Don't get me wrong. I am all behind locally produced foods. In fact, in a perfect world, I think all foods would be grown within walking distance--more or less--of where they're consumed. That would mean a huge shift in the way affluent Americans approach agriculture and food production. Maybe we wouldn't eat so much meat. Maybe we'd all be raising chickens in our back yards.
Still, I am a skeptic by nature. And one of the things I find a little irritating is the knee-jerk hysteria of some foodies to any critical examination of how our local food system currently operates. A few stories questioning the carbon footprint of local foods have popped up in the mainstream media lately and from the reaction on the food blogs you'd think war had broken out.
As far as I can tell, the system we have for getting local foods to consumers is incredibly inefficient. You could start with all those trucks driving long distances with relatively small loads of food to our urban farmers markets, only to drive away again a few hours later having sold maybe half their goods. Wouldn't it be so much easier--so much less costly--for everyone involved if there were some kind of co-op that were open every day of the week, and where vendors and shoppers could all congregate indoors?
I think so.
Another thing I find disturbing is all the plastic at the farmers market. Plastic bags to tote naturally-grown fruits and vegetables. Every single piece of pasture-raised meat individually wrapped in plastic. How eco-friendly is that?
So I just don't see why everyone gets up in arms when the mainstream media bothers to point these things out. Sure, local farming is way better than industrial agriculture. Agreed. But hopefully we can do better.
Which brings me to my pork butt. I don't care what anyone says: shopping at the farmers market--hereabouts, anyway--is expensive. Too expensive for the average Joe. In fact, what we are seeing here in the District of Columbia is farmers markets geared toward lower-income shoppers going out of business. You simply cannot do your grocery shopping at the farmers market. Too expensive.
Last week at the Arlington farmers market I picked up this pork shoulder roast, aka pork butt. It cost me nearly $29, or $6.95 a pound. I felt my you-know-what constrict when the vendor told me it was a bone-in roast. For $6.95 a pound? I wanted to say. But I bit my tongue.
After I got the roast home, I decided to break it down. How much of this pork butt was actually edible? How much per pound was I paying for the meat portion I intended to turn into a stew?
Well, on the left in the picture above you see the fat cap and rind that I removed from the roast, along with the bones. I put them on the scale: 1 pound, 15 ounces. Next I weighed the meat: 2 pounds, 3 ounces. In other words, 46 percent of my pork butt was bones, fat cap and rind. The meat, meanwhile--or edible portion--works out to 80 cents an ounce, or nearly $13 a pound.
I ask you, when was the last time you paid $13 a pound for pork shoulder, a cut butchers typically turn into sausage?
But here's the real kicker: Boneless Niman Ranch pork shoulder sells at our neighborhood Whole Foods for $3.49 a pound. In other words, trekking to the farmers market for locally produced pork butt on a frigid Saturday morning costs me four times as much as buying already trimmed, humanely-raised pork in the comfort of a tricked-out grocery. Is there anyone besides me crazy enough to do that?
Not to say this meat is not worth $13 a pound. Lord knows, our local farmer has taken great care in raising this pig. The animal lived out his days and met his end in a humane fashion, no doubt. And we want to support our local farmers. My point, simply, is how many consumers can actually afford this? Do we really foresee a day when this product will become mainstream?
Currently, local foods account for about 2 percent of all U.S. food purchases. I sometimes wonder at which price inflection the other 98 percent will move into the local column.
But enough of my rant. What I did with the meat portion of my pork butt was cut it into large chunks, season them aggressively with coarse salt and pepper and brown them in extra-virgin olive oil at the bottom of a very hot Dutch oven. Do this in batches. Remove the meat and replace it with an onion, cut into medium dice and seasoned with salt. Lower the heat and stir the onion to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Then add two carrots, also cut into medium dice, and four garlic cloves, sliced fine. Continue cooking and when the onions have softened, add about 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar.
Place the meat back in the pot and add about 1 1/2 bottles of stout, dark beer. I was happy to find a Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout at the local Whole Foods. My wife and I served Brooklyn Lager at our wedding many moons ago, so we have a soft spot for that brewery. The left-over half-bottle, of course, is for the cook to drink while she is contemplating her next step.
Bring the pot back to a boil. Then cover it and put it in a 250-degree oven for three hours. Meanwhile, cut up some other root vegetables, such as celery root, parsnips, potatoes. We had all that on hand already, plus some baby corn on the cob left over from a cocktail buffet. When the three hours are up, stir all these vegetables into the pot and put it back in the oven for another hour.
When everything is tender and aromatic, strain the solids out of the stew. Ladle some of the dark juice into a bowl and mix in 2 teaspoons corn starch. Bring the pot to a boil on the stove top and stir in the corn starch mix. Stir until thickened, just a minute or two, then mix all the solids back into the pot. Serve hot in shallow bowls.
What I served with the stew was a braised Savoy cabbage we bought last weekend at the farmers market. Chop the cabbage into pieces, then cook in a pot of boiling water seasoned with salt and cider vinegar. Strain the cabbage into a bowl and season with extra-virgin olive oil, more cider vinegar, salt and ground pepper. Stir in plenty of chopped parsley and chives from the garden.
I think you'll agree, whatever the price, this is a killer stew.