Getting Down To His Fighting Weight

December 29, 2009

30 of 30 days salting are complete.

Today is day 21 of 90 for drying.

And for the first time, since the beginning this project, I checked Herschel’s weight. Using a digital bathroom scale, I weighed myself holding the leg, and then weighed myself sans-pig. Herschel is down to a lean 16 pounds (7264 g).  That is 24% weight loss already from his original 21+ lb green weight. The surface of the skin and meat is dry to the touch. The skin is actually very hard.  Hopefully nothing is so dry that the remaining moisture can’t escape. There is a lot more critical drying to be done to ensure that the deep sections of muscle lose moisture too. We’ll see. But 24% weight loss seems pretty significant in such a short amount of time.

After going out of town for 6 days, I returned to a basement that wasn’t as well ventilated as I assumed it was. It smelled much stronger than I expected. This was not a rotten smell, but definitely too strong for my taste. So, I pulled the leg down from the ceiling, put it on the kitchen counter under a bright light, and inspected everything.

I shoved my nose into just about every inch of this piggy, sniffing around for anything that might indicate trouble. All smells seemed pleasant, clean, and normal. In fact, the odor of clean raw pork that dominated the entire project over the past 6 weeks has now been replaced by a mellow odor…..reminiscent of cured pork. Who saw that coming?

I poked and squeezed every inch of the leg. It is drying, and getting much more firm than at my last “exam”, but I didn’t see anything troubling. No discoloration, no slippery or squishy spots. Just an evenly drying surface. The color of the skin and meat are both turning to a deeper and darker red, which looks correct.  The leg muscle is very thick, and squeezing the thick muscle confirms that there is plenty of drying to go still. But there are no signs of trouble.

There are no puddles on the floor under the hanging leg, so I guess the odor in the basement is just the evaporation of pork scented water as the leg dries. Yum! It is not my favorite smell, but certainly a good reminder to keep fresh air flowing through the drying-room.

Open a window. This is not a big deal. Everything’s looking great!


New Home (meat closet)

December 21, 2009

Today is the 45th day of this prosciutto project.

Herschel has been through 30 days of refrigerated salting, and now 15 of the scheduled 90 days of drying.  Up to this point, the leg has hung between two refrigerators in my garage. I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I am fortunate that my Seattle garage naturally maintains a good temperature and humidity for curing meat. However, the garage is also the home of bicycles,ladders, and your typical collection of stored gear that we all need to maintain a house. A friend recently used the expression “off-gasing” while we shared coffee. He was concerned about toxins and chemical odors that sneak out of petroleum-based building materials. I started thinking about what odors existed in the garage that were not going to enhance the flavor of the final pig. Ideally, a prosciutto will hang from the ceiling in an underground root cellar, possibly dug into an Italian mountainside allowing the herb infused fresh air to circulate through the meat/cheese  room. I can’t create that idyllic setting right here in my Wallingford neighborhood, but I can definitely do better than bikes , garden tools, and old paint cans.

Our home has a storage “closet” beneath the basement stairs. The space is about 7 feet long by 5 feet wide. It has a door, built-in shelving, and until a few hours ago, it held a bunch of stored shit we don’t use very often. This room is now going to be my dedicated meat room.  Who knew I would ever be able to claim a parcel of real estate within my own home and declare it my “meat room”?  During Seattle winter (happy solstice everyone!) the temperature and humidity of this space is already close to what I would ideally like (60 F and 70% would be ideal). With some insulation, a source of temperature monitoring and control (thermocouples and thermostat), a source of humidity monitoring and control (humistat and humidifier), and a source of circulating FRESH air from outside, this should give me the chance to increase my charcuterie bandwidth by a lot.  (apologies to former msft colleagues….but sometimes “bandwidth” is just the right word to use in any situation.)

Below is a picture of Herschel at the 45 day mark, just after I moved him from the garage to the new residence. The photo shows some interesting physical changes pretty accurately. The skin has turned a darker “caramel” color since the drying stage began 15 days ago. And the meat continues to darken and become more dense to the touch, without seeming dry. The odor has become a bit stronger on the “meaty” scale of smells, but this developing odor does not remind me of spoilage or anything bad. Just a slightly stronger meat smell than when things were freshly out of the salt. Nothing is slippery or slimy. That would be a very bad sign, so I am pleased that the smell, sight, and feel of the leg seems just right.

And below is Herschel re-wrapped in the bug-netting, and as you can see, I have hung holiday ornaments from the ceiling. I cut four large bundles of fresh rosemary from our side yard, and hung them in the meat room with Herschel, hoping that some of the smells and happy feelings I get from rosemary will enhance the meat. Who knows….but I have a lot of rosemary, so let’s give it a try. It sure does make the room smell awesome.

My next step is to turn this room into a properly insulated and environmentally controlled food-space. I have plans to have a temperature and humidity controlled room with lots of space for hanging meat. I also plan to have a separate fermentation “closet” which will need to be able to maintain a higher temp and humidity (95 degrees F and 80% humidity for a few days at a time during the initial fermentation of many salamis). I have read a lot, talked to a bunch of HVAC experts, and drawn a lot of plans over the past couple of weeks. The target insulation number seems to be R-16, which should allow me to use a common window air conditioning unit to do whatever I want at whatever “reasonable” temperature I want to do it, in a space this size. Insulation material is rated and measured with an “R” number, indicating just how well it controls temperature change.  One inch of styrofoaom insulation provides an R-4. So, I need 4 inches of Styrofoam…or some other material that exceeds R-16. Well, after asking around a bit, this will not be difficult to achieve. New construction projects are never quick or trouble-free, but I feel good about my plans. They make sense.

The environment in this meat closet is safe and adequate right now, but Herschel’s new room should become cleaner, and more precisely controlled over the next few weeks. And of course there will be pictures as I get this put together. Stay tuned….

One more note…..I started a new round of Coppa today. About 4 pounds of seasoned SeaBreeze Farm pork is the star of the show. It will take about a month to fully cure. Based on my last couple rounds of Coppa, this may just be my favorite food.  I gave everything away for December-holiday gifts already. I’m looking forward to having more around.

Again….happy solstice to everyone.

The Rabbi told me…

December 14, 2009

I talked to a rabbi the other day about meat.

My goal was not to convince him that pork is awesome. Nor was it to get the Orthodox community’s endorsement on my pig-centric meat hobby. No, enough friends have mentioned the potential conflict of a guy named Pearlstein working so intensely with pork. Sometimes I wonder why pigs, Jews, and charcuterie can’t just get along better?   I’m not interested in writing about my religion, much less anyone else’s. This is a blog about one pig leg, and some real stories about meat; not religion…I promise.

But, for a long time,  I have wanted to understand the rules of Kashrut (kosher dietary law). There are a lot of people out there eating a very precise and restrictive kosher diet; never mixing dairy and meat in the same meal, never eating shellfish, and of course, not consuming pork.  In fact, eating kosher meat requires that the animal (chicken, cow, or goat in most cases) is killed by a religiously trained schochet who has all the training of a rabbi with some knife skills thrown into the mix, ensuring that the animal will in fact become dead and edible….not just blessed. I thought it was time to talk to an expert and understand exactly what it means to be kosher on the production side of the food chain.

I don’t keep kosher (obviously… or I’d need to change the name of this blog to “Cluck-Moo”), but there are a lot of people who do eat only a kosher diet. This means that all their food (meat and packaged food included) has to be “blessed” by a council of rabbis and formally stamped with a big bold “U”. The kosher hechsher, this little stamp put on foods, is controlled completely by the Orthodox community. And the Orthodox community is the major purchaser of kosher goods. Small farms (organic or not) can almost never justify the extreme costs and procedural hoops that stand between the farmer, the council of rabbis, and the marketplace. When there is a demand for a product, and a very high cost of entry into the marketplace, guess what happens? Factory farming and giant food processing operations dominate the production of Kosher meat creation in the United States today today. They are the only ones who can afford to reduce their quality and efficiency at the same time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a small farm and perhaps an ambitious salami maker could work together to produce locally grown, well fed, responsibly processed, and thoughtfully made charcuterie for the Kosher consumers who certainly have a right to eat food that traditionally (in the US) is simply not very interesting or good.

There is plenty of information about how to eat, cook, and consume kosher foods and keep a kosher home. But who are the farmers who raise the kosher animals? Who are the people that slaughter the cows, lambs, and chickens for kosher consumption in this country. How does somebody learn to do this work? Based on the quantity of Hebrew National Hot Dogs on the shelf at our local grocery store, there must be a pretty solid supply chain of meat that can be used for Kosher foods. But I needed to learn more.

Challenge #1: How do I find an expert or someone experienced in Kosher slaughter and Kosher certification?

My first challenge was figuring out just who would be willing or able to answer some of these questions. I know that there is a big “U” stamped on “certified kosher” foods sold in the store; like salt, hot dogs, matzah,  etc. The list goes on, and in general, the foods stamped “certified Kosher” are highly processed, very salty, and not particularly tasty. In the case of jarred gefilte fish, I often hear comparisons to the odor and texture of cat food. So, what makes these foods worthy of the religiously sacred “U” stamp?  I really didn’t want to stop at the letter “U” on packaged food. Getting specific about the whole rulebook from the farm to the kitchen had to be part of the story.

After a bit of research, I found three individuals who have unique experiences with Kosher food. I’m keeping everyone’s names out of this blog for now, since I did not tell them I’d write about our conversations.

  1. Expert #1 is an Orthodox Rabbi in New York City who has over 20 years of experience consulting and assisting groups get Rabbinical approval to process and sell Kosher food of all kinds. If you want that “U” stamped on your food, you need a counsel of Orthodox rabbis to approve your work. Whether you are a  farmer, butcher, chef, grocery store, and anyone involved in preparing food, this rabbi can help get your operation setup “properly” and get yourself certified by the counsel of rabbis.
  2. Expert #2 is , a Jewish farmer/restaurant owner in Wisconsin who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He  moved away from the city and is working ten times harder, but living the dream of growing a lot of his own food, and selling much of it on the menu of his restaurant. He is interested in raising  some farm animals, keeping things kosher, and putting that food on him menu so that his family could eat local responsibly farmed meat, but still keep within their dietary laws.
  3. Expert #3 is a rabbinical student studying to be a schochet (kosher butcher). This individual grew up in a reform Jewish home (the least restrictive “flavor” of American Judaism, where kosher diets are not followed as rigidly if at all.) This guy is a foodie and a conscientious consumer of locally and responsibly raised food. He wants his family to eat high quality food that he has had a hand in preparing. Going to Rabbinical school seemed to be part of his plan.

Not a bad list of individuals to get started.

So far, I’ve talked with two out of three of these guys. And what I’ve learned is that the world of kosher food production is not very transparent to outsiders.

I’ve only had a significant conversation with my new friend the New York Rabbi / kosher supervisor. After a disappointing initial email interaction with the rabbi, where I received a very brief, vague, and rather useless responses to my very specific questions (“What takes place during a kosher slaughter that is different from a non-kosher slaughter?”, and “Where can I learn the details and possibly study to be a kosher butcher?”, and “What must I do to help a local organic farm set themselves up to raise, slaughter, and sell KOSHER meat?”), I pushed back and told him that “I still had questions. Being told that this work “takes a lot of training”, and “is very difficult” was not giving me anything to work with.

The rabbi then agreed to  spend some time with me, and we set up a phone meeting, talking for an hour, where he did a nice job of explaining the complexities, costs, and some of the specific procedural details involved in getting an animal from the farm to the dinner table of a Kosher house. It became clear that this work is performed by, and monitored by, and intended for the benefit of the Orthodox Jewish Community of the US. They are after all, the biggest consumers of Kosher food in the United States. And they are the primary participants in the Kosher meat processing in the US.  This is not a bad thing, but it does lend itself to a sense of mystery and exclusiveness;  sometimes even secrecy. This is a closed community that does a lot of religiously critical work for themselves. No one else out there is providing this service,  so the Orthodox community has built an infrastructure to produce kosher food by themselves and for themselves. Not a bad thing, but if you are not part of the community, it can be extremely difficult to learn the trade, or create Kosher food without engaging the counsel of an Orthodox Rabbi food consultant….just to get a fancy “U” stamped on a food label.

Interestingly, there is a movement among non-Orthodox Jews called “Heksher Tzedek”, which creates complementary certification for food produced in a way that meets more comprehensive standards for animals and for the workers in the meat industry. Animal welfare during the slaughter and the employee welfare at the plant doing the slaughter are the focal point of this new “Heksher Tzedek” designation. This may be a step in the right direction, but still, nobody is giving much formal attention to the critical elements of raising healthy animals: access to pasture, good quality feed, and the humane treatment for the whole life of the animals.

Without documenting the entire Kosher slaughter process (which I do not fully understand yet), I did learn some interesting facts about Kosher processing:

  • An animal’s health is inspected while alive, and also post-slaughter, when internal organs must be inspected and approved as healthy in order to be considered kosher.
  • 40%-50% of cows that are killed are not deemed kosher because of lung, liver, or other organ diseases.Animals that are not approved are sold to non-kosher meat plants and sold to the non Kosher public.
  • Chicken health is much easier to predict while inspecting a live chicken. They grow to full size very quickly compared to cows, and  they are much less monetary risk to farmers hoping to raise Kosher meat.
  • Kosher slaughtering practices changed dramatically about 15 years ago due to pressure from animal rights groups in the US. The practice of  “Hanging Slaughter” is no longer performed in the US. This was challenged by animal rights groups as inhumane, and the Orthodox Counsel of rabbis made changes to accomodate.
  • Holding pens are now a requirement (about $40,000) for beef processing. This wasn’t required before.
  • Only 20% of organic cows are approved as acceptable as Kosher. (This is not because organic farming creates non-kosher meat, but rather because the organic dairy cows are older than their non-organic counterparts, and the older cows have a much greater chance of having “unacceptably” worn organs. If organic cows were made available at the ideal age for slaughter (rather than spending their prime as dairy cows), they would certainly be inline or better than the current numbers show.
  • Daily involvement as a “killer” makes the rabbis very cautious about who they allow into the trade. Judaism prides itself on celebrating life, and to train someone to be a professional “killer” brings risk and extra challenges to the religious job. Rabbis are concerned  about “questionable people” who are not fit for the role.
  • Only the fore-quarter of a cow is used for Kosher meat in the US.
  • Kosher slaughter must be performed by a schochet. Nobody else may perform the slaughter or the butchering.

The specific rules of kosher farming, slaughtering, butchering, and food production are much more detailed than this bullet list above. I just included a few things that were particularly interesting to me. After looking into this area of meat production, I want to know more. There is no reason why religious people hoping to do the “right thing” by supporting and eating a specific kind of meat should be stuck eating factory farmed, overly medicated, and tier-2 quality kosher meat. But that is the case. In order to qualify as Kosher, the thoughtful “small farmer” and engaged food production professional can not participate in the game. This doesn’t have to be the case forever, but it is now.

There is a kosher slaughterhouse being built in Portland, Oregon. My goal is to talk to those folks and hopefully do a site visit to their facility to see and learn what the whole thing is about first-hand. Expect a report sometime in the spring of  2010 when I hope to visit, observe, and hopefully get a better picture of what goes on at a kosher slaughter house.

As for Herschel, the prosciutto-to-be: he’s been drying for seven days now. Everything’s looking good.

Rinse, Dry, and Hang

December 7, 2009

30 days have passed. I have now graduated from “I have a whole  pig leg  in the refrigerator”, to the much more sophisticated and swanky sounding “My prosciutto is done salting, and it is now HANGING to dry”.  I have friends who will never read this because they just don’t give a shit, but I think this is seriously cool. Herschel, the infamous prosciutto-to-be is now hanging like an oversized holiday ornament  from my garage ceiling. This drying effort will go on for 3 months, taking advantage of Seattle’s cool humid weather.

Below is a picture of the leg after being salted and refrigerated for 30 days. In the past 14 days, another full cup of “water” remained at the bottom of the salting bin. This makes a total of about 2 1/2 cups of liquid that was released during the salting stage.

I rinsed the whole thing with water and dried it as well as I could.

I sniffed pretty thoroughly, and nothing about the odor is unpleasant. Nothing on the surface is slippery, slimy, or discolored. Looks like the salt did its job preventing any noticable spoilage over the past month. The meat is a bit more dense and the color is just a shade darker red than it was at the 14 day inspection. Things are looking good.

I have been warned about the risk of flies or other bugs covertly setting up camp on Herschel, and the last thing I want is to ruin this project due to a bug infestation. So, I built a hanging screen-tent to protect the leg from critters.

Finally, I want to protect Herschel from direct sunlight that can turn the fat yellow and rancid during the lengthy drying and aging process. There is not much sunlight in the garage, but we do have windows on the doors that could create a problem. Rather than covering the windows which would make the garage too dark to use for normal “garage things”, I hung two layers of curtain which will block the sun. Rubbing spf 50 all over the leg seemed like the wrong approach to solving the risk of too much sun. In the picture below, you can also see a few salamis and cured duck breasts that are ready to eat. The small white box on top of the black refrigerator is a wireless thermometer and hygrometer that helps me monitor the temp and humidity in the room. So far, Seattle conditions in December are just right

This drying stage will last for 90 days. When the drying process is done, any exposed bone or meat will be covered with a paste made up of lard and black pepper. This will seal up any exposed and vulnerable areas where bacteria might crave oxygen in hopes of growing. Then it is onto the very slow “aging” step, which will continue for another 14 months.

Soon it will be time to build a dedicated meat curing room. I’m already designing this space. But for now, the garage will work just fine.

Three Piggies and Six Salamis

December 2, 2009

The latest round of salami is just now ready. This evening, I weighed all six sausages and they have lost 30% of their green-weight, just as expected. I cut into each variety, sniffed, poked around, and then tasted. Damn!…this is a good batch of meat!

I made 3 varieties of salami. A traditional Tuscan Salami based on a Len Poli recipe, a Chorizo based on a lot of people’s recipes, and a self-made recipe of Rosemary and lemon zest as the primary flavors. For the pigs, I used a combination of Berkshire, Mangalitsa, and also F1 (cross-breed of Berkshire and Mangalitsa). In some cases, I used Berkshire meat with Mangalitsa fat. In some cases, I tried using all of one breed of animal. The Mangalitsa fat is unreal. I know it is not common to rave about pig fat, but this fat behaves differently in the kitchen, it feels different on your tongue, and it tastes different in a recipe.  I have a lot to say about my experiences with Berkshire and Mangalitsa pigs and pork, but that will be written in a lot more detail in a different post. For now, I want to show off the latest product, which will be holiday gifts for a few lucky friends. (I hope they aren’t expecting gift certificates.)

Below is a pretty good-sized pile of wonderful pork. There are between 10-15 pounds of each pig variety shown below: Berkshire, Mangalitsa, and F1 (Cross-breed). The big slab of fat on the far left is a 12# piece of Mangalitsa back fat. It doesn’t look like a basket of black truffles from Italy, but trust me… is surprisingly similar.

Below, the salami is shown freshly ground, seasoned, stuffed into casings, and hung to ferment for 3 days.

And finally, after 2 months of waiting, all 6 salamis are done. Each salami weighs 1-2 lbs now that they’re dry. Chorizo is on the left. Fennel-Zest is in the middle. And Tuscan is to the right.

Well, I cut a few slices to taste. All are so different from one another, but the texture and mouth feel is perfect. I’m happy with the result. Next step is to slice pretty thin and vacuum pack a bunch of this stuff for holiday gifts. If you get one , I think you will enjoy it. For everyone else, I hope the pictures are somewhat satisfying.

Pig on a Prius

December 1, 2009

We are 22 days into the salting of Herschel, the pig leg. In only one week, it will be time to pull him out of refrigeration, rinse a bit, and hang to dry for 3 months. I have kept a careful watch on the space where the aging will occur (my garage). Temperatures seem to be pretty consistent between 48-55 degrees. That temperature range is good and safe for the 90 day aging process. From the reading I’ve done, the main issues to worry about are temperature, exposure to sunlight (turns the fat rancid), and flies. Thanks to the natural December weather in Seattle, I think I have the temperature and humidity under control. The garage aging space is rather dark, and I will cover the window-side of  Herschel with some large pieces of cardboard to block any risk of sunlight on the leg. And as for the flies…. well, I have 6 days to build a small screen box to hang around the leg as it hangs from the ceiling. This will probably involve duct tape and a few framed window screens I have in storage. The rumor is that if flies lay eggs on the pork during this early drying stage, I may not realize it until it is way too late. I will try very hard to keep the bugs away. The garage, and our house has never had a problem with flies or bugs, but I’m going to be very careful. Pictures of the aging setup will be posted on Sunday’ish.

On a separate note…..

I just got invited to help a friend butcher a pig and help make salami in Carnation, WA. I haven’t done this since last February when I bought a pig and did the work (successfully!) in my back yard. That pig was purchased from a neighbor’s brother in law’s farm in Pt Orchard, WA. Cora was three at the time, and she came along to help transport the pig from Port Orchard to Seattle via the Ferry. Below is a picture of my pig on our Toyota Prius, on the Washington State Ferry heading back to Seattle. The butcher told me told me that it looked like I was heading to a lake to dispose of a body.