As I have noted before, Andrew’s and my dining habits can be characterized by interest (perhaps obsession?) with the marriage of fine dining and thrift. By that, I mean that we’re the kind of people who like to eat really, really well, but are way too cheap to pay someone to cook for us. In the same way that it pains me to compost perfectly good beet greens, Andrew gets worked up at the thought of letting an otherwise edible animal part go to waste. That, and we’re big fans of what cookbook author Jennifer McLagan calls “the odd bits.”
I wasn’t always an eater of offal. Originally, I liked the idea of strange dishes more than their reality–hence why I made a vegetarian, gluten-free haggis (the only ingredient it had in common with its Scottish fore bearer was the Scotch. But it was good!) long before I ever made a real one. But Andrew is very persuasive, especially when armed with a spatula and a stove. One winter in Massachusetts he whipped up calf’s liver and caramelized onions, and I nearly swooned. Then we took our honeymoon in Hong Kong, where we lived and dined with Andrew’s extended family, and I quickly threw all of my prejudices against odd bits (or odd animals) out the window. Properly prepared, I’m convinced that almost anything can be delicious.
Fast forward to Friday. We’ve been raising six pigs this season, and one is a runt. Because the cost of slaughter at a USDA abattoir is significant, we decided to keep the little one for ourselves. As we wouldn’t be selling the meat, we could slaughter and butcher him on the farm. I recognize that the idea of home butchery does not sound at all appealing to most people. The average omnivore probably prefers the ambiguity of sending your pork somewhere else for the dirty work of slaughter. But let me explain. We butchered out pig outside, on the pasture where he lived a very happy life. He literally did not know what hit him. The kill was so fast, in fact, that the other pigs continued grazing unperturbed. If you are going to take an animal’s life, I would argue, that’s the way to do it.
Our neighbor, Terry, is a professional butcher (and avid food preserver), so we enlisted Terry’s expertise for turning our pig into pork. As he gutted our pig, Terry saved us not only the liver and heart, but also the spleen, kidneys, and stomach.
We let the pig chill overnight, then began cutting it up the next morning. I’ve looked at cookbook diagrams of the cuts on a pig plenty of times, but watching Terry disassemble our hog in three dimensions finally helped me to see the relationships in the anatomy. I understand now how the chops and the loin are connected, how the shoulder fits in with the ribs, how the ham tapers toward the hocks. And I can now state with authority that pigs’ brains are surprisingly tiny. We paid Terry for his services in (what else?) pork, and went home to continue our frugal cooking.
Here is a list of our odd bits accomplishments, in order from most delicious to least:
- deviled kidneys: we were fighting for seconds
- pan-fried brains on toast: insubstantial, but reminiscent of sweetbreads in texture and flavor
- braised spleen: kind of like liver, but with better texture
- baked stuffed stomach (aka “hog maw”): last only because the stomach itself didn’t add much to the dish beyond a cooking vessel. The filling of potatoes, onions, apples, and spices was awesome.
We are yet to taste Andrew’s lard or his headcheese, which he made Monday afternoon. I’ll give a heaping portion of headcheese to the person who can suggest a better name for the dish–the name makes me think of earwax every time I hear it. Name or no name, it smells delicious, though. Last winter Andrew received a book of Charcuterie recipes and lore, so we have some ambitious ideas for the more normal cuts: bacon, pancetta, cured ham, and assorted sausages, both fresh and cured.
Early this morning Andrew drove into the fog pulling a livestock trailer with our other five pigs. He’ll come home to a quieter farm, and a very full freezer.