Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Something to Crow About - Happy Pigs

Caw Caw Creek Farm
723 Olive Street
Columbia, SC 29205
(803) 917-0794
email: happyhams@cawcawcreek.com

Recently, a publisher friend invited me to join him for an afternoon touring this picturesque pig farm located in the rolling hills of St. Matthews near Orangeburg, SC. Run by local farming enthusiast Emile DeFelice (he's the "State on Your Plate" guy that ran for Agricultural Commissioner last year and sadly, lost), the entire 90-acre farm is infused with a passion for living close to the land and ensuring natural, happy lives for DeFelice's heirloom pigs.

The pigs graze on nuts and grasses in rotating fields. Their diet is enriched with organic eggs and dairy supplied by EarthFare, organic fruits and vegetables, corn by-products from Anson Mills, and malted barley leftovers from a nearby brewery. It's the same kind of wholesome, natural fare humans like to eat. In fact, as DeFelice explains, pigs want and deserve to be treated humanely and like the creatures of God that they are. They want to live a real life, not a crated one. Caw Caw Creek pigs are allowed to root about with their families, feel the sun and the breeze on their backs, wallow, loll, run and sleep in freedom - lives so different from the unnatural, lonely lives of pigs imprisoned in the beastly, often cruel world of industrialized pork production.

Even their chemical-free, happy lives end much later than their industrialized counterparts. They live to see their first year or more (unlike the 3 month mark slaugther green light awaiting their unlucky porcine cousins) and they develop up to 3 inches of fat back and richly marbled meat (unlike the inch or so of fat back and lean, "unhealthy" white meat of industry produced pork).

It was so much fun interacting with the pigs as they frolicked among our group that I felt almost guilty ordering some of DeFelice's much lauded chops. Still, curiosity and, by the end of the afternoon at Caw Caw Creek, a desire to support a very important cause, got the best of me. Six, 2" fat chops arrived in a refrigerated container a few days later with a handwritten "thank you" on the box. I marveled at the marbling; it was all through the meat.

I served the celebrated chops this weekend to some friends, including the publisher who took me to the farm. Grilled over an open flame in a kettle drum and glazed with a thin layer of hot pepper jelly, they were beyond divine. The texture of the pork enthralled the entire group. It was more like filet mignon and nearly as rosy and nothing like the "pork" any of us had ever experienced before. The meat was sweet and milky and had a distinctly rich, pork flavor that was further enhanced by the smoke from the grill.

It felt so good to eat such spectacular food; the kind our farming ancestors ate and the kind that's going away due to the economics and facility of mass production. I also knew that, as DeFelice says, this little piggy had lived one happy life. I could taste it. For more information or to order your own, go to www.cawcawcreek.com.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Divine Rights

Spring in Charleston means more than a thick blanket of yellow pollen everywhere you look and the fragrant scent of Confederate Jasmine everywhere you turn. It is the season of local church tea rooms, which is another way of saying that some of the best food of the year is being served in entirely genteel and Southern venues across town and everyone, saints and sinners alike, is invited. These tasty annual rites of passage include Charleston food traditions prepared by church members. Aside from being delicious, the added bonus is that all proceeds from the tea room sales go to help those in need.

Sadly, the first, at St. Philip's Church, has already come and gone. I was lucky enough to savor the goods during the week of April 23- April 27 on a sun-drenched afternoon at an ample table in the church garden. The fabulous meal of a Classic Chicken Salad Sandwich ($7) and a bowl of chunky, sweet Charleston Okra Soup ($4) was peppered with a parasol twirling hostess and service as sweet as honey. In addition to the stellar scenery, my eyes feasted throughout the meal on the dessert tray that relentlessly beat my sweet tooth, and that of those around me, into total submission. The Hugenot Torte ($4) crunched with layers of meringue, pecans and a towering dollop of freshly whipped cream and should be a must try for anyone, especially anyone who has never tasted this uniquely Charlestonian confection.

Don't despair! More divine delices await at the Grace Church Tea Room which will take place from May 28-June 8, just in time for Spoleto. "Grace" boasts a similar menu and ambience, including live piano playing softly in the background, gingham-cloth lined tables, and flowers fresh from the church ladies gardens. This is a Charleston tradition that's worth enjoying for the full two-week run. You'll thank "you know who" that you did.

St. Philip's Church Tea Room
April 23-27, 2007
11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., daily
142 Church Street, downtown
(843) 722-7734

Grace Church Tea Room and Gift Shop
May 28-June 8, 2007
Mon.-Sat.,11:30 a.m. -2 p.m.
98 Wentworth Street
Charleston, downtown
(843) 723-4575

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like couponmom.com) which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like couponmom.com with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site (harristeeter.com) , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.