Friday, January 30, 2009


Breadmaking is one of those perfectly simple, absolutely miraculous things that, if successful, deliver no end of satisfaction. How great is it to give life to a leaven? And then to see that leaven shape a loaf of bread? And, if that's not enough, to pull that loaf out of the oven and be able to eat it!?
It's hard to take credit for bread, though. You don't actually do very much. You stir flour and water together and just wait and hope that something is happening in the fort you've made out of your heater, drying rack, folding chair, and quilts. This in no way diminishes the elation you feel when you part the blankets to find a jar full to brimming with lovely leaven--leaven that just the day before was a seemingly lifeless lump of flour and water.
I owe my success first and foremost to all the little beasties who so graciously decided to populate my leaven, but also to Andrew Whitley whose wonderful book, Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own, made me believe that there is no reason why anybody should not have a viable starter waiting patiently in the fridge for baking day. It really is that simple.
So far I have only tried Whitely's wheat leaven. Its success has encouraged me to get a rye sourdough going and when I do you'll be sure to hear about it.

Recipe and instructions to follow

Friday, January 9, 2009


A week after the slaughter Neil invited me to a day of sausage making (and bacon curing and hock brining). Despite having only four days off in December, I eagerly accepted the invitation. What better way to spend a day off than cooking good food in good company?
For our sausage we had 30 pounds of pork butt (a shoulder cut, despite its name) and fat, 15 pounds of which we saved for Pete; an ancient but determined Hobart meat grinder; an even more ancient but magnificent cast iron sausage stuffer; plenty of herbs and spices and kosher salt; and a wonderful book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
After curing the bacon, putting the hocks in brine, and grinding the meat, we took a break for lunch. It was only fitting to have sausage so Neil pulled out some that he had made a few days before. We felt quite civilized with our meal of homemade chorizo and italian sausage, good bread, locally produced chutney, and a nice glass of red wine.
Though they were all excellent, of the three kinds of sausage we made (garlic, country, and Thai) the Thai was my favorite.

Ron's Thai Sausage

  • natural hog casings
  • 5 lb pork butt and fat, cubed
  • 6 Tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 6 Tbsp scallions, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp lime leaves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 cup + 1 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 Tbsp kosher salt
  • juice and zest of one lime
  • water, as needed
  • Soak natural hog casings in water.
  • Make sure meat is cold and pass pork butt and fat through a meat grinder set with a coarse plate. Keep refrigerated until needed.
  • Chop lemon grass and let steep in fish sauce while you prepare other ingredients. (This was Neil's solution. He decided the lemongrass bits would ruin the texture of the sausage, but still wanted the flavor so he put the woody bits of lemongrass in the fish sauce and then strained it before adding it to the meat.)
  • Finely chop scallions, ginger, garlic, lime leaves, and cilantro and add to meat. Add the red pepper flakes, salt, lime zest and juice, and fish sauce, straining it to remove lemongrass.
  • Add about a cup of water and begin mixing the ingredients together with your hands. Knead the meat until it has reached the desired texture, a couple of minutes, adding more water if necessary. The sausage begins to come together and get a little sticky. You want neither to under nor over mix. (I am writing this from memory and am not a professional. Consult Charcuterie for more expert advise.)
  • Once the sausage is mixed fry up a test patty and adjust the seasoning as needed. (It is best to let your sausage to sit a while before stuffing for the flavors to marry, but not absolutely necessary. We didn't have time and our sausage turned out wonderfully.)
  • Put sausage into stuffer. Wash out a section of casing, squeeze out excess water, and thread onto funnel of sausage stuffer. Leaving a tail of casing, begin to stuff sausage, making sure not to over or under stuff the casing. Leave a tail at the end.
  • To make links push the meat a little down the casing and twist away from you, move down the sausage a desired length and do the same thing, this time twisting toward yourself. Repeat for the length of sausage, remembering to alternate the twist.
I am now ruined for any sausage but homemade. The stuff I used to buy and even kind of like is now so obviously ground too far and flavored too little. Unfortunately I only have two of our sausages left in the freezer. I can't go back to eating that other stuff, so I guess it's time I made more.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Slaughter, Conclusion

After every stage the carcass looked more and more like food. It was a truly incredible transformation.
The last step was to cut the carcass in half down the spine. Pete scored the back with his knife and then with the Sawzall cut down the spine from the inside of the pig. Neil held the two sides apart to make the cutting easier for Pete and I braced the pig with my shoulder so it wouldn't move quite so much. Since Pete had the saw out, he went ahead and took off the front trotters, which were added to the pile of offal.
Now it really looked like food; like something that could be hanging in a butcher's window.
Pete drove the tractor, the two halves of the pig still hanging from the bucket, up to the barn where he had set up some planks on scaffolding to hang the meat from. Getting the sides of pig off the stretcher and onto the hooks they would be hanging from overnight was definitely a three man job. Pete and Neil got the side of pig is some sort of bear hug and lifted it off the hook of the stretcher while I acted as a counterweight. I had to hang on the stretcher, my feet off the ground, to keep the other half of the pig from crashing down. Once Pete and Neil had wrestled the side of meat off the stretcher they had to work the hook under the tendon and then hang the hook from the beam all without letting the meat hit the ground--not an easy feat considering its weight and how slippery it was due to all that exposed fat. They managed it, of course, and got the second half off and hung just before I thought my arms might fall off. The meat would hang in the barn overnight and Pete and Neil would butcher it the next day, assuming nothing got to it in the night. Pete's story about the raccoon that frequented the barn was not particularly reassuring, but there was nothing we could do about it.
The first pig was done.
We got the second pig on the stretcher and hanging from the tractor. Pete and I started to skin it and Neil went over the road to fix us all some lunch.
While Neil was off fixing lunch, Pete and I skinned pig and chatted. I learned about his new standing seam roof. He told me about his ex-wife and his new romance and the amazing story of how he was able to buy the farm. And he tried to set me up with his nephew. I was glad to have impressed him favorably, but not glad enough to agree to a blind date with his nephew.
Neil came back out with a pot of potato-leek soup. He offered to take over my knife for a while and I took him up on it. I got myself a cup of soup and went into the house to warm up a bit. I am a big fan of the rubber boot, but they don't offer much in the way of insulation. In the house I took off my boots, placed them near the fire and sat in a chair propping my feet as close to the wood stove as possible. The soup was too hot, really, but it was probably after 2 by now and we'd done a good morning's work, so I went at it without even bothering to find a spoon.
My feet having regained feeling, my hunger somewhat abated (any my mouth a bit blistered) I headed back outside. The pig was almost skinned and Pete and Neil were taking a break for soup and, in Pete's case, a cigarette.
We finished skinning the pig, cut off the head, scored and ripped the belly all without incident, but when it came time to tie the bung there seemed to be a small problem. The first pig had been a girl. This one was a male. Somehow the difference in anatomy had confused Pete and he had mistakenly cut off the anus while he was skinning, exposing some feces and making tying the bung more difficult. He and Neil nervously and carefully cut around the hole and Neil was able to get ahold of enough of the tube to contain the feces and tie it off. Crisis averted.
The rest of the gutting went fine and soon there were two more halves of pig hanging in the barn.
We decided to time the third pig. Forty minutes later is was skinned and after 30 more it, too, was hanging in the barn.
It was almost four o'clock and I was feeling that exhilarating exhaustion of a good day's physical labor. Neil said I could go home if I wanted to, but I preferred to stay and help clean up. It wouldn't feel right otherwise. We coiled the hoses and put them in the shed; collected the knives and put them aside to be cleaned; dumped the water we ended up not using and closed the propane tanks. We had to do something with the great heap of skins and heads and offal. Pete asked if either of was wanted to take any of it. Neil decided to keep a liver for making haggis, I thought I'd try my had at pig liver pate, Pete figured he, too, could do something with a pig's liver so Neil went over and rooted in the pile of offal until he found all three livers and put them in a bucket of water.
Pete thought he would just dig a hole in the yard to bury the rest of it. He pulled the tractor into the yard, got the bucket in position, but when he pushed the lever down to dig the hole the earth didn't give. Instead, the front wheels of the tractor came off the ground. He tried again with the same result. He gave up and decided to put the offal under the compost pile instead. I don't know if you're supposed to put that sort of thing in your compost or not, but nevermind, what else were we going to do? Pete lifted the compost with the bucket of his tractor, we each hauled a pig's worth of skin and heads and trotters and entrails over to the compost and threw them in. Pete covered it over, pressed it down, and we called it good.
We were done. It hardly seemed possible, but we were. Neil loaded the rest of his stuff into his car, except his propane burners and tanks, which he would pick up the next day. We said goodbye to Pete. Neil drove home and I followed him on foot with the bucket of livers.
When we got to Neil's he asked me to come in and warm up before heading home. I readily agreed and when we got in Jen was just making a pot of tea. She said she had a feeling we'd be just about done and in need of a cup of tea. She was right. From what looked like rather a stash of holiday baked goods she pulled out a Dundee cake and asked Neil if this wasn't a good moment to break into it. He agreed, that yes, it was and she cut three generous pieces.
Over tea and cake, the perfect thing after and long day outside, we chatted about things unrelated and then Jen asked about the pigs. She asked if I would do it again now that I knew what it was like. I didn't hesitate to say that I would. It was pretty rough and tumble at the get go, but it was all just part of an amazing process--turning animal into food. It is a liberating feeling being able to kill your own food--to see where it's lived, to know what it's been fed, to know how it died. So, yes, I would do it again.
Tea and cake finished, it was time I headed home. Neil thanked me for my help and sent me happily on my way with a pig's liver, only recently cold, in a zip-lock bag on the seat beside me.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Slaughter, Continued

I was prepared for squealing. I was prepared for blood. There was no squealing. There was not that much blood. What I was not prepared for were the seizures--the intense and prolonged convulsions the pig went through. These were not minor limb twitches. These were full body convulsions that lifted the pig off the ground and smashed it down again. Its teeth clattered as its jaw hit the ground. And then it was up again, landing several yards from where it began. Pete assured me that the pig was in fact dead and it was residual neurological activity that caused the spasms. Either way it was horrific, made worse by Pete trying to stick the pig in the chest so it would bleed out. At long last it lay still on the ground bleeding silently from a large gash in the chest.
There were still two to go.
Surprisingly, the two remaining pigs did not seem at all phased by the death of their sister. They were still happily lapping up soy milk from the trough when Pete walked up and shot the second pig in the head. Unfortunately the second pig required two shots, the first having missed its walnut-sized target. It was either the second or third who actually did somersaults. It was probably no more than five minutes before all three pigs were bleeding peacefully on the ground, but it seemed to take much, much longer. We were all three very relieved that part of the day was over.
We were relieved and in some state of shock, I think. All three of us, individually and without consultation, patted the pigs and thanked them. Neil brought a bunch of sage from the house and smudged each of the pigs and each of us. It seemed the good thing to do. I'm glad he thought of it.
We could cross shoot and stick off the list. Now to get rid of the hair. When I met the pigs a few weeks earlier their coats were just starting to grow in. Now they had thick layers of bristle, plenty for several brushes, I'm sure. The book said to submerge the pigs in a tank of hot water in order to loosen the hair so it could be scraped off. We had neither a tank nor any intention of heating enough water to fill a tank so Pete and Neil devised another plan. They had set up two propane burners outside and had pots of water heating on both of them. The plan was to place a towel over once section of the pig, pour the scalding water over the towel, let it sit there for a minute--sort of like what they do at the barber's before a shave--and then remove the hair using a scraping tool. We started at the rump of the first pig. We put a towel over her rear section, poured hot water over it, let it steam for a minute, removed the towel and set about scraping, following the direction of the hair as per the instructions. Nothing happened. Not a single hair came off. The water, it seemed, was not hot enough. We tried using hotter water and it worked much better, but it was still not easy going. It was taking multiple applications of water and more than a little elbow grease to make any headway at all. We had de-haired almost half of one pig when it became obvious that we were going to have to adopt plan B. It began to look like we might spend all day heating water--possibly more, even, than would have filled a tank--so we decided to skin them instead. I thought it a shame to skin the pigs. The half of the one that we had scraped looked so good--clean and pink and smooth--but I could see that it might take all day to the three of them and we still had the scoring and ripping and bunging and all to do.
So Pete pulled the tractor into the yard and prepared the pig for hanging by cutting open its hind ankles and exposing the tendons. I fetched the stretcher from the shed and Pete worked the hooks between the bone and tendons of each ankle. He attached the stretcher to a hook hanging from a chain connected to the bucket of the tractor and then raised the bucket . The pig slid along the ground for a ways and was then hoisted into the air, hanging upside down, its hind legs splayed, its pink belly exposed, and its snout just grazing the ground.
I'm not sure how much combined experience we had in animal skinning, but I think not very much. I had none. Neil had at least seen a pig being skinned. Pete seemed to have some hunting experience and he started in as if he had some idea of what he was doing. He began at one of the hind ankles, cutting around it and down the inside of the leg. Once that leg was mostly skinned he cut a line down the belly just through the skin. Having watched Pete do the first leg, Neil got himself a knife and started in on the other. I stood back and watched for a while.
Neil was making headway on the left side and Pete was working down the back when he handed me a knife and asked if I wanted a go. I said, "sure," and went to work on the right side. Pete had already done most of it, but I skinned a portion of the belly and was particularly proud of the work I did on the front leg. When I looked up from the leg, however, I realized it had taken me as long to do that one small section as it had taken Pete to finish the back. Neil was making good progress on the left side and the first pig was just about skinned.
Together we made fast, if not particularly neat, work of skinning the pig. In our inexperience we had taken off far too much fat and had made something of a hash of it, but it was skinned, which was the main thing. It was an odd sight, actually. The pig was skinned to the neck and its skin was hanging down over its head like a woman doing a headstand and her dress coming up.
Now that it was skinned we had to take its head off. Pete cut it most of the way off with his knife, but had to pull out the Sawzall to get through the spine. And then the head and skin fell to the ground in a big, fatty, bloody pile. What was left looked more like food and much less like dead animal. (I was struck by this transformation throughout the day.)
Next we had to gut the pig--a process requiring multiple steps and great care. You can make a mess of the skinning and still have edible pig. You absolutely cannot make a mess of gutting an animal. All of it sacks and tubes and bits containing bodily fluid really need to remain intact.
The first step is to score the belly. Pete cut through the flesh until he came to what looked like a thin but strong membrane. He made a hole in the membrane with his knife, widening it with his fingers until he could get both his index and middle finger on the other side of it. He used the fingers inside the cavity of guide his knife down the membrane, cutting it but none of what is best left un-punctured. As he cut, the pig's insides began to fall out. Neil caught them and held them so Pete could finish ripping the belly.
Neil stood there holding the pig's still warm innards while Pete set about dealing with the bung. He cut around the anus careful not to puncture anything and loosened the bung on the inside. It soon turned into a two man operations so Neil passed the innards to me and went around the pig to help Pete. It was a cold day, snow lay on the ground, so it was actually a treat to hold them. They were so warm and soft--not gooey at all--and interesting to look at. There was something floral about them, or maybe they looked more like sea creatures--anemones. While I was warming my hands in the pig's entrails, Pete and Neil had managed to loosen the bung and tie it off with the yellow twine. Pete came back around to the belly side of the pig and began to loosen the line and pull it away from the lining of the cavity. We let the entrails fall freely now and worked farther up the pig. Pete came to another membrane and cut it out revealing the lungs. We were all struck by how perfectly clean the inside of the pig was. Pristine walls, white and smooth. Pete had some trouble cutting what was left of the esophagus, but after a little work a large pile of offal lay on the ground. Neil hauled it off and put it in the heap with the skin and the head.