Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bits of News

Once again, I have snippets of news to share, but no one item meriting a post of its own.

I'm attending a three-session class on soils given by the Extension Office in my area. Last night was the second class meeting. I'm learning some interesting things. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the county I live in has 183 different soil types as defined by the US Soil Survey, a higher number than any other county in Pennsylvania. That's a lot of diversity! I also learned that visiting the website of the Soil Survey will give you a fairly detailed report of the attributes of soils in nearly any part of the US, for free. (Even though it's got a "shopping cart" - it's really free.) You can look up parcels by address or by navigating to them by a map. I also learned about Sudax, a cover crop I'd never even heard of. It's some sort of cross between varieties of Sudan grass, and it loves heat. The idea is to mow it several times during the season, so that it sloughs off parts of its extensive root system into the soil, adding organic matter each time. If it's not mowed, it gets tall and almost woody, like corn (maize). We get a free soil test with the class enrollment. Just as soon as the snow cover melts away from the garden, I'll get in there for some samples.

I've started some seedlings indoors. Let me tell you, this is a challenging endeavor with two young cats in the house. I've already chucked a couple of cell packs of tatsoi in the cold frame, figuring they had even odds on surviving the cold nights versus the depredations of two rampaging young felines.

It's that tantalizing time of year when the air is full of promises of spring. Birdsong has returned, the bulb flowers are pushing up leaves, and the dawn is coming earlier each day. As much work as spring is, it's stunningly beautiful, and well worth the wait, in my part of the world.

I've begun my second experiment with home curing. Really, I think I've caught some sort of cured pork bug - the ease and the success of the guanciale drives me to do more. I bought ten pounds of fat back from a grass-based farmer in my area, and I started a batch of lardo last Friday. That's pretty much what it sounds like: cured pork fat. Though in some circles, the euphemism "white prosciutto" is used. Lardo is not rendered fat, despite the similarity with the English word "lard." Lardo di Colonnata is a centuries old traditional product, which was eaten like a lunch meat by quarry workers at the source of Italy's finest marble. In fact, lardo di Colonnata is traditionally salted down in rough hewn marble troughs. Sadly, all our rough hewn marble troughs were spoken for. My lardo is progressing nicely in a ceramic crock pot. I went heavy on the seasonings, with fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, sliced garlic, black pepper, and dried bay leaves. It smells really good. In a few more days I'll remove it from the curing mix and find somewhere to hang it to dry down. I plan to use it in place of cooking oil for certain dishes, especially pastas. As a cooking medium, it will have the benefit of adding a great deal of flavor. It'll probably also grace the occasional homemade pizza. If the lardo works out well, I may try salo next, which is a more simply spiced Ukrainian/Hungarian version of lardo. I'll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

Kate: I live in NW Montgomery county near the Berks/Chester line. May I ask what county you live in? Also, what book are you using for recipes for curing meat? They all sound so good. Marion

Robin said...

That is so cool your making lardo. Lee got excited about it when I mentioned what you were making. I had never heard about it before. If people ate it as a sandwich does that mean it doesn't really taste like eating straight fat? How would you use it in making pizza? Do you use it as a melted fat? And will it take you six months to make your lardo? Sorry, I know, so many questions. :)

Kate said...

Marion, I try to keep a certain privacy here on the blog. If you want to leave me an email address (which I can delete as soon as I see it,) I'd be happy to talk with you by email. As for the curing recipes, so far I'm using recipes I find online, and some suggestions from others who cure at home, modified by my own whims (as far as flavorings go - I stick to the guidelines with the salt/sugar). Cooking by Hand was recommended to me for curing recipes, and I've found it very useful to read over the general commentary in that book.

Robin, I'm always happy to help spread excitement about food produced at home. And questions are welcome! As for the taste, the fat itself isn't really a dominant *taste*. First of all, the herbs and spices add a lot of flavor. Secondly, pork in particular undergoes a lot of change as it cures, which is why it is by far the most commonly cured meat. Uncured and unsmoked pork meat and pork fat in fact have very little flavor of their own, which is why they are commonly used with other meats in charcuterie recipes. Slow curing and drying develops enormous flavor in pork however. And finally, fat is more of a texture and a mouthfeel than a flavor in itself. When I say it was used the way lunch meat is, I mean that it was sliced and eaten cold, probably not in a sandwich, which is after all a British invention of the 18th century, if I'm not mistaken.

I would use it on pizza by cutting very thin slices and maybe cutting the slices into smaller pieces and then just putting them on the pizza before baking. I bake my pizza in a very hot oven and on a baking stone, so I would expect it to melt down readily. Very thinly sliced, it could also melt onto the top of a very hot dish of polenta. As I said, I plan to mostly use it as a cooking medium, in place of oil. So I'll cut some lardo, melt it in a pan, and then proceed with sauteing onions, garlic, or whatever. It can also be sliced and draped over very lean cuts of meat when they are roasted (with uncured fatback this is called "barding" in old cookbooks). I'm sure lardo would be excellent with rabbit, which is very lean.