As a complete change of pace from the rants appearing on the blog lately, I thought it would be a good idea to make a short report on how Ruby’s week has been going so far. Just so you know, working on this post is in lieu of doing anything productive like vacuuming or dusting. (Both of those chores need desperately to be attended to, since it is now wood fire season and the bark and ash dust are renewed on a daily basis. But the house is warm.)
Anyway, Ruby’s week began with a nasty cold Saturday which she spent curled close to the fire, soaking up BTUs along with Smokey. Both of them are extremely accomplished at this art form. We enjoyed curry for dinner, which had been prepared using lamb carved off a leg of lamb from a beast we purchased from an organic farmer who lives nearby.
Sunday morning, the entire femur of the lamb was still sitting on my counter, and so after inquiring whether the cook was finished with it, I, with due ceremony, presented the dog with the lamb bone. She immediately set about demolishing it, beginning with the scrap of tendon and pelvic bone that was attached to the head of the femur, and then moving to the knee end. She had just about finished gnawing her way up to the hip joint when I came out and asked her if she’d like to visit Slick.
Slick is her brother, and they have regular play dates together. Well, of course as soon as she heard the name she perked up her ears and indicated that visiting Slick sounded like a real nice idea. She started to get up with her bone, and I immediately said, “No. You’ll have to leave that here. Slick would never let you have it back if you took it out there.” Reluctantly, she left her l bone behind her as I loaded her up for the trip out to Jeri’s place.
Jeri and I had it in mind that this would be a perfect day to try the lard out of the pig fat that we had both accumulated during the fall. The weather was cool, but not too cool. You don’t really want to be standing over a fire for several hours in August when it’s 95°F outside. You also don’t want it to be freezing cold, because your fire isn’t that big. It shouldn’t be too windy either, or you run the risk of setting the woods on fire from an escaped ember. Sunday was about perfect for the job, as it turned out.
It was made even more perfect by the presence of my lovely niece, who helped us make the lard and took all the pictures posted below on her amazing little camera with 10 megapixel capacity, optical and digital zoom and it is smaller than a pack of cards. Thanks, oh Lovely Niece!
When I told some of my clients that we had made lard last weekend, their response was incomprehension. Why would we do that, make lard?
This goes to a subject that has been dear to my heart for quite some time, which is that if we wish to be healthy and avoid disease, it is important that we be aware of what is in the food we are eating. It is wise to accept responsibility for the content of what you put in your mouth. I mean, actually, none of us are much like those famed geese that provide us with fois gras. No one is holding your nose and forcing you to chew and swallow the food that is in there, right?
Okay, I realize there are vegans and vegetarians out there, although I doubt if they made it past Ruby eating her bone. But if there are, you probably ought to stop reading right now, since I’m going to explain why I have to have lard around the house. When you are browning meat for the stew, there is nothing quite like lard for the job. Also, it makes superior pie crust and biscuits. I’m sure some chemical engineer could explain why that is true, I just know from experience that it is. Vegetable shortenings and oils work, I grant you that, but they make pale imitations of Proper Pie Crusts. Sorry.
One day, being curious about the lard I was using, which had come from the grocery store shelf, I decided to see if it had an ingredients list. (I was being particularly careful about performing the task of reading those lists since I had discovered that the meat being sold at our local Walmart actually had a list of ingredients on the back that included preservatives, various salts and some artificial dyes. Yummy.) Imagine my surprise when I discovered it did indeed have ingredients, one of which was “hydrogenated lard”. There were also things listed by their initials, as well as other preservatives.
“(Expletive deleted!)” thought I. ”Now I have to find a source for unadulterated lard if I want to be in control of my diet. (Expletive deleted) again.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that you may be able to find organic chicken, wild caught fish, and grass fed free range beef in a health food store, but as far as I can tell organic lard does not exist. If you want it, you have to make it yourself.
First, you have to find pigs that you know, and that are being raised by people you know and trust. The fat of the animal is where toxins like heavy metals and organophosphates get stored, so if you are going to eat animal fat, it would be a good thing if it came from animals that were not exposed to those sorts of substances. Jeri and I have been scouting for good pork fat all summer, and by the time last weekend came around, we had accumulated quite a good supply of it, which we had stored in our capacious (and very full) freezers.
It takes a long time to make lard so budget your time accordingly. Even though the flame on your cookstove is probably easy to control, I am here to tell you that you don’t want the amount of fat drops that are going to be strewn around during the process of making the lard on the floor of your kitchen. Spillage is pretty much unavoidable, I’m afraid.
Make lard outside. Use a small wood fire as your heat source. Controlling the fire will give you something to do while you wait for the fat to melt. You must stir pretty much constantly to make sure the stuff on the bottom doesn’t stick to the cauldron and burn. This would impart an unwanted burned note to the flavor of the end product.
During the course of our afternoon’s boiling down of lard, we used about twenty pieces of cedar, each one about 2 to 3 cm in diameter, and about half a meter long, if that. Ideally, your fire is best if it is just hot enough to keep the cracklings simmering in the melted lard, but not hot enough to scorch your fat as you render the pieces.
Also, you need a proper cauldron. Jeri and I share custody of a proper cauldron. All comments and jokes about MacBeth and the Three Witches are hereby banned. You have been warned!
That is the kettle, perched on its three legs on rocks over an appropriately sized fire. Actually, the fire might be just a little large, in fact I think that once we got the fat into the pot and started cooking we pulled the little branches out just a little and spread the coals about to make it a more even firebed. At any rate, immediately after this picture was taken, we added the fat to the pot, plus about a liter of water.
This is actually a critically important step in the lard making process. Not only do you have the water insulating the cooking fat, it also acts as an internal heating mechanism as the little bubbles of superheated steam escape and rise through the melting fat. This aids in the quick melting of a large amount of lard. Later on in the process, the steam rising through the fat helps bring all the denatured protein and cellular detritus from the fat cells to the surface of the liquid. This helps clarify the fat and helps preserve it from acquiring “off” flavors and odors during long term storage.
So, anyway, here is the lard shortly after we added it to the pot.
The next photo was taken shortly after melting has begun. We have been stirring the ground pork, and poking it with our big, long handled wooden spoon to break it up and allow the steam from the water to penetrate the mass of fat.
Note the fire. In some of these pictures you can see the little sticks we are using to keep it fed. Also note that in the above shot, you can start to see the foam of cell walls and other undesirable things forming on the surface. In the next shot, you can see the skimming process going on.
Now, this is the part of the process where the dogs thought they had actually died and gone to dog heaven. Initially, during this process, I was skimming off this foam of fat and denatured proteins, and sort of flinging it off into the grass. The dogs thought this was a really great idea, and were busy licking the grass and driveway. Their attitude was sort of a mixture of awe and wonderment as to why we didn’t do this every weekend. It was amazing to see Marshmallow pick up a piece of gravel from the drive, roll it around in his mouth until he had removed all the fat from it, and then spit it out. After a few minutes it occurred to me that it was possible the dogs might be overdoing it just a tad. This thought was caused by a very loud and liquid gurgle that Ruby’s stomach emitted as she sidled past me, circling the cauldron in search of the next piece of skin we might fling out.
We started putting the skimmings into a small stainless bowl after that. Following a few minutes of pining around the job site, the dogs went off to explore the play possibilities of the deer hide that Slick had found in the neighbor’s yard earlier in the day. After a couple of hours, the only water that steams off the melted lard is water coming from the fat cells. Once you have cooked it gently for a while, the fat clarifies.
If you look carefully at these photos, you will see all sorts of little bits floating under the surface. these are called cracklings, and are basically fried bits of fat and connective tissue. They make a lovely addition to cornbread and biscuits.
In the second picture, we are inspecting the cracklings to see if the fat is done rendering. You should wait until all the cracklings are a nice toasted gold color.
Then you pull the fire out from under the pot and let the whole business cool a bit. First you strain out the cracklings, and then you can start ladling the lard into containers.
We had no idea how much lard we were actually going to come up with, and used practically every steel container we could find, including all nine bread pans I had brought along with me and nearly every cake pan in Jeri’s house. Along about this time, my niece started doling the skimmings we had saved earlier in the bowl out to the waiting dogs. She thought they had probably rested enough to handle what was left.
That is the finished lard. We let the lard rest over night. Once it had solidified, we brought it on home and are storing it in the freezer.
These next pictures are all of Slick and what he thinks about the lard making process in general. The other dogs were much in agreement.
Ruby got to stay the night with Slick and Marshmallow. There were too many ominous rumblings and belches coming from her direction. I wasn’t willing to make the experiment to see if she could avoid being carsick on the 25 mile drive home over the hills, hollows and ridges of the Ozarks.
The next day, Jim went out and retrieved our lard and our retriver. After she slept all afternoon, I took her out on our usual walk, where we got to watch a flock of about a dozen turkeys run across the path in front of us. Then the following day, someone shot a nice deer and donated it to Jay and Jeri. In return for helping process it, we were offered some of the venison. So Ruby got to go out and visit Slick again. While she was there the dogs scouted out the leg bones of the neighbor’s deer kill (probably from the same deer that had provided the hide previously mentioned) and spent the afternoon in a mutual gnaw session.
Slick was a dear, and allowed Ruby to bring her deer leg home, and that is where she is right now, tending to it out by the herb garden in a nice patch of sun.
It’s been a rather good week all told, from Ruby’s perspective.