I participated in a workshop where we butchered half a hog. It was the right half of a pig with the good fortune of having lived its whole life happily and humanely at Winter Hill Farm in Freeport. My main take-away from the experience? A realization of just how much more I need to learn about eating sustainable meat. Well, that, and a scrumptious pig jowl I turned into spicy pork buns (see recipe below).

The nose-to-tail workshop – led by local butcher Lily Joslin at Fork Food Lab in Portland and a pilot event for Maine Foodscapes’ Edible Education Project – was attended by two dozen people from Maine and Massachusetts.

As we learned in our round-robin introductions, we each signed up for different reasons. It was in Joslin’s masterful attention to individual perspectives – both her explanations and her actions breaking down the pig – that I recognized the gap between what I know and what I need to know about sourcing meat responsibly.

Christine Burns Rudalevige makes Asian Pork Jowl Bao. Staff photo by Derek Davis

One woman came to the class wondering how and why broth made from bones of sustainably raised animals looks different and is more nutritious than broth made from bones of conventionally raised livestock. Joslin taught us that sustainably sourced bones yield clearer broth because those pigs ate cleaner food (the grass, acorns, bugs and foliage that their bodies were designed to consume), thus rendered less scum and more nutrients when made into broth.

A woman who grew up on a farm in Gray attended the workshop to better understand what happens to the animals once they leave the family farm to be slaughtered. When we all approached the stainless steel cutting table, she was the first to notice the unprocessed leaf lard sitting in the animal’s empty gut cavity. Joslin, a butcher at Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales, explained it was the same fat that protects the animal’s kidneys that, when rendered, makes the very best pie crusts. The back fat, which is greasier, is best used for frying, she added.

Both the historian and the nutritionist in the group wanted to understand how to better tell the story of the pig’s journey from farm to kitchen, their own kitchen or those of their clients. As several of us examined our pig’s head, fellow Farmers’ Gate butcher Logan Higger, on hand to assist Joslin in the oversight of novice butchers using very sharp knives, explained how the animal died: It was immobilized with a single shot of a captive bolt stun gun, hung by its back feet, had its throat slit, and then was bled out. Face up to its death, Joslin said, so you honor its life.

Christine Burns Rudalevige prepares Asian Pork Jowl Bao. Staff photo by Derek Davis

A University of Southern Maine student sought hands-on knowledge of the differences between commercial butchering practices and those he’d picked up on his own from hunting, skinning and breaking down just about every animal in the Maine woods except for moose and black bear. As he used Joslin’s bone saw to free the shoulder from the spine, we learned that once you’ve cut through the bone you must switch to a knife or risk damaging some of the most expensive cuts, which are in the adjacent loin.

Joslin explained that the position of the pricey cuts at the top of the animal gave rise to the expression “living high off the hog.”

A surgical nurse in the group was not at all squeamish; she was all about the offal – the organs, morsels and unmentionables that “all fall” onto the butcher’s table. She walked out of the class with the head because, she said, she has long wanted to make head cheese.

Lucky for me, you don’t need the jowl – a mix of fatty tissue surrounding the pig’s strong cheek muscles – for head cheese. So I scored the jowl.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at: [email protected]

RECIPE: ASIAN PORK JOWEL, APPLE AND MAPLE BAO

Farmers’ Gate Market butcher Lily Joslin shows Ed Somers of Bridgton how to remove the pig’s jowl and cheek at the butchering workshop last Sunday at Fork Food Lab in Portland. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Pork jowls often go into sausage mix, Farmers’ Gate Market butcher Lily Joslin explains, because few Mainers know the cut. But they are available; any butcher shop that breaks down whole or half pigs, will have a few. Joslin advises you to call ahead and ask for as much of the cheek to come with the jowl as possible. You can use jowl in almost any recipe that calls for pork belly, from bacon to bao, small Asian bun sandwiches.

In this recipe, I’ve run with chipotle chilies in adobo as my heat source for the braising liquid, both because I like their smoky flavor and I always have them on hand, frozen into ice cubes. Be warned that jowls need to cook low and slow – 4 to 5 hours slow.

While you wait, you can certainly make your own bao buns, but I buy them frozen from an Asian grocery because my attempts to make them myself have been so inconsistent. That just proves my point about still having a lot to learn.

Makes 12 buns

FOR THE JOWL:

1 large onion, roughly chopped

4-5 chipotle chilies in adobo sauce

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup applesauce

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 well-trimmed pork jowl, about 3/4 pound

FOR THE QUICK PICKLE:

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

2 green apples, very thinly sliced

1 small to medium red onion, very thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

12 steamed bao buns

To make the jowl, preheat the oven or set a slow cooker to 250 degrees F.

Process the onion, chilies, garlic, syrup, apple cider and vinegar with 1 cup warm water in a blender to a smooth paste.

Place the jowl in a baking dish or the slow cooker and pour the blended braising liquid over it.

Cover the baking dish or the slow cooker.

Braise the jowl for 4 to 5 hours until it is very tender, checking it hourly and adding water if the braising liquid gets any denser than the consistency of applesauce.

Carefully remove the jowl from its braising liquid and place on a cutting board. Cool both jowl and sauce to room temperature and refrigerate until ready to make the sandwiches.

To make the quick pickle, combine the vinegar, syrup, salt and peppercorns in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stir and remove from the heat. Stir in 6 ice cubes to cool the brine.

Place the apples, onion and cilantro in a bowl. Pour the brine over the apple mixture and refrigerate for 20 minutes to meld the flavors.

To serve, slice the braised jowl thinly into 12 pieces. Place a large skillet over high heat. Sear both sides of each slice until crispy.

Snuggle 1 piece of seared jowl inside each warm bao bun.

Top with a little braising liquid and a spoonful of the quick pickles. Serve immediately.