PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX
Indulge your pets with these farm-to-canine dog treats
How many times have you gone to the local farmers’ market and passed the sign prohibiting dogs and thought, “but my dog would love it here?” Doesn’t it seem like a farmers’ market is, in fact, the ideal place for a dog with the crowds of people to love, ground littered with bits of food and an unending supply of new and exciting scents? Sadly, the health department is unlikely to soon welcome your pet to the farmers’ market…but you can bring the farmers’ market to your pet.
Beyond a desire to share our love for local food with our pets, there are other practical reasons for considering freshly prepared dog treats, such as: reducing packaging, supporting local farmers, finding uses for often overlooked products such as offal and, most of all, knowing exactly what we’re feeding our cherished animals.
As trained chefs, my wife and I have often thought we should surely be capable of cooking healthy, local treats for our beloved dog (and equally beloved cat). After all, when we are at home cooking for ourselves, we do prioritize locally caught fish, limited, ethically raised meats and organic vegetables. We try to stay informed about where our products are sourced and how they are produced. In this ever-complicated world, we value many of the same principles embraced by so many readers of Edible Monterey Bay and we try our best to keep our family ethically fed.
If you have ever seen a dog roll in ecstasy on top of a rotting seal carcass, or lick up a bit of cat poop with relish, you probably understand that your dog’s flavor preferences may differ slightly from your own. Any good chef knows that it is important to cook with your guest’s personal tastes in mind, but what is a dog’s vision of culinary perfection? While they tend to migrate toward pungent aromas, we don’t recommend reaching for the truffle oil or Époisses cheese.
Your dog’s affinity for fetid smells is rooted in the fact that they have only one-sixth of the taste buds of a human but over 10 times more sensory glands, in their noses, therefore aromatics are more enticing than flavor. Unlike humans, dogs and cats both have a special set of taste buds located at the tip of their tongues that register the flavor of water. These taste buds become more active when the animal has consumed salty or sugary foods that might cause dehydration, a natural adaptation that prompts the animal to drink water and rewards it with a pleasure response. Dogs and cats have historically relied on diets largely composed of meat and therefore do not need to seek out additional sources of sodium. Human taste buds, on the other hand, reward the intake of salt to promote the intake of sodium, which in moderation is necessary for good health.
It was a crisp fall day when we embarked on our first canine-inspired farmers’ market trip. Baskets overflowing with apples and pumpkins of every shape and size filled every corner of the market. We stopped by a local rancher’s table to see what kind of offal they had available, and came away with a pristine slab of crimson heirloom pork liver and a large bag of organic chicken hearts. As we moved through the cornucopia of autumnal ingredients, we picked out a small pumpkin, a handful of honey crisp apples and a half-dozen fresh eggs. In total, the shopping adventure came to around $20.
HEART OF GOLD
Back in our tiny boat galley, we decided to start with a simple recipe: dehydrated chicken hearts. Offal—including the heart, liver and lungs—is often less desirable and far less expensive. Organ meats are an oft discarded byproduct of the meat industry, and if your goal is to provide responsibly sourced food for your family, don’t turn your nose up when it comes to the viscera. Heart and liver are two of the best “starter” organ meats, because they are rich in minerals, vitamins and protein. They are easy to source, simple to cook and often inexpensive compared to other meat cuts.
Perhaps the easiest recipe we’ve ever had to follow, our dried chicken hearts simply required opening the bag, putting the contents on a sheet tray and cooking at 150° F in a convection oven for an hour or until dry. Reducing the moisture content is a critical step in preserving the meat and making it shelf stable. The more dehydrated a product is, the less susceptible it is to harmful pathogens.
When properly dried, chicken hearts should be perfectly safe left out for a few weeks at room temperature, but you can also take the added precaution of storing them inside a sealed container in the freezer. In their frozen state they will last for up to a year. Both our dog and cat began sniffing the air as soon as the hearts went in the oven.
Like any good chef would, when the hearts came out of the oven, we took the first taste ourselves. The fava bean-sized snacks were deeply savory with a crisp exterior and pleasant chewiness. While the seasoning was lacking, as expected, we were pleased to note that they were not in the least bitter. With a bit of seasoning, they would actually make a delicious human snack! Brooks, our dog, gave the dehydrated hearts his enthusiastic approval.
GIVE YOUR DOG A BONE
Another simple treat for your hound is a good local bone. Each time a local cattle rancher takes a steer to market, they end up with hundreds of pounds of bones, many more than can be sold to restaurants and consumers. Chewing and gnawing bones can be beneficial for dogs. It helps prevent plaque build-up, can remove trapped food particles and can satiate dogs that need a little extra activity—especially younger, chewing-through-everything dogs.
Determine with your vet whether bones are a good fit for your dog. Not every breed has a jawbone structure for processing bones safely. Dogs that are not used to real meat bones can have trouble digesting after their first bone. It is also important to choose the right size of bone for your dog, too small, and you run the risk of a greedy pooch attempting to swallow it whole. For a large dog, a beef shank is a good size.
While you may be tempted to hand over your chicken drumstick or ribeye steak bone at the end of the meal, don’t do it. Baked, broiled or barbecued bones tend to splinter, and can be a real hazard to your pets. Dogs love raw bones, but owners may be turned off by the mess. Some dogs may also have an instinctual desire to bury fresh bones; who doesn’t like an aged steak? Raw bones also provide more nutrition, because the collagen hasn’t been boiled off into the water.
A simple trick we adopted was to simmer beef knuckle bones with water until the meat falls off. At this point you can remove the bones, cool them down and then give them to your dog. Continue to reduce the beef liquid, adding your choice of onion, garlic, celery, carrots, ginger or other vegetables to create a rich, nutritious stew or stock for yourself. (editor’s note: some vets warn against giving bones to dogs, so be sure to check with yours)
If you have ever seen a dog roll in ecstasy on top of a rotting seal carcass, or lick up a bit of cat poop with relish, you probably understand that your dog’s flavor preferences may differ slightly from your own.
FARMERS’ MARKET BISCUITS
Once you have mastered the simple dehydrated offal treats and local bones, you can try your hand at a more traditional dog biscuit. For our Autumn Market Biscuit, we chose pumpkin, apples and pork liver. We cut everything into chunks and gently simmered them in a small amount of unsalted water until the pumpkin was soft. We combined it in a blender and pulsed it to a “lumpy smoothie” consistency. Once the mixture cooled, we added two eggs and about three cups of ground oatmeal (oatmeal that had been processed to a rough flour consistency in the coffee grinder). We poured the mixture out onto a parchment-lined baking pan, and baked it at 350° F until it had the consistency of brownies. Indeed, these cookies seem a lot like brownies were it not for the liver aroma.
Brooks loved the freshly baked dog biscuits, but he wasn’t the only neighborhood dog with his eye on the treat bag. While out for our daily walk, we met up with Brooks’ puppy trainer and his dog, Cooper. As you might expect of a dog trainer’s personal companion, Cooper is an immaculately behaved canine. He sits at attention, reacts to the slightest gesture and is an inspiration for every dog owner he encounters. On this particular afternoon, however, Cooper was so enticed by the bag of dog treats sitting on our bench that he waited for a moment when the humans weren’t watching and absconded with the entire bag! Now if that isn’t a glowing endorsement for a dog treat recipe, I don’t know what is.
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a partner and consulting chef at Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel and chef-partner at The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Ranch in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.