by Greg Atkinson photographed by Steve Ringman A PIG BRED for life on a modern, industrialized hog farm has been carefully selected over...
A pig bred for life on a modern, industrialized hog farm has been carefully selected over hundreds of generations to gain muscular weight quickly on a diet consisting largely of corn and soy, its horizons narrowed to the confines of a small, sanitized pen. Chops and loins cut from this generation of pork, popularly known as “the other white meat,” after the marketing slogan that the pork industry vigorously employed to sell its slimmed-down product, has only a trace of the fat that pork had just 25 years ago. And a good deal of what’s been trimmed away by breeding and diet are the ripples of fat interspersed with muscle that made yesterday’s pork more succulent than today’s.
Happily, some farmers are going back to the old ways of raising pigs. California-based Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com) supports a nationwide network of small family farms where standard breeds of pigs are raised without antibiotics or hormones in places where they are allowed to engage in normal porcine activities like rooting and wallowing.
But Niman’s little piggies are not the only ones sporting about. On the local scene, several farmers offer meat from more naturally raised pigs. Skagit River Ranch offers cuts from the free-ranging pigs they raise alongside a small herd of cattle, and flocks of chickens raised in a sustainable system that rotates the different livestock over the same ground in a system they refer to as grass farming. The meat is darker than supermarket pork because the animals get more exercise, and it’s rippled with tasty fat. They sell the meat at local farmers markets and at their own farm store in the Skagit Valley (www.skagitriverranch.com).
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And not long ago, after meeting some of the pigs at one of Nash Huber’s farms near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula (www.nashsorganicproduce.com), I was moved to purchase half a hog to stock my freezer with high-quality, naturally raised pork. As I threw some pumpkins to the pigs and watched them root inside for the nutrient-rich seeds, I was stricken with an atavistic understanding that the pleasure they took in devouring that squash would be transferred directly into their meat.
Most recently, I had a chance to cook with some of the Mangalitsa pig that Heath and Zuzana Putnam are raising in Reardan, Wa. Their company, Wooly Pigs, owns the only herd of Mangalitsa in the Western Hemisphere, but not for long. They recently sold animals to a California farmer who will be raising Mangalitsas in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Putnams sell both Mangalitsa and naturally raised Berkshire pork every Saturday at the University Farmers Market (www.woolypigs.com).
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Recipe: Pork Belly Braised with Lentils and Kale
Makes 6 servings
One of the joys of naturally raised pork is the luscious fat, which is almost as silky as foie gras. Here, pork belly is braised with aromatic vegetables, then served with lentils and greens.
For the pork belly
1 (1 ½ to 2 pounds) bone-in, skin-on pork belly, cut into two pieces
1 large leek, white and pale green parts only, cleaned and sliced thin
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into ¼-inch slices
1 stalk celery, cut into ¼-inch slices
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
3 “coins” of ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
2 cups chicken broth
For the lentils and the kale
3 cups water
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 bay leaves
1 cup Beluga (small, black) or Le Puy (French green) lentils
1 bunch lacinato kale, or other kale cut into ¼-inch ribbons
1. Gently sear the pork belly, skin side down, bone side up in a dry, cast-iron skillet over medium heat until a few tablespoons of the fat are rendered and the skin is beginning to brown. Reduce heat to medium-low to prevent the fat from smoking, and keep searing until the underside of the pork belly is a deep golden brown.
2. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Remove the pork from the pan and pour off all but a tablespoon of the fat left behind. Raise the heat back up to medium and sauté the leek, carrot, celery, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper in the pork fat in the pan until the vegetables are just beginning to color. Pour in the chicken broth and plant the pork, skin side up on top of the vegetables. Cover the pan and move it to the oven. Allow the pork to braise for 2 ½ to 3 hours or until the fat and meat are falling-off-the-bone tender.
3. Start cooking the lentils about 45 minutes before you plan to serve the pork. To cook the lentils, bring the water to a full, rolling boil with the salt and bay leaves, then stir in the lentils. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the lentils are very soft, but still holding together, about 30 minutes. Keep the lentils warm until serving time.
4. With a slotted spatula, lift the pork belly out of the braising pan and let it rest on a cutting board while you cook the greens. Strain about a half cup of the pan juices from the pork over the lentils, pressing against the solids to extract as much juice as you can, then discard the carrot-and-celery mixture. In the remaining pan juices, cook the kale over medium-high heat until it turns a dark emerald green, about 3 minutes.
5. Distribute the kale evenly among six large serving plates, arranging the greens in a loose “wreath” around the center of the plate. Plant a spoonful of lentils in the hollow center of each ring of kale. Cut each piece of the pork belly into three pieces and put a piece, skin-side up, on top of each pile of lentils.
Greg Atkinson, 2008