"Do you know where your food comes from?"
These days, how often do we hear this question? And do we truly know the answer? How many times do we blindly pick up a package of steaks or a head of lettuce with no concern over how it made it from farm to store? I never thought much about it until I started living with ducks. Our layers are pretty consistent, so we have a steady supply of eggs. When we run out and I have to buy chicken eggs, I kind of panic. What were these chickens eating? Were they healthy? Well kept? Did they have bumblefoot? (We had a case of bumblefootwith one of our ducks. It's apparently common in poultry, and probably pretty common in commercial poultry farms. I'll let you read up on it yourself.) I'm amazed, after buying eggs, how watery and weak tasting they are. I can easily replace "2 eggs" in a recipe with just a single duck egg. (Look back to my Cheese-Stuffed Meatballs for an example.) I see the ducks who lay these eggs every day. We feed them and care for them. I know where these eggs come from. And they're freaking delicious. (Don't worry. We'll have some egg recipes in the near future!)
I honestly don't often know where most things I buy from the grocery store come from. While I'm okay with that, and trust the government inspectors to make sure I'm eating meat and foods that are safe, it's still something I think about more and more these days, especially after being spoiled by things like fresh herbs, vegetables, and eggs from my own back yard.
I was very lucky to have had an opportunity to cook a meal using things that were within probably a 10 mile radius from my house. That's pretty darn close, since local could mean anywhere within the state or nearby states.
This is a picture of Sappho (left) and Argento (right), two Buff Orpington ducks that we hatched and raised about a year ago. I had received an e-mail from Jordan at the Front Yard Farmer, asking if we had any laying ducks. While we're trying to build up our flock, we were planning a new hatch from a couple of our other ducks and we have some Welsh Harlequin eggs coming in from Blue Feather Micro-Farm, so we thought it would be okay to rehome these two. Argento has a great temperament, especially for being raised along with Indian Runners (who are typically easily spooked), and Sappho seemed like she would do best in a smaller flock. When Jordan asked what we wanted for them I saw that she had recently had a couple of hogs slaughtered, so I requested some pork or whatever else she would like to trade.
I failed to take a picture of the whole haul, but we traded her these two ducks for two pork chops, a bunch of parsnips, some radicchio, a bunch of chard, and some honey that she produced sometime last year. With this pile of homegrown and locally raised deliciousness, I figured I could grab a couple of things from the back yard and make a whole meal out of it.
The pork chops she gave us weren't large, but they didn't need to be. Look at the fat in that photo! I'm not sure what she was feeding them, but I think she did a great job. We'll get on to the taste of it later. I wanted to cook these like I would cook a steak: pan sear, then wrapped in foil and into a 500 degree oven for a couple of minutes. (I'll be doing a post on cooking steaks, since everyone does it differently. The little known secret is that they're all the right way to do it.) I wanted to try and find something to brush them with, so I looked out at our garden and got an idea.
I've been wanting to find a use for the lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis) we have growing. I originally started growing it to make an attempt as some homemade absinthe but none of the other herbs that were required grew well. I've tried to use the lemon balm in some soap, and even tried extracting the essential oil from it, but the percentage of yield is so small that I would need a couple of large bushes of the herb in order to get a substantial amount of oil. It has a very fresh, lemony scent and taste to it and grows very similar to some mint. While many uses for it are medicinal (it's supposedly good for stomach problems, used as a tea) there are some culinary uses for lemon balm. The Silver Spoon has a recipe for it with chicken, but after poking around on the internet I found some recipes for a lemon balm pesto.
This pesto consisted of lemon balm, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and some chopped onion. It seems everyone has their own recipe, but these seemed to be the basic ingredients. We recently obtained a Ninja Master Prep food processor (which makes the most amazing smoothies, by the way) so I tossed in all of the ingredients and gave it a few pulses. I set this aside for now, and turned to the parsnips.
Here they are washed with the tops removed. I'll admit, I've never used a parsnip before so this was uncharted waters for me. They're always described as "like a carrot, but sweeter", so I thought I might try and showcase that sweetness a bit.
I peeled them and gave them a rough chop, then sauteed them for a bit with some olive oil. Once they started to brown and soften I added in a pat of butter, some rosemary from the garden, and some of the honey that Jordan gave us. I'm a parsnip convert. If you've never had them, buy them and try them like this. I promise you won't be let down. The browning adds a bit of sweetness, which seemed only enhanced by the honey, and the rosemary added just the right kind of floral aroma and taste to balance with the sweetness. It's hard to find words to describe how delicious this was.
Lastly were the greens. Above is a photograph of the chard. This and the radicchio were chopped, tossed with oil and salt, and roasted in the oven. I like the cooking greens this way and I thought it might be a way to cut back on the bitterness, since my better half isn't fond of the bitter greens.
The radicchio was a bit overpowering, so I tossed it with some leftover strawberry gastrique I had to add some sweetness, but the bitter still cut through. Matthew over at YoBreaux Gastreaux, chef extraordinaire and food ninja at Pravda, recommended braising and adding salt to counteract the bitterness. He pointed out that roasting tends to bring out the bitterness, so I probably went about this from the wrong direction. I'll chalk this up as a learning experience.
For the pork I pan seared in a small cast iron pan with a bit of oil, just a monite on each side, then brushed them with the lemon balm pesto, wrapped them in foil, and put them in a 500 degree oven for about 5 to 10 minutes. I've done steaks like this before in my attempt to find the perfect way to cook a steak and figured the tinfoil would be a great way for some of that delicious looking fat to render down a bit and really keep the pork juicy.
The National Pork Board has some great Fact Sheets on pork. I found this one titled Cooked Color in Pork to be most informative. We're often taught to cook the hell out of pork or we might get parasites. In particular, we're all worried about catching trichinosis, a parasitic disease caused by trichinella spiralis. We're taught that "pink is bad" when it comes to pork, but this isn't true. As the fact sheet states, FDA guidelines allow an internal temperature of 145 degrees F (if held at that temperature for 3 minutes) or 150 degrees F (for 1 minute). This temperature is enough to kill off the parasite, if it's even present, but most people are concerned because the pork is still pink. Go by the temperature and you should be fine.
I admit, I may have overcooked these chops a bit -- I was battling the tail end of a flu and trying to cook a dish I wasn't very well prepared for so I lost focus a bit -- but with the amount of fat I wasn't the least bit afraid of overcooking, and it came out quite well. The above photo is after a few bites of the pork. In my daze I had completely forgotten to photograph the dish and everything smelled so good that just I dove right in.
The pork was amazing. The lemon balm pesto was an interesting flavor -- almost too floral, but was still subtle enough to show off the pork. It had a different flavor to it and I realized that the store bought pork, delicious as it might be, can't touch this kind of pork with a 10-foot pole. I'd love to raise a pig but I think that may be pushing it for our own little backyard mini-farm.
Buying local can be easily done these days with the help of the numerous farmer markets, but it's very rare that you know exactly where your food came from. It will be some time before I get the opportunity to have both vegetables and protein on the same plate that were both raised or grown in New Orleans, so I savored this moment and thanked Argento and Sappho, whom I expect are doing well, and Jordan for providing us with this great meal.
Later this week I'll be posting that pasta sauce recipe I mentioned before, so please stay tuned!