Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Panchetta from Baby Beef Bellies

Veal. The word conjures up animal rights nightmares of wide-eyed baby cows tightly crammed in crates barely as wide as their bodies, their rear ends drenched in mustard-colored diarrhea and their heads blocked in a stockade above a bucket of medicated, iron-deficient gruel.

Chances are if you buy pale-colored veal from a grocery store or order Veal Parmesan in a restaurant with a price tag less than twenty bucks, that's what you'll be eating.

The reality is the veal industry exists because of the dairy industry. Cows bred to be milked are genetically designed to put their energy into milk production--not laying down thick layers of marbled muscle like that of their Black Angus brethren. It is not economical to raise dairy-type male offspring for commercial beef production.

And the truth is, they can't all grow up to be the bull.

This fact, coupled with my location in the heart of Pennsylvania dairy country and one incredibly delicious meal of veal kidneys with a creamy green peppercorn-mushroom sauce at Bistro Jeanty in Napa Valley, let me to adding veal calves to my farm several years ago.

They come to the farm from neighboring dairies when they are about a week old. That way they've had more than sufficient colostrum from their mothers to provide a solid immunity. From there, I switch them to a non-medicated powdered milk replacer that is reconstituted in warm water and fed first by bottle and then a "mommy bucket".

Feeding calves from nipples is important because anyone who has ever been around a nursing calf will tell you that when they latch on to your fingers they produce copious amounts of saliva. There are natural anti-bacterial properties and digestive enzymes found in the saliva that help keep calves healthy. When they are forced to drink a cold replacer fortified with an anti-bacterial (common practices in commercial production), these unnatural methods often lead to many calves demise.

I've raised two different breeds of calves--Jerseys and Holsteins. Although the Jerseys are just about the cutest little things you've ever seen, when they show up, they're usually in the 50 to 75 pound range and take seven to eight months to reach 300-350 pounds--a weight where they usually stall in growth.

Last year I switched to Holsteins--the ubiquitous black an white cows often associated with milk. What I failed to understand was when they arrived, they weighed as much as a four to six week old Jersey calf. That's usually when I have to switch the calves over to mommy buckets since it's a calf's natural inclination to bang their noses into a cows udder in order to stimulate milk letdown. They do the same thing with bottles and having a hundred pound animal delivering quick jabs looking for a meal can leave some mean bruises.

It was during the height of mud season the first batch of calves arrived and I walked into a paddock holding three two-quart bottles where there were three ravenous calves, each about a hundred pounds. All three slammed into me in unison sending me straight on to my back. I laid there stuck in the mud, struggling to breathe as they had knocked the wind completely out of me. Before I could move, all three had mobbed me with their slimy faces, sucking on my hair, my face, my clothes looking for their meal. Their hooves were sharp and dug into my stomach, my legs and my shoulder. "Trampled to death by veal calves, this is how they're going to find me,"flashed through my mind.

But I managed to get up and escape the pen. These guys were going straight to mommy buckets--no bottle feeding for them. And so for the next three months, I hefted the mommy buckets over the fence twice a day and then turned them out on the lush green pastures for another three months until they reached their harvest weight.

I enjoy watching them play games of chase throughout the day and listening to them bellow when they see me outside. They follow closely, slobbering all over my hands and clothes as I lead them to fresh grazing grounds.

So when I was asked to join in on the Charcutepalooza Challenge for The Year of Meat, I knew I had to devote my projects to veal. Not just any veal, buy my veal.

The panchetta made from veal belly has been hanging in the attic for a few weeks now. And although the posting of the February Challenge was due yesterday, Mother Nature decided to violently exhale leaving me to tend first to the fury she unleashed on my farm, before devoting any time to my blog.

So this morning after I finished two day's worth of clearing all the downed branches from the fences and the yard, I brought the piece of brined, peppered and rolled veal belly out of the attic and cut into it. From the brilliant pinkness, there's no denying these little beef babies were out on green grass. Unlike pork, though, the layer of fat is extremely thin and therefore, not very creamy. Actually, it verged on almost stringy--like a piece of dental floss. While I'd give consistency a four on a scale of ten, for taste, it ranks around eight or nine. There is the delicate taste of beef, not overpowering like with a bresaola, tinted with salt, pepper, juniper and bay.

I tasted it first alone and then decided to add some to my breakfast of Shirred Eggs, one of my favorite quick, easy morning meals. Give it a try.

Sandra's Shirred Egg Recipe
Rub the inside of a ramekin with real butter.
Add two eggs.
Sprinkle with minced panchetta and cheese.
Add a tablespoon of cream on top.
Bake at 400 until bubbly, about 8-10 minutes.


  1. That is some georgous pancetta. My pork version is the exact opposite fat to meat ratio. Love the egg recipe. I think I'll make one for breakfast!

  2. Love the recipe touch at the end. Popping it in the oven right now. Insomnia is my friend!