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. 




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. 

This shit was a lot easier when I was 20

My buddy, Dan, wrote me and a few other guys several weeks ago. 

"Hey - there's this fitness challenge event called 'GoRuck' coming up. I'm thinking of just signing up for the 'Light' one, which looks like a good time. I couldn't think of a better & more fun group of people to do it with than you guys. Whaddyasay?"

I'm not a big one on the 'sporty' stuff. I occasionally work out (not as often as I should), and when I do, it's usually just a two mile run. 'Run' being a very generous word for my shuffling-yet-somehow-heavy-plod of a gait. And the whole time I do it, I hate it. I don't even enjoy that afterglow of self-justification that comes with running. Because it's hard to feel afterglow when you're trying not to vomit up a lung. There's no "I ran, so I can eat nachos!" for me. I figured out a long time ago that I don't have to run to eat nachos. If I want nachos, I just order the damn nachos. I'm a grown man. I can do that. No, I run just because I feel like I have to do something to get off my butt, and as much as I hate running, I've never found another physical activity that I can motivate myself to do with even irregular consistency.  I run two miles because I figure, if you can catch me after two miles, then here. Have my wallet. It's not worth it. 

"It's addicting!" my friends tell me. Liars. It's not addicting. Unless you're addicted to shin-splints. And if you are, then you need help. But I'm pretty sure I could quit this shit anytime. Cold turkey. No problem.

We had a friend in California who ran marathons or some crap like that, and she was always telling us about how her toenails were turning black and falling off. She'd say it with a kind of gleeful mania in her voice and a zoned out meth-addict look in her eye. And then she'd talk about her new shoes she had to buy ever six weeks or something. Do you not see a problem here? We need to talk about interventions. 

Occasionally, though, I have a momentary lapse in judgement, and I sign up for something stupid. Like the Warrior Dash. Or the GoRuck. I have a chink in the armor covering my soft white underbelly, and it is events with catchy names and a promise of beer at the end.  

I signed up. The other neighbors all found convenient, flimsy excuses to skip it. "Gee... wish I could, but I'm going to France," or "I just had knee replacement surgery, and I'm pretty sure that's a bad idea." 

Damn I wish I had thought of that last one. 

Dan and I got together to train a couple of times. "You used to do this in the Army, right, Ken?" 

Yes. Back before I was forty


This is my team. We met at the Boston Common this past Saturday afternoon. It was a gorgeous day. Our cadre leader, Mike, was a lovely fellow who had served multiple stints overseas as a Marine Recon Sniper and then an Air Force Combat Controller. Mike spoke very softly. And scared the shit out of us. 

"Drop your rucks and go get wet," he said. 

We all dropped our rucks and ran into the wading pond at the bottom of the hill. We ran back up, dripping. 

"Not all of you are completely wet. Again."


We had an hour plus 'Welcome party' afterwards. "Welcome" means pushups, and burpees, and a horrible combination of exercises called 'the Body Builder' which made me question my choice of cold sausage pizza for breakfast. We had to do them all in sync. If we got out of sync, the count started over at 0, and we began again.  I turned around and glared at Dan. He grinned back at me. Dan is a sadist. 

When we got on the move, we shouldered our rucks. My ruck weighed about 35 lbs or so, filled with duct-taped bricks and 2 liters of water. ("Do not let your rucks touch the ground. If your ruck touches the ground, that is an infraction"). We had an additional team weight of 15 lbs that rotated around the group. ("Do not let your team weight touch the ground. If your team weight touches the ground, that is an infraction"). We had a group weight that consisted of carrybags filled with sand, connected together into a 6 foot long, 200lb 'body bag'. ("Do not let the group weight touch the ground. If your group weight touches the ground, that will become an infraction.")  We had a team leader carrying a flag ("Do not let that flag touch the ground. If the flag touches the ground, infraction doesn't begin to cover what I will do to you.") 

And we hiked. Through the city of Boston, shouldering our gear, making pedestrians and cars alike turn and gawk. Every couple of hours, we'd pause and do more group PT. While we hiked, Cadre Mike would get creative and find fun things to fill our time. 

"This is a toll bridge. You must do lunges across the bridge, in sync, carrying all the weights. Do not get out of step. If you get out of step, you will have to go back and start over again." 

We got out of step.

Ironically, I don't mind schlepping heavy weights around. I do this all the time at home - carrying fifty pound bags of feed around, or tossing scrappy piglets into pens. That part of the challenge really wasn't a big deal for me. I could, and do, hike for miles for fun. 

The really challenging parts for me were those occasional stops. 

We found a lovely spot along the river to stop and secure our gear. ('Secure' is military speak for "put your crap down." Surprisingly, out of our class of 19, I was one of the only two military veterans. Probably because if you've been in the military, you are supposed to know better than to willingly pay someone to make you do a multi-hour ruck march, carrying a bunch of heavy shit. I am a slow learner. But I was able to help by translating the occasional jargon during the ruckmarch) 

"Do 10 mountain climbers; Get up; Sprint down to the other side of this field. Do 10 mountain climbers. Sprint back. Go." 

We did it. 

"Good! Your time was 1 minute, 23 seconds. That is now your time to beat. Do it again." 

We didn't beat our time. 

We did it again. 

"Good! You ran that in 1 minute 15 seconds. That is your new time to beat. Do it again."

I now remember what I don't miss about the Army. 

But I'll be damned if we didn't beat that time. 

Suck it, 40. 

Instigator Dan & myself, smelling like victory. Lots and lots of victory. 

Instigator Dan & myself, smelling like victory. Lots and lots of victory. 

In the end, the challenge lasted just at 6 hours. I think we covered a bit more than 12 miles. We sort of forgot to measure.  And when we made it back to the Common, we were jogging the flag in, doing indian runs as a group, and talking about who was going to buy the first round of beer. 

Dan and I were probably the two oldest guys on the challenge in our team. And the next day, I felt like I had received a prison-yard beating, despite the family sized bottle of horse motrin I had scarfed before crawling into a horizontal position. 

And hell yes, I'm going to do it again.