Saturday, May 29, 2010


Pastrami was too dry. Ended up like shoe leather - the perils of using Texas grass-fed beef, especially eye-of-round. There just wasn't enough fat to lubricate it for the required cooking time.

On to bigger and better things. I'm brining a hog head and four trotters as we speak, to make brawn (aka headcheese) this afternoon. Mmm, brawn.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Just harvested the first two viable cucumbers. The oddly-shaped one here:
And the big boy here:
The more symmetrical of the two weighs in at 250 grams (that's over 1/2 pound for you non-metric folks). The lumpy one was 175 grams. The plants are covered with dozens and dozens of baby cucumbers, so these ought to just be the beginning.
Of course I couldn't help myself but dig in, not least because a co-worker of mine warned me that the cucumbers she and her neighbors have grown tasted "like shit". When I asked for clarification, she reiterated - like a green turd. Crunchy on the outside, fecal on the inside.

Not appealing at all. Fortunately, that was not the case here. I peeled the lumpy one and made a cucumber sandwich (and some sliced cuke for the wife). The perfect cucumber - light, flavorful (and organic, of course).

Recipe: Whisk together 2 parts Greek yogurt to 1 part cream cheese. Smear mix on 2 slices of lightly toasted bread. Slice cucumber lengthwise on a mandolin (I prefer the waffle setting), very thinly. Stack layers of ruffled cucumber on the bread, seasoning each layer lightly with salt and pepper or italian dressing seasoning. Top with remaining slice of bread, slice and serve. Surprisingly good, and perfect lunch for hot weather.

In other gardening news, our cherry tomatoes are starting to ripen:

And our champions are still lagging. I still blame the neighbors for making us rip up and relocate the garden. One turned red but got eaten by a cheeky squirrel (unless one of the neighbors. . . no, I'll let this one go). The remainder are plump but still green. If they don't get to work pretty soon, they're going to find themselves coated in cornmeal and headed for a frying pan.

Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables

I was thinking that for a blog with "gristle" in the title, this was getting a bit veg-heavy. I intend to remedy that in the coming days, starting now.

I've had mixed luck with roasting chickens, but have been steadily improving in the last year or so. Most recently, I reached a new peak when my brother-in-law was here in April. The key to that near-triumph (he was impressed, which counts for something) was my having brined the chicken, which I have avoided in the past. A divisive topic, brining, but I think it tends to lend a net benefit to the chicken. 12 hours is what is typically recommended, but for a roast chicken I'm thinking 8-10 hours for the future (just a matter of taste). Anyway, to try and top my April chicken, I got a 4-pound pastured roaster chicken. I brined it for 12 hours, and then proceeded to the new prep techniques. Place chicken in sink.

Boil water in a kettle, and pour boiling water all over chicken to scald. The photo doesn't fully capture the creepiness of the effect - the skin actually contracts and starts tightening as if alive. This scalding step helps separate the skin from the fat and meat, and helps ensure a crisp skin on the roast.

Your scalded chicken then sits in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours. This helps dry out the skin, again to help ensure crispiness. By the time you prepare to roast, the skin should be lightly yellowed and waxy-looking.
Veggies for the roast - since it's spring, I threw some radishes in with the carrots and celery. Toss with thyme, salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. Quarter and add some red potatoes at the last minute.
Truss the chicken. Work your fingers under the skin on both breasts, and push in some softened butter. I also added one sage leaf for each breast - thereby letting the oven make some sage butter to baste the bird.

Rub the skin with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. If you're so inclined (I was), tie some rosemary and sage leaves to the trussed chicken. Place on rack above vegetables, backside-up. Preheat oven to 450, and pop chicken in for 45 minutes.

Lower heat to ~400, and flip chicken breast-side-up. (Having the backside up during the browning phase makes sure the breast doesn't dry out, as it is basted by all the bird-fat dripping down.) Check for doneness (approaching 160 degrees at the thickest part of the thigh), remove and rest wrapped in foil for at least 15 minutes.

Behold your glorious bird.

Carve and serve with root vegetables. Normally I make a pan jus, but this was so moist and flavorful, it seemed a crime to drown it in sauce. Crisp skin, moist meat - not even a hint of dryness to the white meat.
Victory is mine. (The wife and Peanut concur.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Finally some ripening. I was worried this batch would be no good, as we had to uproot and move the entire garden due to a bad neighbor problem. I'm surprised they didn't all die.

Regaining my composure now. The bad neighbors ambushed us and put us through a bit of an ordeal. But, as the wife gently reminded me, "one cannot go through life slitting the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve" (h/t to Al Swearengen).

Above is our now-ripening Champion. Hopefully the next batch of fruit will live up to the name. The cherry tomatoes and heirlooms are still slowly coming along. Peppers and zucchini are back to square one. I guess this is what happens when you have to uproot and relocate an entire garden. Bastards.

Then the cucumbers - two are almost ready to pick, and dozens of little proto-cucumbers. Once they start approaching critical mass, they grow frighteningly quickly. And look vaguely obscene.

Also, Sunday's roast chicken pics soon, and a pastrami too.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cucumber Flowers

Fruit to come. . . Also the zucchini are flowering, and we have lots of little green tomatoes.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

. . . Burgers and Benedict

Continuing: After resting from the baking, I used two of the brioche rolls for burgers Saturday evening. Used grass-fed chuck from Slanker Farms, boned and ground by yours truly. Charbroiled to a medium rare (you can safely do this if you grind it yourself) on brioche bun. A little lopsided because of my imperfect slicing of bun.

Went over reasonably well.

Split remaining roll, used for eggs benedict Sunday morning - half bun plus oven-dried tomatoes, seared house sausage, poached egg, hollandaise.

Brioche. . .

In a rare foray into baking, I made brioche Saturday. Partly because I wanted to see if I could, partly because it freezes well, and partly because Thomas Keller insists it is the ideal foundation for a superior grilled cheese sandwich.

This is some serious work though. Friday night I had to work in the eggs and butter into the flour until the perfect silky consistency:

Then it has to rise for three hours. Then you have to knead it down and kill all the air bubbles - and refrigerate overnight.

Saturday morning I let it rise in a loaf pan (and as a few rolls). Another three hours.

In it went at 35o for about 40 minutes (20 for the rolls). The result:

This is seriously good stuff. The wife and the Peanut agreed - it has the shape and feel of a light bread, but the delicacy of a croissant. 2/3 of the loaf went in the freezer, along with all but 3 of the rolls (shown below).

I kept three. Two for Saturday night's burgers, one for surprising the wife Sunday morning with eggs benedict.

Friday, April 23, 2010


So here comes the first of the really fun stuff - dry-curing. The belly and jowls went into a cure of salt, sodium nitrite (just a touch to ward off botulism), sugar, and various herbs and spices. They sat in the cure for almost two weeks, giving off water that had to be drained daily. At the end of the two-week period, they were hung to mature. One of the jowls I rubbed with a paprika/marjoram mix before hanging, to give a slightly Central European flavor to counter the more Italian cure mix. (The herbs and spices in the cure are consistent with pancetta. I just didn't roll the bacon.)

Here hang the guanciale:

And here hang the belly bacons (note that the one at front still has its ribs):

For those of you who haven't obsessed over this for years, I should point out the critical difference between this and store-bought bacon. The dry-cure method is the original peasant approach to making bacon - the idea being to protect the meat from microbes, and preserve it in a form that can hang indefinitely to be used as a staple. The initial curing process leeches water from the meat, and the hanging process dries the meat further. The result is a piece of meat that weighs significantly less than when it was fresh.

The makers of store-bought bacon abandoned this practice many years ago, as it lowers the weight and takes too long. The bacon you get in the store has been injected with brine to give it a "cured taste". Not only has it not lost weight, it has actually gained water weight from the injection. That's why when you throw it on the skillet, it immediately starts warping, crinkling, and spitting water. You paid for that extra water (they charge you by the pound, remember?). You should feel ripped off.

The proper dry-cured bacon will not do this. It will not shrink or spit; instead it will render copious amounts of fat while still maintaining its integrity. It is a thing of beauty.

I don't have pictures of it cooking, but hopefully the following pics of the finished product will tell the tale. The thin end of the belly, after hanging, I decided to make into breakfast bacon. Accordingly, I basted it in maple syrup and smoked it over apple chips for a couple hours. Fresh from the smoker, it looked like this:

Stiff as a board, with just enough moisture and none to spare. I sliced it up for future use:

Beautifully streaky, but mostly dry to the touch.

You could eat this raw like prosciutto. As it happens, a couple minutes in the toaster oven and they crisped up for the best BLT I ever had (to be bested when we harvest our tomatoes).

I'll follow up on the guanciale later, when I slice it up for pasta carbonara. Right now I'm still resenting the guanciale for the finger thing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wound Update

Wound is healing nicely. No signs of infection.

Also, I made a point of taking the rind off the guanciale last night. Damned if I'm going to let the boning knife win. The wife looked at me like I was insane. Maybe I reminded her of McNulty reconstructing his car crash.

If the embed isn't working, see link:

Garden Update

We have our first tomato - about the size of a grape, but still. Our two Champion plants are supposed to yield tomatoes with the diameter of a hamburger bun. Nothing but flowers on the heirlooms and cherry tomato plants. The tomato:

Five bell peppers that I can see. Here are two:

Hopefully more to come.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Son Of A Bitch.

"I still have all my fingers," he said. Jeebus. I dismantle half a hog, separate loin from belly without a hitch.

Now I try to de-rind a guanciale to make dinner, and I end up with a crimson geyser and six stitches.

Hubris. Dammit.

Crackling Pork Shank

Over a decade ago, I had my first brush with culinary perfection. Not of the refined but the more counterintuitive variety - something so simple, so expertly-prepared and so seemingly wrong that it stays with you forever.

I was in Germany (I did say "counterintuitive"), at an inn called Hotel Zum Loewen in Freiburg. My professor insisted on each of us ordering the house special: Schweinshaxe, a spit-roasted, crackling pork shank. It came out on a metal plate with a knife stabbed in vertically. As sides, a bowl of pommes (french fries), some mixed greens, and a tarragon cream sauce.

Even without the German inn ambience, we all felt like 12th-century barbarians digging in to the massive, bone-in piece on our metal plates. The experience cannot be conveyed in words. The meat and fat were indistinguishable, a tender, juicy mountain of meat inside a crackling exterior. Whatever gristle and connective tissue had been in the shank had long since surrendered and become butter. It was simply heaven. Washing it down with a round of Birnenschnapps did nothing to detract from the experience either.

Many would find it odd that my obsession with good food started not in Italy or France, but in Germany. As much as I've grown to love and appreciate classical cuisines (rustic and refined), this was the experience I've been chasing. Chasing with numerous bitter disappointments. Supermarket-bought pork shanks braised to a limpid, grey pulp surrounded by yellow fat. Or roasted and dry. I came close by confit-ing a shank and then roasting it, but the flavor did not satisfy.

More than once, friends from Europe would tell me to stop trying to replicate the dish, as American pork is bred (and injected with hormones) to produce the maximum amount of lean meat in the least amount of time. As such, the texture and flavor would never compare to a provincial German hog, raised outdoors and allowed to grow and put on fat at a natural pace. Eventually, I conceded the point.

Fast forward to March 2010.

I now have 133 pounds of organic Berkshire hog. I have butchered the primals and cut into myriad roasting, braising and curing joints. Among them are the shanks, separated from the trotters:

Days after the butchery, and subsequent roast and sausage feast, I eventually found myself thinking about pork. And about my Schweineshaxe. I decided upon a plan of action for a dry run - brine one shank, braise it until tender, rest, and roast to crackling. The brining I decided was critical to bringing out the pork's flavor at the beginning, so that I didn't risk having to save it with extra seasoning at the end.

Accordingly, on the evening of March 30 I threw one shank into some pork brine (Thomas Keller's formula).

The next morning, I tied the shank and threw it into a braise of onions, carrots, wine, aromatics and stock. I made sure to get some mace, marjoram and caraway in there. I braised at 275-300 for about four hours, until tender.

I then let it rest and dry in the refigerator. As dinnertime approached, I brought it to room temperature and scored the skin with a utility knife. I preheated the oven to 425 and rubbed the shank down with salt, pepper, herbs and a bit of olive oil for the skin.
I popped the shank in for about 30 minutes, until heated through and crackling. And serve.

With boiled potatoes, a mustard-tarragon sauce, and beer, this was delicious. If it's not quite perfect, it's close. Crackly, unctuous, tender goodness.

One could eat the meat with a spoon, if one were so inclined.

In the future, this will be more efficient to prepare in bulk. More than likely I'll brine and braise the remaining three shanks ahead of time. When Feast Day comes, I'll either roast them as above, or introduce the three shanks to an outdoor deep-fryer for a couple minutes. (I do suspect that is how the Germans made them to order).

I'll update when I try it again. In the meantime, this was an 8 out of 10. We gave a piece to the Peanut, and she immediately nodded emphatic approval. She has good taste.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hog Butchery 101

My pork odyssey began with the butchery project on March 5, 2010.

1 half organic heritage hog, with the head and 4 feet. Due to USDA regulations, I couldn't get the half-hog in one piece (the USDA inspects primal quarters at the abattoir). Primal quarters = shoulder, side, ham.

1 butcher's saw
1 cleaver
1 boning knife
butcher's block
Bic razors - several (any Berkshire or other heritage hog will likely still have a lot of hair to be shaved)

Step 1: Study. In my case, two years of reading obsession, and one video "pig-in-a-day" course (thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage. Link:

Step 2: Torch and shave head, trotters, any other spots with disturbing tufts of fur.

Step 3: Saw through head. Prepare for several stages of resistance as you move through skull and brain matter. Remove tongue whole rather than sawing through. Try your best not to look at the eye.
Set brain aside for poaching and frying:
Step 4: Remove jowls for curing (jowls at right).

Step 5: Spot-shave trotters; saw off the shanks from the trotters. The shanks make fantastic braising and roasting cuts (to be revisited in a later post).

Shanks on the left, trotters on the right.

(Couldn't resist a "Gold Rush" reference.)

Step 6: Lay out the side. Side is heavy. May require help. Remove the kidney . . .

. . . and tenderloin.
Trim tenderloin. Note the rosy color. "The Other White Meat" was a campaign promoting miserable, fast-growing, intensively-raised hogs designed to grow as quickly as possible. For now I'll refrain from ranting about all this entails in terms of animal welfare and environmental damage, but suffice to say the notion is toxic bullshit and must be buried with prejudice. Quality pork should have a healthy pink-to-red color.
Step 6: Separate Loin (left) from Belly (right). This necessitates sawing through one rib at a time, whilst supporting each rib from underneath with your other hand. Do not do this if you have blood pressure or heart problems. Nerve-wracking as this is, you may take comfort from the fact that the saw slows down once it moves from bone to flesh, so the odds of cutting through to your finger are slim. For the record, I still have all my fingers.

The loin piece may be separated into baby-backs and a boneless loin roast, or cut into chops. I opted for the former (post on rolled loin roast with crackling to come). The belly I split and cured along with the jowls for pancetta-style bacon. The short-end (closest to the viewer) I later opted to baste in maple syrup and smoke for breakfast rashers. The lean texture made for the ideal breakfast or sandwich bacon. The thick (fattier) end is hanging as a bone-in pancetta, to be sliced up as needed for soups, stews, or to wrap lean meat or birds.

Step 7: Trim meat off of shoulder. My photographer quit, out of either fatigue or unease at the hog's eye still staring at him. However, he returned once I had ground the meat and was turning it into sausage:

Always hang sausage for at least a few hours to allow the excess moisture to sweat out. The skin should be firm and reasonably dry when your little helper takes it down.At the end of the day, I had the following:

  • 2 rolled loin roasts with crackling
  • 1 rack baby back ribs
  • 1 belly roast; 1 spare-rib roast
  • 2 belly cuts curing as bacon
  • 2 guanciale (jowls) curing
  • 4 shanks for braising/roasting
  • 1 23-lb ham buried in salt, to be hung for prosciutto-style ham
  • 10-lb sausage - 5 lb bangers, 5 lb Italian.
And bonuses:
  • 6 lbs of liver for pate
  • 1 heart and kidney
  • Lots of bone-in braising meat (spine and neck)
  • Countless pounds of fatback for rendering (and tallow fat)
  • Rind
  • Bones for stock
  • Head minus jowls for braise, brawn (headcheese) or some other terrine
In the coming weeks and months, I will update the progress of the curing items, and monitor the deployment of all of these ingredients into Chez Gristle's menu.