While I had a great time touring the Willis farm, and seeing what "real" hog farming looks like up close and personal, the place I most like to observe pork is on a plate sitting somewhere near my face. For this reason, I thoroughly enjoyed the 12th Annual Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner at the Marriott hotel in downtown Des Moines.
It doesn't matter how humanely you raise your product, or how much better for the environment your methods are, if the country's top chefs do not embrace its use, none of that matters. Happily for Niman Ranch, not only do the chefs love, and use their meat, they enthusiastically promote that fact.
Before I get into the menu, and the chefs that created it, I have to say what a pleasure it was enjoying the meal seated with the hog farmers themselves. In addition to the meal, there was a great keynote address from Simran Sethi, as well as farming awards and scholarship announcements.
You didn't have to be a body language expert to read the immense pride these farmers have for what they do, as illustrated in this picture of farmer Brown (I can't remember his first name, but to me he will always be farmer Brown). The other photo shows a bemused Mrs. farmer Brown, watching my buddy Tina, from Carrots 'N' Cake, document the meal.
What follows is a photo recap of this memorable meal:
The seven-course meal started with porchetta rolls, made by Sara Jenkins of Porchetta in New York City. When I get rich and build the Sandwich Hall of Fame, there will be a whole wing dedicated to porchetta. I sure hope chef Jenkins is available to curate. A sincere thanks to my friend, Danielle from Bon Vivant who let me use this photo. I was a little to busy drinking beer at the cocktail reception where this stellar bun was served to get a shot.
By the way, the lighting was very challenging, and the rest of the photos seen herein are of significantly better quality thanks to tips Danielle gave me during dinner. In addition to being an accomplished food blogger, Danielle also has a freelance photography business, and I was fortunate to be seated next to her.
Our first course was called "Reuben with a Twist," from Randy Waidner of Gibsons Steakhouse in Chicago. This featured "corned" (brined) pork tenderloin, gruyere cracker, shaved pickled kohlrabi, and a spicy mustard sauce. I did love this, but like my tablemates, I was befuddled by the moist, dark rye muffin-like object that anchored the plate. What exactly was it? How was it made? Despite this minor mystery, everyone enjoyed the plate.
Next up was "Sweet Corn Soup," from Chef George Formaro from Centro in Des Monies. This was clearly the favorite course at our table, and from what I heard, others as well. It was a masterful blend of sweet, local corn, caramelized onions, pico de gallo, and diced chicharones (fried-out pork skin). It was perfect in every way. Before I die, I must have a more of this amazing soup. It's literally on the "bucket list," since that's the amount and vessel I would like to eat it out of.
Then things got crazy. Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook from Animal in Los Angeles, served "Buffalo-style Pig Tails." Braised pigs tails were fried crisp, then served with celery, radishes, blue cheese dressing, and hot sauce. It was a spicy, sticky, chewy, crunchy, surreal plate of fun. I relished every bite. I love when "snout to tail" is taken literally.
Next up was a vibrant and refreshing "Hand-Shredded Pork Wrap" from Alexander Ong of Betelnut in San Francisco. This butter lettuce wrap featured pulled pork shoulder, Asian pear kimchee, and scallion puree. I really enjoyed this, and it was an absolutely perfect course to place between the unctuous tails and the rich pork shank that would follow.
The main course was "Pork Osso Bucco," from Martin Muprhy of the Canoe Club in Hanover, New Hampshire. What's not to love about slowly braised pork shank garnished with a stew of locally sourced carrots, potatoes, beets, and squash? This was fork-tender-fabulous, and a great way to end the savory portion of the program.
The dessert course was a fantastic "Classic Heirloom Apple Pie." from John Himan of Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver. Looking like something that fell off the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, it featured a crust made with Niman's "leaf lard," filled with sweet/tart Cortland and Mollies Delicious apples. By the way, if it doesn't have lard in it, it's not an American piecrust. I loved that the pie was served with bowls of cheddar cheese shards alongside. If you've never tried that combo, you really should.
Chef John won the weekend's Murphy's Law award. He didn't have enough pie pans, and had to scramble to find more; he was up until 2AM peeling apples (after "enjoying" the Willis farm pig roast); his rolling machine broke, which meant hand-rolling 70 pies; and just for fun, the ovens at the Marriott went down, and he had to have the pies moved and finished at a neighboring restaurant. Other than that, it really went pretty smooth.
Dinner ended with a well-deserved introduction of, and tribute to, these humanely-raised-pork-loving chefs. It was clear to all in attendance, how deeply they love what they do, and how much they appreciate all the hard work and care that goes into producing the pork they so deliciously celebrated.
Thanks to all the chef and cooks who took part, and of course to Niman Ranch for hosting this event!