Coppa & Collards

Way back at the beginning of the year, some of our friends approached us to ask if we'd donate a dinner to the school fundraiser.  The non-profit association that raised money threw a party every year, and one of the highlights was always the auction. People donated a week at a cabin they had, or tickets from their season pass that they weren't going to use. One local orthodontist always donates a complete braces workup. That's worth lots of $$, and always draws in a good set of bids. 

Some of us have fewer things to offer, but we're always up for a good meal. And so when asked, we suggested a couple of different menus that might be fun for a dinner party. We suggested a Filipino meal might be fun - a la the tasting menu we had done last fall for some friends. Or, since we do love the charcuterie, I sketched out a literal 'farm-to-table-and-the-farm-is-about-200-feet-from-this-table' menu, drawing on both the meaty-experiments we had going in the cellar, and my Southern roots.

We called it "Coppa & Collards" 

The committee selected the latter, and my Bride and I had fun fleshing out the menu. 

For the auction, we sat back in awe and watched the bidding start. Fortunately for us, it was stacked in the back half of the auction, when people had gotten into the rhythm of the event. (and after the wine had been flowing). It got some good interest. And then suddenly, the bids took off. A group of our friends had taken up a collection, and started bidding in earnest. 

$1,100.

$1,200.

$1,700.

I think in the end it went for nearly $2,000. 

It wasn't the meal. It was the cause that our friends were giving money to. The school, and some badly needed technology and other things that would make the next generation smarter, more prepared, better dressed. I don't know. I was flabbergasted by the amount of money that was just raised. I was overwhelmed by the expectations that came with preparing a meal for ten at a price a top restaurant could command. From the things (and animals) we grew in our backyard. 

I leaned over to one of our friends and said, "You know, you could just come over to our house and we'll cook for you pretty much anytime you want. Right?"

"It's for a good cause," she said. 

Good cause, sure. But now I felt a new level of pressure. This meal had to be epic

We had specified in the description that the meal would be arranged at mutual convenience, sometime in the late summer. We'd host the meal at our home, and we wanted to take advantage of the harvest & the weather, and the abundant bounty coming out of the garden in August. 

We didn't know it at the time, of course, but a) we'd be in for a beautiful summer in Massachusetts, and b) I was going to decide to take a new job in a new state just about this time.  This was the last party we'd throw in our Massachusetts home. In fact, we ended up scheduling this party for the evening before I was to start my new job outside of Portland, Maine. 

Hey. What's a little pressure between friends? 

I brought the dining table and our chairs out to the backyard. What the hell. The packers were coming a couple of days later. We figured we'd pull out all the stops for this one. 

It was later in the summer, so I strung vintage-style lights through the yard to provide lighting for the evening, and we started working up the menu. 

We wanted to highlight the lovely flavors and combinations of some of our favorite treats. This was going to be a tasting menu. But we planned enough different tastes that we knew no one was going to walk away hungry. 

We welcomed our guests with a cup of peach gazpacho made from fruit that had ripened about 15 feet from the table. (I've shared the recipe previously here) 

I had been curing several different cuts for varying lengths of time, and I was excited to share this with our friends.

From left to right, that's lardo di colannata (rich, pure pork fat cured in a marble box), a classic prosciutto, two coppa and a lamb prosciutto.  The prosciutto had been curing for two years in my cellar. 

Maybe it was better that this was a meal for friends. You tend to feel pretty emotional about any piece of meat that's been hanging for that long in your basement. 

The coppa is made from a cut from the top of the shoulder - it's a fantastic part of the pig, with a beautiful marbling throughout. I had never made this before, but Mike & Maureen, my butchers, had gushed that I had to when they finished processing last year's peanut-raised pigs. The fat was rich and sweet, and slicing into these, I was super glad I followed their advice. 

Our first course was a sampling of charcuterie, served along side some fresh pickled vegetables from our garden - beets, okra & green beans -  and a boiled peanut & tahini edamame. 

It was a great start. We served these on slate tiles - everyone got their own, and they came back clean. 

Comparing the gamey lamb prosciutto to the sweetness of the pork, and balancing with the vinegar bite of pickled veg. I could have made a meal of just this. 

But we moved on.  We had balanced the menu to alternate our traditional Italian favorites with our more Southern dishes. 

Next up was an arugula salad with fresh radish & a pimento cheese dressing,  a cup of shrimp & grits & fried green tomatoes.  Both the salad and the grits were tossed with a scattering of home-cured pancetta, fried crispy. 

Frying green tomatoes up in cornmeal is such a perfect way to use up the surplus tomato crop towards the end of the season (or in my case, a great way to get some value out of the tomato plants that were struggling to recover from the attacks of the local deer population). And the eggs, of course, had come from our hens, and had that bright, golden yolk of chickens raised on good food and allowed to range freely. 

As an interlude, we had prepared another one of our favorite treats - roast beef bone marrow. served alongside a bright, citrusy gremolata and roast cauliflower - it's something that I order pretty much anytime I find it on a menu.

 

We hadn't been able to source bones sliced lengthways (that requires a pretty good bandsaw at a butcher, and Mike's had broken down), but even served this way, along with a little spoon to scoop the lovely marrow out as a spread for the toast, it was a hit.  

As our main, we had set aside a crown roast of pork from our backyard-raised pigs (it was Honeydew, to be specific). It was lovely and rich, and set off by collard greens harvest from our garden, and apple sauce we made from the last batch of apples we'd pick from our house in Massachusetts. 

There's something about pork & apples that work so well. And we served our collards along with a bottle of white vinegar we had marinated our crop of peppers in for a spicy kick, for the more adventurous. Our daughter, the Critter (who had helped us plate all of these dishes for our guests and was a perfect server through the night) won't eat collards without that fiery vinegar. 

That girl has good taste. 

We finished the evening with a simple desert of peach cobbler (again - the last we'd pick from our little Massachusetts orchard) and fresh, homemade buttermilk ice cream. 

My Bride and I (and the Critter) had acted as servers all night - for the money our friends had raised for the evening & the school, we wanted them to have the perfect experience, and enjoyed plating and serving each course, along with the explanation of what they were eating and where it had come from. 

All of our friends who know us well know how much we enjoy sharing our passions of good food & good conversation, and this let us combine them into an absolutely lovely evening. 

For desert, we pulled up chairs of our own and joined the group to share some final bites and laughs for the evening. 

As a last party in the home that we had loved and invited so many of our friends to enjoy over the years, it was a picture-perfect, blissful evening that will stand out in our memory as a favorite. 

And we'd do it all over again without charging a penny. 

The phantom pigs of Middlesex county: Part II

Weeks went by without a sign. I took down parts of the electric fence, but couldn't be too bothered to tidy up much of the pig pen. I felt kind of foolish - one of our piglets was intended for our friends at a farm down the road, and here I couldn't even keep them safe for a few weeks. 

I had intended to give them the larger of the two females. Tocino, our gentle little bacon seedling that had gone to visit the first graders, was such a sweet thing that we wanted to keep her. And our friends had specifically requested a female. Besides, the Spare, as we've taken to calling the other female, was the most skittish & least friendly of the pigs. Rocky was a bigger, curious boy, always intent on seeing what we had brought when we came to the pen. The Spare was determined to sneak away. I had absolutely no evidence to support it, but I had fixed all of the blame for The Great Escape on the Spare. 

And the coyotes which I was pretty sure had eaten them all. 

I reached out to the farmer where I got the pigs. Sean lives out in central Massachusetts, and has a great stretch of land. And I know he's had his own share of predator problems. We talked about different styles of predator problems - if it had been a big cat, there would have been a mess. With coyotes, it's likely that the piglets would have been taken back to the pack, and you'd hardly see a sign. 

That certainly fit.  Life went on at our house, but I really did miss my morning ritual with the pigs. And I really missed all that potential bacon that had been destined for my freezer. 

Transient

Fortunately, I knew the farmer that I used to get my pigs from (before I took it in my head to start raising my own) had gotten a couple of piglets of her own again. 

I wasn't sure she was actually going to have them this year - you may or may not be aware of the Great Pig Shortage of 2014, but pigs are a much rarer commodity than they were a couple of years ago. I called her up and asked if she had a buyer for the end of season yet - lucky for me, they were still unclaimed. 

While this didn't replace the pleasure I get out of raising the meat myself, or the interaction with the animals, at least I had some assurances of not missing a year in my prosciutto pipeline. 

Life returned to normal, more or less. 

Until this past weekend. 

Another neighbor down the road who keeps goats came by on Sunday while I was in the garden weeding, and cursing the deer who've been raiding my pea plants & tomatoes. (Seriously. What the hell. Eat all the damn peas you want, if that's your thing. I'll be irritated, but I can call that an acceptable price to pay. But why do the damn deer insist on cropping off the tops of all my tomato plants, leaving me with little stubby shrubs with nary a flower on them?  The density of deer population in our town is about 10x what a 'healthy' population would look like. On the one hand, this gives rise to the tick population, and hello lyme disease! But if that weren't bad enough, you've got to go and sabotage a man's tomato crops? I take that kind of thing personally). 

Over my cursing, I heard someone calling my name. "Your pigs have been spotted!"

What the hell? That was 4 weeks ago. My pigs are coyote poop at this point. 

Except they apparently weren't. That morning, a group was hiking through the trails about 2 miles from our house on a guided bird watching tour (that's the kind of town we live in). And out of the brush trotted three little spotted pigs. Friendly and curious. 

I had her draw me a map, and I hopped in my truck and sped over. It's 2 miles through the woods, but it's about 5 miles to actually drive the round about path, and then you can only get so close to the trail head. 

I had grabbed a bucket of peanuts, and some feed, and hiked about a half mile in either direction on that trail, making big loops through the woods, rattling the bucket and calling out. Thinking the whole time that these pigs were going to become the Flying Dutchpigs of Carlisle, Massachusetts - appearing without warning, and disappearing again into the undergrowth before the startled eyes of birdwatchers. 

No sign. 

I dumped the bucket of feed at the trail head, hoping the pigs might find it and enjoy it at least. I hiked back to my truck and headed home. Just before I pulled in my driveway, one of our local police officers pulled in behind me and turned his lights on. 

"Your license plate is mounted funny. Can you fix that?" 

Sure, officer. Never mind that the truck is a 1967 ford, and that the license plate seems to have been just fine for the last 47 years. I'll get right on that. But for now, I have to go inside and pull about a half dozen ticks from the crevices of my body. Unless you want to help me with these ticks who have decided to get personal, can I work on that license plate thing later? 'Kay.

I went back in the garden to grab my hoe & put things away, and my Bride came running out. 

"That police officer just knocked on our door!"

Seriously? OK, fine. I'll remount the damned license plate. Jesus. 

"Someone just called in with a pig sighting!"

Holy shit. Back in the truck, and I headed back to the general area. I tried a different way in to the conservation land. From the fields back in the woods, I called the police station. "Where exactly were they spotted?"

"The caller said they were lying just off the trail, enjoying the sunshine. Hang on, I've got an officer at your truck now. He will lead you there."

So I went back to my truck, and sure enough, one of our police officers was waiting for me. It was a different policeman than had pulled me over & knocked on my door.  

He smiled and we shook hands. "We've got our motorcycle officer coming in the other way. Follow me, and we'll get you to the trail head." 

(If you're keeping count, I had three police officers and central dispatch coordinating the pig hunt with me.  My town doesn't often have days this exciting.)

We got back down to the same trail head I had been on before - the good news was that the map that our neighbor had drawn was accurate. The bad news was there was still no sign of the pigs. I walked the trail a bit again, but I figured the woman who had called it in had been a part of that same birding group who had seen them, a few hours before.  The police found a few kids fishing near the pond, and asked them if they had seen three little pigs. 

"Um. No." I think the kids thought the cops & I were pulling some kind of prank. 

I was a bit embarrassed by the whole thing at this point, what with taking up the time of most of our town's on-duty police force, but the senior officer just shrugged. "We're a farming community. It happens."

I shook hands with the police officers, and called off the hunt. 

I went back home again, and once again began the process of de-ticking, shaking out my clothes, and taking an extended hot shower. 

I had just started to make dinner and think about a much anticipated cocktail when the phone rang again. 

"Mr. Grady, this is the Carlisle police department. There's someone on the trail with your pigs right this very minute."

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