Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pigs have food issues

We've all heard that feeding corn to beef cattle isn't good for them; large amounts of grain like corn causes acidosis. And although pretty much everyone agrees that corn-fed beef has superior taste, we've been conditioned to have a knee-jerk reaction that corn-fed meat in general is bad, grass-fed is good. However, this is not true of pork. Please bear with me as I step briefly onto my soap box to explain.

OK here it is, the big difference between pigs and cows: Cattle are ruminants, pigs are not. A cow's elaborate system of four stomachs (the word "ruminant" is derived from "rumen," the cow's first stomach) is designed to efficiently convert grasses and legumes into muscle. Pigs, on the other hand, not only love corn, they positively thrive on it. Our Tamworth pigs, being the champion rooters of the pig world, definitely love being on pasture or even in the woods, but we do also feed them organic, non-GMO grain, including corn. Usually they will eat a wet grain mash first thing in the morning, but after a few minutes of that they head off for a busy morning of rooting.

Like all our animals, we try to give the pigs as natural a life as possible, while balancing their needs and preferences with our desire to keep them safe and healthy. Pigs (especially Tamworths) love to root, so we provide them with plenty of pasture to plow up. Right now, their paddock extends into the edge of a wooded area as well, so they have quite a variety of interesting roots to divide their attention among.

From all we have learned, we believe that a balanced diet is the right thing for our pigs, and that includes a variety of grains, including corn. Actually, at this stage of their development, we have bumped up the proportion of corn so as to slightly lower their protein intake; the extra carbohydrate also helps keep them warm at night, as well as enhancing the quality of the finishing fat.

So, there you have it: Corn-fed pork is a good thing. They love it, and they are happy and healthy. If you're still skeptical, come see our pigs for yourself. Better yet, visit the Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim and ask for Tamworth pork!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Method #1 for roasted heritage Tamworth pork belly

First, I will get back to poultry-related subjects shortly; the past couple of weeks have been all about Tamworth pork. I've got a large cooler full of various cuts (shoulder, loin, leg, belly) curing here, and I'm helping Gabriel (chef at the Alder Wood Bistro) with the curing of prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, guanciale and Canadian bacon. I'm quite excited about this amazing pork, and now we are planning for a mid-winter barbecue here at the farm.

The other night, for the first time, I roasted a nice thick piece of skin-on pork belly. It was close to three inches thick, with a nice balance of fat to lean; the lean was a rich dark red. (The belly is the cut from which bacon is made.) As we do with all premium cuts of meat, I simply sprinkled it with a little Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper. I let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Then into the oven at 400F, and I set the timer for 30 minutes. (Not having done this before I wasn't sure how long it would take, but I was aiming for an internal temperature of 150F.) I meant to roast it with the skin side up, but forgot until I checked the temperature after 30 minutes; then I turned it.

Altogether it took about 45 minutes to reach 150F. I let it rest in the pan for 5 or 10 minutes before we sliced it to serve. Two things I noticed that were a surprise to me: first, the skin seemed to dissolve into the fat just below the skin, and like the fat, literally melted in my mouth. Second, the fat on this pork did not seem greasy at all! I have heard that the diet of the pig directly affects the quality and taste of the fat, so I think we'll keep doing what we've done so far.

Roasted pork belly seems to be a "hot" menu item in restaurants these days, and I'd highly recommend that you try it when you have the chance. It's not always easy to find uncured pork belly that you can roast yourself, but you can try asking the butcher at your grocery store or co-op. It's worth the effort, in my opinion, to find really good-quality pork, though, which may not be available at your grocery store.

Have you tried roasted pork belly? If so, where did you have it? If you've bought and roasted your own, where did you get it and how did you cook it? I've heard of a slow-roasting method where the belly cooks for 5 hours or so, but I have yet to try that myself.

Gilts behaving badly

After a hard day of free-ranging, the Three 
Little Pigs snooze in the turkey roost area. 
(Photo by David B. Miller)

"It's like three of the most gorgeous [gilts] raising hell."
-Molly Shannon as Mary Catherine Gallagher in SNL's hilarious film Superstar

Oh, those pigs. Sigh. The Three Little Pigs (can I just say that they are NOT afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, so you needn't e-mail me), unlike our first four Tamworths, are determined to prove that their reputation as escape artists is well deserved. No matter how we adjust the two strands of electric rope, they continue to find new ways to get out. During their first week here, we actually saw them jump over the fence. Frankly, I never imagined pigs could jump; it was quite a sight, believe you me.

The Three Little Pigs are all gilts; that is, female pigs less than a year old. Why this batch are so different from the others we've had is a mystery to us. It's not as if they are hungry and just busting out looking for food. It's not that they are simply adventurous little things that want to see the world. We're rapidly coming to the conclusion that they are breaking out pretty much because they can. Apparently being pasture-raised isn't enough for some pigs; they want to literally free-range like all the birds do. At least they don't seem inclined to disappear into the woods, thank goodness.

I figured out the other day that they respond to a waving broom much more positively than to waving arms. For some reason it is relatively easy to herd them back into their yard with the broom (I did this by myself a few days ago, much to everyone's surprise). Not that I'm wasting time analyzing the whys and wherefores; it's good enough for me that I've found something that works. I'd much prefer to find a way to prevent them escaping in the first place, but what the heck, they're going to be slaughtered in a couple of months anyway.

Poor little pigs, they seem so happy when they're running free and turning over the birds' feeders and rooting up my garden. Gilts, you know, just want to have fun.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tamworth pork: The other red meat?

We've been quite busy this past week or so dealing with several hundred pounds of wonderful Tamworth pork. The two pigs we had brought home last June at 7 weeks of age had grown steadily, happily rooting and grazing on pasture as well as enjoying top-quality organic grains. We knew they were bigger than the two Tams we had had slaughtered last year, but we were fairly astounded to learn that they were actually quite a lot larger than we expected.

Last Thursday, we met with Gabriel (chef at the Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim) and Sean (one of his cooks) to begin the process of butchering the hogs. The Bistro is closed every January, affording the crew there a much-needed and definitely well-deserved vacation. Although Gabriel was just buying one of the two pigs, he kindly allowed us to use his cooler to store both carcasses for a few days while we cut it up and made decisions about how to use it all. This was a huge help to us, and we're very grateful for the use of his kitchen space and his knowledgeable help in butchering the pigs.

As I mentioned, the pigs were much bigger than we'd expected. They had been broken down into the large primal cuts: Head, back leg (ham), front leg (shoulder), loin, and side (belly). When we heaved one of the 35-pound loins onto the work table, we weren't too surprised to see a good thick layer of beautiful back fat under the skin. Once the guys had taken out the tenderloin, which lies against the baby back ribs parallel to the spine, they began dividing the gorgeous loin into thick chops. I was so interested in this process (which I'd only been involved in once before, when we slaughtered our first two pigs last year) that it was a few minutes before I noticed something: not only was the meat much darker red than is usual with pork, the meat was beautifully marbled and, to my eye at least, looked more like beef than pork.

Gabriel and Sean worked away at boning and cutting up the pork for several hours. Later in the afternoon, everyone took a break and Gabriel cooked up some of the meat for us. He took some boneless pieces from three different cuts, seasoned them with a little truffle salt, and grilled them quickly. Sliced thinly and served with a mixed-greens salad, the pork was (as my visiting sister Lindy said) "a revelation." The appearance, texture and flavor was actually reminiscent of a good steak. I don't think I had ever had pork cooked this way, and it was truly delicious.

So there you go, folks. Tamworth pork is the new beef, at least while it lasts at the Alder Wood Bistro. If you're within a few hours' drive of Sequim, believe me, it's worth the trip to eat here. The Bistro is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM till 3 PM for lunch, and 5 PM to 9 PM for dinner. Reservations are a good idea if you're coming for dinner; call (360) 683-4321.

By the way, if you get out here to the Bistro soon, they might still have some of the fantastic pates that Gabriel made using the Tamworth livers. Just sayin'.