April 6, 2011

The Maine Ingredient: Lesson learned: Appreciate everything that goes into a meal

By ANNE MAHLE

This winter, I've been working with a farmer/chef, Neal Foley, of Claddah Farms in Montville, where he raises all of his own animals and sells a good bit of them through butchery and cooking classes.

His farm is a teaching farm, where the connection between the animal and the final meal is made. The bridging of that gap has been instrumental in increasing my awareness of how to purchase ingredients well and the nuance of how to prepare them well. This concept is just as true about a vegetable as it is about an animal -- the more I understand how it grows, what it takes to raise it and why it likes certain conditions over others, the better I understand how to deal with slight variations in the raw ingredients and how to bring out the best in same.

Nuance and variation also have their place in butchery techniques. A few weekends ago at Claddah Farms, I had the great honor of meeting Dominique Chapolard of Chapolard Farms in Gascony, France, who came to teach a class on French butchery techniques and how they differ from typical American techniques. His business is also family-run, with three generations of Chapolards bringing thoughtfully raised and prepared products to the lucky people of Gascony.

As Chapolard left France on his three-week journey of sharing his work across the United States, his wife wanted to be sure he shared some core beliefs with all of his students.

Be sure they know they must sit at the table and take time with each other to fully honor and respect the animal, she said. Be sure they know that to have an argument over their dinner is to ruin the meat. Be sure they know all of the work that has gone before -- that someone had to grow and harvest the grain to feed it to an animal for which they cared for over a year to gently lead it into the hereafter and carefully and thoughtfully butcher it so that many, many different meals could be prepared and then finally savored at the dinner table. Be sure they know to appreciate ALL of it.

Appreciating all of it also relates to appreciating the entire animal. While some meals are fully focused on large pieces of meat, others are fully flavored by "lesser" pieces that don't stand out in the title or on the plate, but play a big role in the flavor of a meal. The salted ribs in the sauce recipe, while small in stature and weight, are treasures that came from a pig butchered on the farm -- ones that remained attached to a pig belly that we salted for bacon.

After rubbing the belly on all sides with pure, coarse sea salt, a waiting period of five days to two weeks in the cold barn turned belly into bacon. At that point, some got smoked, some got hung and some became breakfast. The ribs were no longer needed to protect the outside of the belly, and became flavor for the sauce.

I understand that not everyone will simply have a bit of salted ribs hanging around, and a good substitute would be salt pork. Either way, the goal is to infuse the sauce with a richness that comes from the pork.

ZESTY TOMATO, RED ONION AND ANCHOVY SAUCE

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 cups red onions, sliced 1/2-inch thick, about 2 onions

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons minced anchovies in oil

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