.

Flour from Champlain Valley Milling in Westport, New York. (Not all the wheat milled by Champlain Valley is locally grown, but the miller is very active in encouraging local farmers to grow grains.)

(Oh, and I used baking powder from Indiana and salt from Utah.)

Fruit shortcake is so simple to make, and so good. You can use any berries or fruits that are in season where you live. Here’s how to do it.

Make biscuits.

I used a version of the cream scone recipe from the Joy of Cooking because it’s simple and tasty. (You don’t have to cut in any butter, which makes things easier when you’re making 150 scones!)

Mix:
2 cups all purpose flour (I used a mix of pastry and bread flours since that’s what I could get locally)
3 tablespoons maple sugar (1/3 cup if you use cane sugar—it’s not as sweet)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Add:
1 1/4 cups heavy cream.

Mix and knead gently to form a dough. Shape the biscuits and bake them at 425 for about 15 minutes. They’re best used the same day they’re baked, but you can make the dough ahead of time and refrigerate it until it’s time to bake.

Pick strawberries.

Or raspberries. Or blackberries. Or peaches. Or cherries. Or currants. Or gooseberries. Or whatever’s ripe! You need about 1/2 cup per person. Prepare the fruit. You may want to add a little sweetener, depending on your taste and what fruit you use.

Whip cream.

I sweetened it with a little maple syrup. You might want to add vanilla.

I also made a very simple rhubarb sauce—simmer a few stalks of rhubarb in a little water and maple syrup to taste.

Assemble your shortcakes.

Pull apart a biscuit and put half on the plate. Top it with a big scoop of fruit and some whipped cream. Add the top half of the biscuit, more whipped cream, and the rhubarb sauce if you’re using it. Or build them however you like!

Eat!

Coming soon: A roundup of resources for local eating.

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Mushrooms for strength.

Shiitakes

I found these gorgeous fist-sized locally-grown shiitake mushrooms at Putney Coop.
Perfect for winter chicken soup or just sauteed with butter and garlic, shiitakes are tasty mushrooms.

Shiitakes are also a good example of how much you can learn by tasting. To me, shiitakes taste meaty and solid and strong, and that’s exactly how they work in the body: they’re nourishing and strengthening on a really basic level. Shiitakes give sturdy support to the immune system—they’re often used to help people recover from viruses and cancer. In Traditional Chinese Medicine they’re strengthening tonics for blood and qi (indications include tiredness and frequent colds).

This is my favorite way to eat shiitakes for winter strength:

Slice up shiitakes and saute them in butter until they’re golden brown. Add salt and freshly chopped garlic at the end of cooking. So good.

(The mushroom’s name is sometimes spelled “shitake”, but the “ii” is a better approximation of the original Japanese.)

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Trans fat-free industrial food is still bad food.

So partially hydrogenated “trans” fats are bad. Everyone knows they’re bad. Hell, they’re illegal now in restaurants in New York. There’s even a trans fat–free Crisco on the market.

But guess what? The food industry isn’t replacing this nasty industrial fat with some wholesome, expensive ingredient like, say, coconut oil. Yes, you guessed it, they’re replacing it with another nasty industrial fat! And the early research suggests this one might be even more poisonous than the last. (Not only does it lower “good” HDL cholesterol, it raises blood sugar. Just what we need.)

So watch for it on food labels: interesterified fat, also known as fully hydrogenated oil. And steer clear. (And just give up on the Crisco. How about organic lard from happy pigs on small farms instead?)

The bottom line: industrial food is industrial food is industrial food. And it’s bad.

Geek note: The study in question is Stearic acid-rich interesterified fat and trans-rich fat raise the LDL/HDL ratio and plasma glucose relative to palm olein in humans by
Kalyana Sundram, Tilakavati Karupaiah and Kc Hayes in Nutrition and Metabolism 2007, 4:3. And there’s a free full-text PDF!

Related post: Trans fat update: bureaucracy + marketing = bad food.

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Grass fed beef tastes good.

So the guys at our local butcher shop have stopped carrying much grass fed beef because they say it doesn’t sell. I’m not surprised, since every time I ask to buy some, they tend to put it down—apologizing that it isn’t more marbled. And if they don’t have any grass fed, they say “Well, why don’t you try this cut, it’s pretty lean.” They don’t get it at all.

Low fat is not the point. Trendiness is not the point. See, not only does grass fed beef have better fat than grain-finished beef, grass fed beef just tastes better.

Butchers: you need to get beyond the visual grading system that judges meat solely on fat marbling. Take some home and eat it. Then stop apologizing for the way it looks, and start telling people how it tastes!

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