Monday, November 30, 2009

Bringing Home the Bacon (Fat)

Given the glut of food propaganda, I think it is high time for me to join the fray. The way I figure, vegetables have plenty of champions, from Michael Pollan to Michelle Obama. Meat has Joel Salatin, a staunch defender if ever I met one. Even high fructose corn syrup has its defenders (though I'm more a fan of the rebuttal, myself). So I'm going to defend fat: poor under appreciated, unloved fat.

I like fat so much that I've got jars of lard, schmaltz, and tallow (that's pork fat, chicken fat, and beef fat, for the unitinitiated) in my refrigerator, as well as the old standby, butter. Oh, and that's next to a package of bacon ends, which is essentially bacon fat with a tiny bit of bacon attached. As a social experiment, I've taken to showing off my collection to friends and gauging their reaction. Some folks (women especially, I find) shrink back in horror, as though my jars might reach out and slap love handles on them just for looking. Others give me a polite "wow...that's a lot of fat" before skilfully changing the subject to a less disturbing topic like animal slaughter. But a few--the enlightened, I like to think of them--smack their lips and ask me how my pie crusts have been turning out lately. "Golden and flaky, thank you very much," I reply.

Why this sudden enthusiasm for the pariah of the food pyramid?

Well, flavor, for starters. Fat molecules make the bits of food they are attached to move more slowly across the tongue, which gives our tastebuds time to register flavor. When used judiciously, fat, like salt, is a flavor enhancer. This would be the reason why Lean Cuisine tastes disturbingly similar to its cardboard packaging (among other reasons made clear by the ingredient list).

But beyond purely epicurian reasons, I love my fat because I know exactly where it all came from. The chicken fat and beef fat were the byproducts of my stock. The long simmering of the stock rendered the raw animal fat into a purer, less perishable form, and once my pots had cooled, I easily skimmed the fat off the top. The lard I made from pork fat (also from Polyface), cooked down in a crockpot over about eight hours. The best part is that animals fats acquired in this way--from skimming the fat of your stock or rendering lard--are cheaper than anything at the grocery store. We bought 10 pounds of pork fat at $1 per pound (a pretty standard price, I think), and from that we rendered one gallon of lard. That price is equal to or only slightly more than the price of canola oil at the groceries near my house.

Fat, animal fat in particular, is not something I would acquire just anywhere, however. Animals store the residues from any chemicals, antibiotics, or hormones they are exposed to in their fat, where it will be passed on up to foodchain to whomever dines on them. You can bet that the lard on sale in big buckets at the grocery store did not come from pastured pork. Too often nutritional advice lumps all products of a sort together, without any recognition of the difference that production and processing can make. (This is one reason why so much conventional wisdom advises health-conscious consumers to avoid beef. In nutrition studies, feedlot beef has been linked to health problems for the consumer and environmental degradation--but the nutritional composition of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef are quite different. Equating the two would be like comparing grapefruits to lemons.)

My choosiness extends to other, non-animal fats, however. Particularly because I cannot be a part of the production and processing of vegetable fats, I like to look for fats that are relatively unprocessed and unlikely to go rancid. (Rancid oils are carcinogenic.) Thus olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil are all in my larder, while canola, safflower, and cottonseed (seriously, who thought that eating the oil from cotton seeds was a good idea?) will not find welcome there.

You can argue all day long about the merits of saturated (animal) versus unsaturated (plant) fats, but the way I see it, the best fat is one the provenance of which I know. And boy does it ever taste good...

How To Render Your Own Lard

First, cut the fat into pieces, the better to fit it into your crock pot. If you notice any remaining bits of meat on the fat, trim them off, as they will give the lard more of a porky flavor (I prefer a more neutral cooking oil).

Stuff the crock pot as full as you like, but be sure that the lid seals. Set the heat on low, and return in 6-8 hours, depending on how much fat you began with. (If you have a crockpot with a timer, you can do this overnight). The lard is finished when it is mostly liquid (not all of the fat will render). It's a judgment call, really.

Once finished, strain the liquid lard though a fine mesh colander to remove any residual solids and let it cool to snowy whiteness. Lard will keep longer in the fridge, though you can leave it on the counter if you are using it up in a matter of months. In hot weather at room temperature, it will be liquid, though if you keep it in the fridge it will be solid enough for pie crust-making.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pastured Poultry Preservation

Recently, preparing to leave Massachusetts for a sojourn in the sunny south, I surveyed my winter stockpile of provisions with a critical eye. I needed stock. Chicken stock. Lots of chicken stock. What, after all, is a cold winter’s day without a pot of soup steaming on the stovetop and a mug of cocoa reanimating my frosted fingers? Admittedly, homemade stock has never been my strongpoint—for an embarrassingly long time I suffered under the illusion that one chicken’s worth of bones, if simmered long enough, could magically transform an entire pot of water into a rich, fragrant base for soups. This is patently untrue, as a succession of “subtle” (read: watery) stocks demonstrated. With vegetable stocks I had equally unfortunate results, primarily because I could never bring myself to sacrifice a sufficient quantity of perfectly good veggies to the stockpot. (The one time I did manage to achieve vegetable broth nirvana, as part of an over-ambitious soup-in-a-pumpkin spectacle, I ran a tab of about $50. For soup. Never again, Whole Foods).

But this time around I had several secret weapons: The River Cottage Meat Book, the most scrumptious treatise on carnivory ever composed, 75 lbs of chicken backs and too-small-for-sale birds, and a knowledgeable assistant. OK, so maybe Andrew was actually in charge. He spent the season working at Polyface Farm, our source for stock birds and a perfect stopping point in my seasonal migration from north to south. When I learned that we could borrow a kitchen and two pressure canners in return for one night of feeding the crew, I decided that it was time to purchase additional canning jars, and perhaps buy stock in the Ball company.

Do not be deceived by my history of failure: making a good stock is fantastically simple. As long as you avoid the two great sins of stock-making—overboiling and underpacking—you cannot fail. First, you must pack the pot tightly with your bones and/or meat and add only enough water to cover everything. Second, you must maintain your pot at the most tremulous of simmers for 3-6 hours. We added a few carrots, some celery stalks, and several quartered onions to our brew, but eschewed the addition of any salt. While “salt to taste” seems to be the directive that commercial stock companies cook by (check out the sodium content on that Campbell’s soup!), we wanted to save the salting step for the distant day when we use our stock. Besides, our stock was so flavorful that we didn’t need salt in order to taste the chicken-y goodness.

Several hours later, with the afternoon sun streaming into the kitchen, we began to decant our stocks one by one, first pulling out whole birds, necks, and backs, then carefully straining the broth through a fine sieve. Internet sleuthing had revealed that the fat in our stock could interfere with a proper canning seal or cause the stock to go rancid, so we covered the pots, stashed them in my cat-proof car to chill for the night, and made plans to regroup in the morning. Chicken as air freshener—I think it will really catch on.

Then we cooked dinner for 12 hungry farmers.

Morning found us in the kitchen again, skimming off the risen fat and preparing the safe-like pressure canner for duty. Low acid foods like stock require the high heat of a pressure canner for safe home canning. Please don’t ever use a water bath and call it even—it isn’t. You can, of course, freeze your stock and store it for at least a year, but with our freezer bursting from 130 lbs of veal, we felt that canning made the most sense. We saved the chicken fat (schmaltz) for matzoh balls, stir-fries, and spreading on bread, and we canned our eighteen quarts of stock in just a few hours.

Coming soon: What We Did While the Stock (tremulously) Simmered or In Defense of Fat or Why “Lard-Bucket” is Really a Term of Endearment