Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pastured Pork: Simple Supper, Sublime


Pork Chops It is rare that the memories of childhood are more than that. For the most part, what we grew up with is gone, unheard of in today’s bigger-is-better world. It’s called “progress.” Think once-pristine coasts now lined with cheap condos; the dull malling of once iconic and individualistic thoroughfares like Fifth Avenue and its smaller-city counterparts; the replacement of small, highly organized specialty shops offering endless choice (100 white blouses, anyone?) with department stores with imposed brand preferences and insultingly manipulative layouts. And of course, that tragic emblem of all progress: the commercially available, red-but-not-ripe tomato. Add the juicy, deeply flavorful pork of my youth to that, and you have a lost dinnertime world that truly is a taste memory.

For a long time, it was possible to keep the tomato memory alive by only eating tomatoes in the summer, when you could grow them yourself or buy them down the road from your local farmer—and even that has become touch and go, given the seed business, unless you raise or find heirloom varieties. But the pork of my youth was pretty much gone, and for me, this was truly distressing. My favorite meal in the world growing up—the one my mother or grandmother made for me when I came home from college—was stuffed pork chops with homemade applesauce. My grandmother would cut a pocket into the fat-side of a 2”-thick pork chop; fill it to overflowing with a simple stuffing of seasoned bread, onion, and celery; and bake it until the fat melted into the bread and the stuffing oozed out, rich and moist.

I gave up making this many years ago. It just didn’t work anymore. I confined my pork-eating, other than bacon or sausage, to pork tenderloins, which I would braise or grill for flavor—i.e., I gave up on the idea of having flavorful pork without intervention. But that didn’t mean I didn’t still think about it.

Then, of course, came Niman Ranch in the 1980s. OK, “natural” and carefully raised, the best available for a while, good for eating out, and for the occasional mail-order splurge. But not, you know, like home. Then suddenly, or maybe not so suddenly—revolutions take time—heritage breeds of pig, raised completely on organic pasture, vegetables, and necessary amounts of organic grain, started showing up at farmers’ markets. The heart races: it looks like the pork of your youth. It has fat—in it. Like a good steak. It’s not pale. It’s not trimmed to within 1/16 inch of its life. OMG, it’s pork!

Two of the most readily available heirlooms are Tamworth and Berkshire, both old English breeds. Thanks to the American Berkshire Association, set up in 1875 when the Berkshire was first introduced to America, the Berkshire, a black pig with little white feet, sort of a big version of my sister’s cats, is much as it was 100 years ago. It is pork with a pedigree. And it is delicious. So ask your farmer not only how he raises his pigs, but what kind of pigs he has—including whether they are certified Berkshires. They are worth seeking out.

Here are some Berkshire pork chops simply grilled with salt and pepper for a work-night supper, accompanied by equally simple grilled potatoes and a little rhubarb puree. Not the favorite supper of my childhood, but a remarkably tasty cousin for another welcome return, the hot and sunny spring day. Memory incarnate.

Pork chops on grill      OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rhubarb, Maple Syrup, Eggs: Spring At Last




No one who lives in Rhode Island needs to be told that winter, and early spring, was record-breaking cruel and unusual this year. And while it’s not exactly summer yet, there’s reason to hope that, with May around the corner, there really cannot be another devastating storm—at least not until hurricane season. Four whole months away! Let’s eat!

The edible signs of spring are late, but they are there. The maple syrup is in, there is nice rhubarb at the market, and the hens are laying eggs. Either one alone is cause for celebration. Rhubarb has become one of my late-in-life pleasures; pretty as it is (and I am a sucker for eye-appeal), I would not touch it despite being surrounded by rhubarb fanciers in my youth. I love it, as did my grandmother, stewed with sugar and eaten plain from a bowl, or stirred into yogurt. Maple syrup, in contrast, is a life-long friend; in the “don’t leave home without it” view of an essential item, I have small bottles of it in my glove compartment, my purse….have syrup, will travel. In Rhode Island it goes over countless johnnycakes, naturally, but also into countless sweet and savory dishes and my maple syrup whiskey sours. And eggs, a perfect food in its own right, are a sign of resurrection from the dead of winter like no other.

Choosing one over the other is too hard, and I’m one of those people who believe that playing favorites is unjust, so: equal time for all. Fairness is very satisfying, as this little tart attests. Of course, fair does not necessarily mean low-cal, low-fat, or low-carb, or low anything. In other words, fairness in baking is a universal good: it’s a delicious treat, one you deserve after the most brutal winter and early spring in 200 years. Restitution on a fork.

Rhode Island Maple-Rhubarb Tart

You can make this over a few days if you wish, making the dough and/or the purée the day before. The tart shell must be pre-baked blind. Makes one 9” tart; serves 6-8.


3 generous cups fresh rhubarb (about 1 lb of medium-size stalks, washed and trimmed)
¼ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
¾ cup sugar
¼ tea cardamom
1/3 cup Grade B maple syrup

Cook the first 4 ingredients for 5 minutes; add the maple syrup and cook about 5 minutes more, taking care not to scorch, until thick and coherent. Put it through a strainer. You will have a scant cup of purée. You can refrigerate it for making the curd later, or proceed.

Rhubarb Curd

1 cup rhubarb purée
Zest of 1 lemon
3 large egg yolks (reserve whites)
1 large whole egg
1 T maple syrup
2 drops red food coloring (optional)
12 T unsalted butter
2 T heavy cream

In a chef’s or other heavy pan with sloping sides, stir together the purée, lemon zest, egg and egg yolks, and maple syrup; I like to use a wooden spoon but you may prefer a whisk. Over low heat, stir/whisk the mixture continuously until thick and it just begins to bubble. Be careful not to curdle it; you may wish to do this over simmering water in a double-boiler. Check the color; if you don’t like it, you can add a drop or two of red food coloring; stir completely to incorporate.

Remove from the heat and beat the butter in, tablespoon by tablespoon, stirring until it disappears; put it back over low heat from time to time if needed. Stir in the heavy cream.

Pâte Sucrée

4 oz (1/4 lb, or 1 stick) unsalted butter, partially softened
¼ cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 ½ cups a-p flour
¼ tea salt
1 T heavy cream

Place the softish but still cool butter in a standing mixer and beat a minute or two till soft; scrape down the bowl and add the sugar, beat a minute, and then add the yolk and beat until incorporated. Add the flour and salt, beat until it comes together (it will still be a bit crumbly), then add the cream and beat a few seconds until smooth. Wrap in plastic and chill for several hours or overnight (dough can also be frozen).

Remove the dough and soften enough to roll by cutting it into several pieces and kneading them with your hand, then forming them back together into a disk. Tap the disk with your rolling pin, then roll it out quickly on a floured surface; once soft, it gets really soft. Lift the dough carefully into your tart pan, trimming the overhang to about ½”, and turn this overhand to the inside against the edge. Chill again for 15 minutes or so. Preheat the oven to 375 F while it chills.

Remove the pan and flute the edge or press it with a fork. Prick the bottom with fork, and line the pan with foil and some weight (beans, rice, etc.) or a smaller-size pan. Bake 10-12 minutes; remove the foil/weight or pan, and bake another 5 minutes or so, until golden. Cool on a rack.

Finishing the Tart

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Pour/spread the rhubarb curd into the baked pastry shell. Bake the tart for about 12-15 minutes, until firm. You could now serve this with maple whipped cream made with good heavy cream, or finish it with:

Maple Meringue

3 egg whites, reserved from making curd
¼ tea cream of tartar
2 T Grade B maple syrup
1/2 cup sugar

Beat the whites at medium speed with the cream of tartar and the syrup until thick and foamy. Raise the speed to high and beat, gradually adding the sugar, until the mixture forms marshmallow-fluffy, shiny peaks.

If you do not have a kitchen torch, heat the broiler. Lightly oil the inside and rim of a flan ring the size of the tart pan or an inch smaller, and place it, oiled rim down, on the tart. Spoon the meringue into the ring, spreading it neatly and evenly out to the edges with a rubber spatula. Dip the spatula into the center and around the circumference to pull soft peaks out of the meringue. (If you don’t have a flan ring, just pile the meringue on.) Place the tart under the broiler until lightly brown (or use your torch). Put the tart in the freezer for 30 minutes (or up to 4 hours) before serving). Cut firmly and cleanly (do not saw) with a sharp knife.