Beef Fat and Biscuits

Rendered fat has gone from a kitchen staple to something of a novelty (that might be experiencing a resurgence). As far as I’m concerned, Crisco is the freakish novelty — not fat from free-range animals.

Rendering
I spent the days leading up to 2013 rendering beef fat (tallow) that I got from Rose Ranch. It’s a time-consuming process perfect for wintertime, since it keeps the kitchen warm. This is only about half of the tallow I got from Don and Vicki, so I’m thinking I need to learn how to make candles or soap with the remainder of unrendered fat in the freezer.

I typically get these questions when people learn that I am enthusiastic about fat:

What is rendering?
Rendering is the process of melting fat so that the connective tissue and/or skin can be filtered out. It is homogenous, which makes it more suitable for using in recipes or scooping into a skillet.

Why go to the trouble of rendering animal fats?

There are a couple of reasons I embrace freshly rendered animal fats:
Most of the animal fats I’ve used were given to me. Free is a pretty powerful motivator. And as I’ve said before, my transition from vegetarian to omnivore included an increased appreciation for the whole animal. In addition, I find satisfaction in knowing where my food comes from and how stuff works. I’m not interested in using animal fats from factory farms.
Animal fats have a bad reputation, but I already embrace butter (in moderation) as a cooking fat. Tallow has less saturated fat than butter. I’m no expert, but compelling arguments exist for refocusing toward sugar the societal disdain currently aimed at fat.

What do I do with animal fats?
Lard and tallow are great for deep-fat frying, pastries, and biscuits, and can substitute shortening or butter in some recipes. Schmaltz, or chicken fat, is delicious in gravy, dumplings, and for pan frying. I don’t make these items very often, so luckily fat keeps for a year or so when stored in the freezer.

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Breakfast on New Year’s Eve: biscuits made with freshly rendered tallow; topped with wild blackberry jam.

Bloodshed

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So much of day-to-day life confounds and amazes me. What makes my phone vibrate? How does this text appear as I press the letters on my wireless keyboard? How in the hell did this turn into my shirt? Some people understand this stuff. I don’t. Although, I sometimes wish I lived closer to the answers — that there was less distance between me and these processes that operate in the background. Sometimes my daydreams consist of making this a reality: No middleman. My friends and I are the process. And suddenly life gets a lot simpler because we’ll know how stuff works, or we’ll do without.

I recently had the opportunity to understand how chickens become meat. While some people are compelled to learn the inner-workings of cars, I want to understand my diet. I want to know how milk becomes cheese, how yeast makes bread rise, how wine becomes vinegar. This goal seems attainable enough, especially since a few of my friends are already doing it, and my motivation comes easily.

I didn’t eat meat for about three years during my mid 20s. Finding meat sources from humanely raised animals changed that, since I missed eating bacon and burgers and I wasn’t a very healthy vegetarian. Once I found meat sources that resembled old ways, rather than industrial meat-making machines, I embraced meat with gusto. Getting closer to my food source led to a greater awareness of animal anatomy and waste, in turn leading to interest in all the animal parts, not just the familiar cuts.

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For years I’ve wondered if I could kill an animal for food, and now I know that I probably could. This experience was lighter in that I wasn’t attached to these roosters. And perhaps it’s even more difficult with mammals. But even so, I fully expected to cry, cringe, and seriously question my meat-eating ways, but that didn’t happen. It was a learning experience I shared with some close friends. And we killed roosters that had an easy life, thanks to their caretaker, Doug.

With some reservations, I decided to photograph the process. I think there is value in the educational nature of the photos, even if it’s only as a memory aid. If you’re interested, you can see more photos here.

Sausage Fest

Jim making links
Could somebody dim the lights?
Who knew that making sausage could be so overtly sexual? Jim suggested we get some mood lighting as he twisted the long rope of meat into links.

A couple of weeks ago, I got together with a group of friends for a day of re-skilling, or learning skills that were ubiquitous a couple of generations ago. I cut down a tree! And then I got addicted to chopping firewood using a splitting wedge and sledgehammer. It felt so good to use all my might. And the cracking wood was deeply satisfying. Of course, as Doug reminded me, these activities are much more fun when they aren’t routine chores. Still, I haven’t had my fill.

After the tree-felling and firewood-gathering at Rose Ranch, we went to Hill Farm to make sausage from Doug’s 575-pound momma pig, Irma.

Doug picked up casings at Kamp’s meat market. They were silky with bits of grit that might have been salt. I triple-rinsed them and then Doug and Marcy loaded a piece on the sausage stuffer funnel.
sausage casings (pig intestines) Doug bought at Kamp's Meat Market
Marcy, Doug and Brody
Father and daughter Jim and Callie working together to get the seasoning just right
Jim and Callie seasoned the ground meat. We made bratwurst and Italian sausage.
It's all about the teamwork
I’m sure the novelty of making sausage eventually might fade, but by the end of that evening my cheeks ached from giggling at all the sexual innuendos.

More photos here.

Come, mister tallow man.

Ring, ring.
“Hello?”
“Hi, Tricia. I have a friend here who has some beef fat, but doesn’t know what to do with it. Do you want it?”
“Why, yes. Yes, I do.”

And this is how I recently acquired some beef fat. And it wasn’t just any beef fat; this friend of a friend had purchased a side of beef from my friends at Rose Ranch who raise grass-fed cattle in Jones. Though I had never worked with beef fat, I am usually game for a kitchen adventure.

I assumed I was working with a generic chunk of beef fat (called “tallow” when rendered), until I later read Jennifer McLagan’s description of suet (suet is the fat that protects ruminants’ kidneys) in her book Fat: “You will realize that there is a papery membrane holding this hard, brittle fat together.” (See video below.)

According to McLagan, suet doesn’t need to be rendered. I have purchased suet from Cocina San Pasqual, and it doesn’t look like the fat I rendered (pictured below). I’m a little flustered by fat terminology, so I e-mailed McLagan some questions. For now, I’ll just call this “tallow,” even though it might be suet. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like all suet is tallow, but not all tallow is suet. Anyone?

Tallow is solid at room temperature, and McLagan says the high saturation “makes it stable when heated and slow to break down or turn rancid, so tallow is a perfect fat for frying.” Until the ’90s, McDonald’s used tallow for frying french fries. Also, tallow is one of six ingredients in my Cross Timbers Farm bar soap. Suet is prized for pastries and English puddings. For practical purposes, it really makes no difference to me if this fat is suet or tallow. But I would like to know, just for my personal satisfaction.

What am I going to do with the tallow? I’m going to make some pasties and fry some sweet potato fries. Also, I might trade some with a friend for a houseplant or some other type of fat.

tallowRendered tallowbeef fatbeef fatrendering tallowUnlike lard, the tallow didn’t require much tending and was never in danger of burning.tallowBeef tallow and suet are comprised of 50% saturated fat. It didn’t take long for the freshly rendered fat to cool and become solid.

Fascinating, no?

Check out my other adventures with animal fats.

Vinegar, Take 2

champagne vinegar
Even though I killed my last vinegar mother, Jackie gave me another and I’ve been sharing my Barefoot pinot grigio bubbly with her (the mother, not Jackie; though I would gladly share booze with Jackie anytime).
I am determined to keep it alive. Which shouldn’t be difficult, really, since my last one probably wasn’t dead when I hastily smothered her in the compost pile.
champagne vinegar
I got Jackie’s mother in mid-September. On Christmas Eve I sampled the vinegar to determine its readiness. Tasty! Nothing like an exhilarating shot of vinegar to warm your belly and feel alive! I’ve used it on salad greens and last night I put a few dashes on some turnip greens.
I’ve started another batch of champagne vinegar; next is red wine. Mothers multiply, and when mine does Julie already has dibs on some!

Check out my earlier post (as well as the comments) on vinegar-making for helpful tips and informative web links.

Pop Culture and Popcorn

What better way to break in our new TV, than sitcoms and a bowl of popcorn.

We were a TV-less household for almost two years. (But not really in the purest sense; we sometimes caught our favorites — Glee, 30 Rock, and The Office — on Hulu.) I really enjoyed the big box’s absence. Or, at least I thought I had. Curling up on the couch tonight and watching 30 Rock on a screen across the room was pretty damn enjoyable. I was actually giddy. Maybe now I’ll finally be hip to pop culture? Doubt it.

I popped up some corn and popped open a beer and happily loafed away the evening.

simple yummy goodness
I used Elise’s technique for “perfect popcorn,” but instead of canola oil, I decided to experiment with using rendered chicken fat. It was delicious. Now, if I could just get my hands on some Oklahoma popping corn.

Foraging Walks

I went on Jackie Dill’s spring and fall foraging walks this year. These walks appeal to many of my interests: the aspiring amateur naturalist and photographer, cook, hiker. I love learning to identify the plants. I like hiking around real slow, crouching, ducking tree branches, looking for mushrooms or interesting critters. I enjoy hearing Jackie explain the medicinal uses of some of the plants and how she uses them. Recently she’s developed a process for using thistle to make a rennet-like substance for cheese.

Jackie Dill
Isn’t this a gorgeous photo? This is at the spring walk. Photo by Chelsey Simpson.
Jackie Dill separates some wild onion.
Jackie divvies up wild onion.
dock
Curly dock in April (2008).
Curly Dock Seed
Curly dock in September. Jackie said the seeds could be ground and used to make crackers. I brought some seed stalks home; I hope to get some curly dock growing in our yard.
Kentucky Coffee Tree
Kentucky coffee tree. The seeds (in those big, black pods) can be used for—you guessed it!—a coffee substitute.

More photos here.

Check out my blog posts from the 2008 and 2009 wild-food walks.