On the long journey to becoming a true locavore, one quickly learns that the biggest lifestyle change after daily cooking is in the food-buying paradigm. A normal food shopper goes to the most convenient store when it is most convenient for him or her. A locavore lives by the schedule of the farmers. Eggs aren’t available every day, all day. Farmers have schedules and run out of product. Farmers don’t have a vast distribution network.
This forces the budding locavore to plan his week around food shopping. I’m not a purist, but Saturday mornings mean that I have to be at the Morningside Farmers Market by 9:30am to pick up beef, pork and veggies, at the Decatur Farmer’s Market to meet my chicken & egg dealer by 11:00am and supplement as necessary from Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market. Excessive? Certainly for some. But once you’ve made pasta with a farm-fresh egg or had Berkshire pork that was raised with care, it’s hard to go back.
The primary goal of stopping by the Morningside Farmer’s Market is to rendezvous with the good folks from Riverview Farms. Wes and Charlotte were glad to indulge me with a gorgeous slab of Berkshire pork Boston Butt. Butt makes you think of the rear of an animal, but “Boston Butt” is actually a cut of the pig’s shoulder. You want the real butt? Ask for the ham! Nomenclature aside, the shoulder and ham along with the belly are in a three-way tie for the most flavorful parts of the pig. If treated with tender loving cooking care – if cooked slowly and deliberately – they will deliver texture and flavor not found at twice the price.
The old saying goes “if all you got is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail” and in foodie land that translates to “I was given a Dutch oven for Christmas, so I insist on braising everything.” Braising is a great Saturday technique for the budding cook because Saturdays are the perfect day to take your time in the kitchen. Whereas the weeknight meal demands compromises and diabolical bargains in the interest of time and emotional stability, Saturdays have unlimited potential.
Braising is the perfect dipping of the proverbial toe into the realm of slow food. Food that takes time and patience. Food that gains flavor and develops texture and nuance only when afforded space. And given patience, it has a great range of acceptable outcomes, requires little attention, and can even yield one-pot-wonder meals in a pinch.
Braising also has the added benefit in that it extracts the best out of “lesser” cuts. Cooking a pork tenderloin or some chops is straightforward, but those fail to achieve true “porkiness”. The lesser parts, with their fat and connective tissue and overworked muscles harbor tremendous flavor. It’s just waiting to be unlocked. This is why I requested the butt.
So where to begin?
It all begins with making a little mirepoix. Mirepoix is traditionally a 2:1:1 ratio of onions:celery:carrots, sautéed in butter until browned.
As the mirepoix draws to its aromatic conclusion, we butcher and sear the pork. Due to a slightly under-sized Dutch oven, I had to cut the pork into parts, but the only butchering normally necessary is to remove excess chunks of fat and connective tissue.
A lot of recipes will tell you to flour the meat before searing. This is great since it’ll form a roux with the butter/fats and thicken the gravy, but I find that I can’t sear as hard as I’d like with flour on. If you want to thicken via a roux, build the roux in the Dutch oven before searing the pork.
A few tips on searing:
- Use an obnoxiously heavy cast iron skillet that has been heated to 500F. Don’t know how hot it is? Get yourself a snazzy infrared thermometer. Go on, don’t be cheap.
- Size permitting, use a 10″ skillet. I’ve never had a good sear on a 12″ one, though I’m willing to admit superstition at this point.
- Use a tiny bit of a high-smokepoint oil. It’s easy to overdo. If your skillet is seasoned, err on the side of too little.
- Don’t be shy with the salt.
We’re now ready to add the pork to the Dutch oven. Once the pork is in, add pork or chicken stock until it covers the pork about half way. Adding more aromatics and herbs is a good idea. Some thyme, a bay leaf, a few cloves of garlic would feel right at home. You can add a bit of tomato paste for color if you like – just make sure that you don’t add tomato unless you’re using an enameled Dutch oven. Tomatoes and iron will react and give you a very funky-flavored braise.
Cover Dutch oven with foil, then lid. Stick in 350F oven and turn the meat every half hour or so until fork tender. This should take roughly 4 hours.
While you’re waiting you can now plot your sides. It’s all fair game. I like root vegetables to go along with the wintry feel of the dish. Some roasted sweet potato hash, perhaps a parsnip purée? It all works. White Rice? Perfect! Brown rice? Works too. Rutabaga? Knock yourself out.
For this meal, I decided on a yucca root and sweet potato hash. And to cut the richness, I wilted some arugula and finished the dish with fresh cilantro and some shallots.
What’s the locavore score? It wasn’t bad. The Boston butt, carrots, butter, arugula and sweet potato were all local and purchased directly from the farmers. But it is winter, and finding celery, garlic, onions and shallots was a little harder. Doing 100% local in Georgia during the pre-season is tremendously difficult, and it’s something I strive to do. Yet Rome wasn’t built in a day and I’m barely a yellow-belt in the arts of local, seasonal cooking. There’s no shame in baby steps.
There’s always next Saturday.