Whole-hog cookery

Posted on October 3, 2007 in Other writing

Some of the following essay appeared in The Washington Post on January 17, 2007:
Going Whole Hog

Here we are in mid-January, the month of ascetic resolutions, and there’s only one diet book among the top 50 national bestsellers. Fatty cuts of pork, lardo, and bacon sales have increased dramatically in restaurants the past few years. Ten years ago, the only place you might see the words “pork belly” were in stock market reports, futures in this food commodity having been fiercely traded since the early sixties. Today, it’s hard to find a menu from a fine dining establishment that doesn’t offer its version of the fatty underside of the hog. Classic Chinese dishes such as red-cooked pork with greens and French cassoulet traditionally use pork belly, but menus rarely disclosed the belly as an ingredient, even when it was the featured cut, until very recently. Many chefs began slipping it onto the menu as “fresh bacon,” which is perhaps more politic. Belly, after all, connotes fat, and fat has been so demonized that the pork industry has bred pigs so that they are, indeed, “the other white meat,” the lean chops and loins trimmed from young animals raised on concrete and fed a diet of grains, bone meal, vitamins, hormones, and antibiotics.
Even in Italy, where prosciutto crudo (salt-cured ham, the best hung for two years), salume (air-dried sausage), lardo (salted pork back fat), and strutto (lard) are traditional ingredients in many regions, the fat-laden heritage breeds of hogs had almost become extinct due to the hegemony of factory farms and the anti-fat brigades. But tastes are changing.
Brent Zimmerman, an American who has been farming in Tuscany for 16 years, is raising the celebrated cinta sinese breed, hippopotamus-sized behemoths that, he says, “fell out of favor in the commercial market for having too much fat.” But “it also takes over a year to get them to market size. Even butchering at 18 months is not unheard of, compared to the eight- to nine-month butchering age for large white hybrids.” Zimmerman, like many chefs on both sides of the Atlantic, is convinced that a slow growth rate, exercise, and a natural diet vastly improve the flavor of the meat. As with beef, the more richly marbled with fat, the more flavorful the cut of pork. Ironically, Zimmerman notes, “the cinta sinese would even be less fatty than the white breeds if we butchered them at 8 or 9 months!” (Brent is shown here with his partner Alessandro at their recently acquired Ristorante Asinocotto in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. The prosciutto on the plate is Brent and Alessandro’s own, from their farm in Tuscany, Priello, which they also operate as an agriturismo holiday rental.)
Breed is important, but “grow-out” methods affect flavor even more so. Zimmerman’s hogs are allowed to rummage for chestnuts the last couple of months of their lives. Brian Polcyn, chef and co-author of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (Norton, 2005) buys free-range hogs that are acorn-finished, like the legendary pata negra of Iberian cork groves.
Many chefs have found that for the best flavor and value, buying whole hogs is the way go.
Besides pork belly and a vast array of pâtés and terrines, American menus now also proudly sport pigs’ feet, head cheese, homemade sausages, and rillettes. Coming from the Deep South, I wonder when the chitterlings and pigs’ ears will appear.
It’s not so much about the actual parts – the belly, the shoulder, the loin – as it is about the farming. The meat of Berkshires can have an almost musky flavor, but if they are raised on concrete, never walk around, and eat only commercial feed, you probably wouldn’t know the difference. Maryland farmer Bryan Kerney, who sells his vegetables and pork in Washington, DC, at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, allows his hogs into his vegetable fields to forage in the fall before slaughter. “They eat what we do: turnips, potatoes, and greens. We’re on a three-year rotation, and every third year the fields lay fallow for the pigs.” His sows are Tamworths, an endangered breed that he feeds corn “to get them back up after giving birth. Then I turn them into the vegetable fields.” When asked about the flavor of the individual breeds, he says he can taste the difference, but adds, “It’s more in how they are raised out.”
Chef Frank Ruta concurs. A former White House chef and the co-owner of Washington’s popular Palena restaurant, Ruta has featured pork belly and other unfamiliar cuts of pork on his menu since he opened over six years ago. “The Berkshires and Duroc hogs that I get from Brad at Pipedream Farms are mainly fed a diet of whey from his goat cheese operation and stale bread that he gathers here and there. Also they are allowed the time to grow to full maturity and fat.” Ruta might brine or marinate the belly, smoke it with hickory and apple, braise it in an aromatic tomato-enhanced stock, then press it lightly while it is refrigerated. “We then cut the slab into the serving rectangles, some with the bone, but all with the skin. Once it is ordered, we lightly caramelize and baste with butter and the reserved cooking liquor.” He also uses pork belly as seasoning meat for a variety of dishes such as lentils, to make pancetta (salt-cured Italian style bacon, often rolled into a sausage shape, but not smoked), and to make dry-cured slab bacon for BLTs or to top a burger.
The labor is intensive, but perhaps the biggest difference between what restaurants are able to produce and what home cooks can do at home is their shopping – or sourcing, as it’s known in the business. Butchers aren’t even listed in the Yellow Pages any more, so I called every meat market in the Washington area phone books looking for fresh pork belly. Only at Wagshal’s in DC could I order it, but was told “It would be better if could order the whole hog.” One of the favored local sources for chefs is Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Staunton, Virginia. Salatin is one of the best-known sustainable farmers in America, growing grass-fed beef and pigs as well as rabbits, chickens, and turkeys in intensely managed pastures. Traditional symbiotic relationships between species, farm-generated fertility, and complex rotational systems are the hallmarks of Salatin’s self-described “small, ethical, family farming.”
Getting Salatin-style “grass-grown” animal products to consumers in D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina has been the goal of Bev and Janelle Eggleston’s Eco-Friendly Foods, by expanding their distribution to area restaurants, farmers’ markets, and home buying clubs (click on the hot link or call toll free 866 326 3743).
John Manolatos of Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington (pictured here) buys whole animals from the Egglestons,
hangs them for a few days, and butchers them as needed. “We always have a charcuterie plate on the menu, but what’s on it changes often. Buying the whole animals allows you to do a lot,” he says, carefully breaking down a 160-pound gutted hog one late December morning. “I’ll make some sausages and smoke them over apple wood, and I’ll make head cheese, which I couldn’t do unless I bought the whole animal. With the fattier cuts like the belly, I’ll make rillettes,” he added, referring to a confit of pork – meat cooked in its own fat, shredded, then covered with fat. It is served cold with toast points and cornichons. “I’ll leave some belly attached to some of the ribs, and smoke them, but I also like to just slow-roast the belly and serve it over grits. I’ll make a pork osso buco for two with the foreshank.”
In Philadelphia, Michael McNally serves a modern take on “surf ‘n’ turf” at his popular London Grill in the museum district. The dish is typical of today’s pork offerings in restaurants: a flavorful piece of fatty local pork is lightly cured then paired with fresh shellfish: the pork is first brined for two days, then slowly braised with aromatic vegetables and white wine for two hours. When ready to serve, the meat is patted dry, cut into 1-1/2” cubes (one per person for an appetizer), and seared on all sides in a hot pan. Large, fresh, sticky sea scallops (2 per person for an appetizer) are salted and peppered, seared on both sides over high heat (about 3 minutes per side), and served with the pork and a wasabi-flavored apple sauce. The scallops and pork are drizzled with a rich and creamy brown butter sauce flavored with shallots, soy, and lime juice. The dish is a great balance of contrasts: crisp and pillowy, sweet and sour, bitter and bright, spicy and unctuous.
Polcyn and Ruhlman warn, however, that unless you use “excellent pork, preferably from a small farmer who raises his hogs naturally….it’s simply not worth it from a flavor standpoint and you’re likely to wonder what all the fuss is about.”
Fresh pork belly can be found in many cities in Asian grocery stores such as Han Ah Reum (H-Mart). If you frequent one of the nicer restaurants in your neck of the woods, don’t hesitate to ask them to share their sources. Pork from naturally raised, heritage breeds can be found at most area farmers’ markets, but you may have to special order pork bellies or other odd cuts. Cibola Farms and Cedarbrook Farm both sell their pork at several Washington area markets and year-round at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market on Sundays.
Braised Pork Belly and Grits
Pork belly recipes from restaurants tend to be elaborate affairs involving days of dry-curing, brining or marinating, followed by hours of braising and a final searing. But John Manolatos of Cashion’s Eat Place in DC’s popular Adams Morgan neighborhood is just as likely to simply braise the fatty meat and serve slices of it over grits. A little goes a long way, though: a pound of meat is enough to serve six to eight people. This recipe is adapted from a kitchen conversation with Manolatos as he carved the belly from a whole hog. Manolatos rubs his pork belly with a garlic and herb mixture and lets the flavors absorb for two days in the refrigerator, but he says that that step is not necessary if you have good pork such as the naturally raised heritage breeds he buys from Eco-Friendly Foods (which see). You will need to begin the final cooking several hours before serving, but it is mostly unattended cooking.
     1 pound skinned fresh pork belly
     2 tablespoons kosher salt
     a handful of fresh herbs of your choice, including sage
     1 bay leaf, crushed
     2 or 3 juniper berries
     4 or 5 garlic cloves, peeled
     1 cup dry white wine
     2 tablespoons unsalted butter
     1 teaspoon salt
     6 cups water
     1-1/2 cups stone-ground, whole-grain grits (available from Hoppin’ John’s)
     1 to 2 cups milk, cream, half-and-half, water, or stock
Up to two days in advance, place the pork in a nonreactive container such as a glass baking dish. Chop the salt, herbs, and juniper berries together in a food processor or on a cutting board with a heavy knife until the mixture is uniformly minced. Rub the mixture all over the pork, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until three or four hours before serving.
Preheat the oven to 300ºF. In a heavy skillet, a ceramic-glazed iron pot, or in flameproof pottery (preferably with a tight-fitting lid), brown the meat lightly over medium high heat. Remove the meat and set aside, then turn up the heat to high and add the wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any bits of meat that may have stuck. Reduce the wine for a few minutes until it is just about ¼” high in the pan. Turn off the heat and return the meat to the pan. Cover with aluminum foil and with the pan’s lid if it has one. Place in the oven for 3 hours. Turn off the heat, but leave the pot in the oven.
After three hours, begin cooking the grits. The longer you cook them, the creamier they will become. Drop the butter and salt into the water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the grits, return to a boil, and reduce the heat, allowing the grits to cook at a low boil for 10 minutes or so, until the grits are very thick and have absorbed most of the water, stirring occasionally to prevent the grits from sticking.
Add about ½ cup of the milk or cream to the pot and turn down the heat, allowing the grits to simmer for another 10 minutes or so. As the liquid evaporates or is absorbed, add more cream or milk, cooking the grits until the desired consistency is reached, a total cooking time of at least an hour. The grits should be piping hot when served, slightly soupy but full-bodied enough that they do not run on the plate.
About ten minutes before serving, remove the lid and foil from the belly and run under a broiler to warm and color the meat. Slice the meat ½” thick and serve over the grits. 

Seared Sea Scallops with Braised Pork Belly & Wasabi Apple Sauce
by Chef Michael McNally of Philadelphia’s
London Grill

For the Pork Belly Brine:

     3 lbs. skinned fresh pork belly
     6 tablespoons kosher salt
     2 bay leaves
     6 allspice berries
     2 cloves
     1 teaspoon peppercorns
     6 juniper berries

Place the pork in a nonreactive container or bowl and cover with water at least an inch over the top of the meat. Pour the water into a saucepan, add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Allow to cool completely, pour over the pork, and soak in the refrigerator for 2 days.

For the Braise:

     2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
     2 carrots, peeled and cut in half
     3 cloves garlic
     1 fennel bulb thinly sliced
     1 cup white wine

Preheat oven to 350°. In a large, heavy sauté pan, preferably one with a tight-fitting lid, sear the pork over medium-high heat on both sides and remove from the pan. Add the remaining ingredients, deglazing the pan by scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom. Return the pork belly to the pan, cover tightly with foil (and the lid, if the pan has one. Bake for 2 hours.

For the Wasabi Apple Sauce:

     8 apples, peeled, cored, and quartered
     ½ cup sugar
     ½ cup wasabi paste *
     1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
     4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
     1 teaspoon salt

Combine ingredients in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring the mixture until it is soft and of uniform texture, about 10 to 15 minutes.

*Wasabi paste is available in tubes in the Asian section of most grocers.

Soy Brown Butter Sauce

1-½ cup heavy cream
1 pound unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
¾ cups light soy sauce
½ cup fresh lime juice
Cilantro, parsley, chives

Place butter and cream in a pan over high heat and cook until melted and browned. Add rest of ingredients and season to taste.

Final Assembly:

Brined pork belly, patted dry
Large, fresh sea scallops, 2-3 per person

Cut the pork into 1-½ inch cubes, 2 per person being served. In a hot sauté pan, sear pork on all sides. Set aside. Salt & pepper both sides of sea scallops, then sear both sides over high heat (about 3 minutes per side).

Serve the scallops with the pork and apple sauce. Drizzle the scallops and pork with the sauce and serve immediately.