One of the great culinary travesties of the twentieth century was the industry-driven transformation of pork from a rich, fatty meat of deep flavor to a dry, stringy, neutral-tasting protein bred to compete with chicken breast meat. “Pork. The Other White Meat.” I was in college when I started seeing the logo – a slightly skewed circle, resembling a cross-cut slice of tenderloin, bearing the word “Pork” in delicate, slightly Asiatic, script. Soon after, the recipes began to emerge: grilled pork loin with orange glaze; roast tenderloin with cherry sauce. Maple-bourbon marinades, teriyaki sauces, and all that. We dressed up the pork to make up for the fact that the meat no longer had any flavor, and we sauced it to death to compensate for its terrible dryness. Pork became our blank canvas. It was a terrible thing.
Well, the king is dead. Say hello to “Pork Be Inspired.” I don’t know who comes up with this stuff.
How’s this for inspiration: let’s make the most of pork in all its rich, hoggy glory. Here’s the thing. Even while the pork industry touted its product as the alternative to chicken and sought to breed nearly all the fat and flavor out of the meat, the USDA considers pork a red meat. You should too. When I travel abroad, I’m reminded of the pork I ate as a little kid, before the industry got its mitts all over our hogs and turned them into generic white protein. Well, if I wanted that, I’d eat tofu. Also, there’s more to pork than tenderloin and loin chops.
Look at these lardy boys – a rosy pork shoulder and a pork belly with layers of deep pink meat and creamy white fat. Make the most of them by cooking them slowly, at low temperatures, to melt down the tough collagen and the fat. Don’t cringe because it’ll wreck your diet or shrink in fear of your hardening arteries. Consider this: people around the world in countries with longer life expectancies and lower obesity rates than the United States eat pork in delicious, fatty forms like rillettes and pâtés, red-cooked pork belly, lardo. They just don’t eat them in ludicrous quantities. Let’s do the same.
Easiest thing ever, just a bunch of hours curing in the refrigerator and then cooking in its own fat in the oven. Pig meat won’t stay pink unless you add nitrite in the form of tinted curing mix (“pink salt”) during the short cure. I recognize the whole nitrite thing is controversial, so decide for yourself whether you want your rillettes on the brownish gray but natural side, or whether you prefer a dusky rose color and the slight nitric tang of nitrite-treated meat. I suppose I prefer the untreated rillettes, but that’s just me.
If your shoulder cut is super lardy – like the one depicted in this photo – you’ll come out with more melted fat than you want to incorporate into the rillettes. In that case, save it. Keep it in the freezer, tightly sealed, and use it for frying. You won’t have to thaw the fat every time you want to use it – the lard doesn’t freeze rock solid. You can add to your lard stockpile whenever you have leftover rendered pork fat.
4 lb slab of pork shoulder or butt, the fattiest you can find
6 tsp kosher salt
6 sprigs thyme
1/2 c Italian parsley leaves, washed and spun dry
Optional: 1/8 tsp TCM (pink salt)
4 sprigs thyme
2 tsp each black peppercorns, coriander seed
If you have it, about 225 ml/1c rendered pork or duck fat from a previous preparation; otherwise, you can omit
Black pepper, ground
Two days before cooking, blitz the salt, TCM (if using), thyme, and parsley in a spice grinder or food processor and coat the pork, as well as any fat pockets, with the green salt. Wrap in plastic clingfilm, place in a stainless steel or plastic pan, and place in the refrigerator for two days. Turn over once after a day.
Oven 190F/85C. Rinse the pork well of green salt and dry with towels. Place in the smallest possible roasting pan, deep enough to rise up to the sides and, if possible, tight enough to touch the roast on all sides.
Tie up one teaspoon each of the coriander and peppercorn in separate cheesecloth bundles and tuck on opposite sides of the pork with the thyme sprigs. Place the cold pork or duck fat on top if you have it. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast for 10-12 hours. Remove and chill the pork in the fat.
Lift the pork from the fat and measure out about 1 c fat. Keep both cold. Remove the pork meat from the bones, if present, and separate the meat from any chunks of unrendered fat by hand (save that to render separately – see the Cracklings instructions below). You should have two pounds of meat or more. Chop the meat very coarsely (about 1 1/2″ long) if the strands are long and ropy. In a bowl, combine two pounds of the pork meat (reserving the rest), 2 tbsp mustard, a little black pepper (about ¼ tsp), and about 1/2 c cold pork fat.
Stir using a sturdy, large fork, incorporating the fat. Add another ¼ tsp pepper, another 2 tbsp mustard, and another ¼ c pork fat. Continue stirring, breaking up the fibers. Taste at this point for texture, which should be rich and neither overly lean nor greasy. If it is too lean, add another 2 tbsp to ¼ c pork fat (or more); if is too fat, add a little more meat and mustard. Otherwise, just taste for mustard and pepper. Cover and keep cold. If you have any leftover meat, keep it for another use.
Melt the remaining pork fat (again, see Cracklings, below). When melted, pack rillettes into sterilized lidded jars and cover with ¼ inch liquid pork fat and a bay leaf. Insert rubber gasket into jar and close. Keep refrigerated and do not open until ready to serve. Store refrigerated and unopened for two months or so. Once opened, consume within the week.
The crispy crunchy bits left over when you render the fat from the pork shoulder are similar to the crackling from a properly air-dried and roasted pork belly. They’re far easier to produce, though, because you don’t have to worry about drying the skin with salt, wiping off the moisture, roasting it at a properly high temperature, and so on. All you need to do is roast the pieces of fat until they melt, leaving behind crisp bits frying in the bubbling pork fat.
Liquid pork fat from previous recipe
Scraps of solid, unrendered pork fat, diced
Place the fats in an small baking dish. Bake until the fats bubble and the fat renders from the scraps, leaving them golden and crisp. Stir to redistribute or break up if necessary. Drain the fat through a strainer and refrigerate or freeze for another purpose. Use the cracklings as a garniture for salads or to add texture to other dishes, such as cassoulet.
Bacon and eggs
Why do eggs and pork taste so great together? I don’t know – maybe it’s the mildly sulfurous quality of the eggs plus the pork’s sweet fattiness, or something – but it’s an almost universal combination in pork-eating cultures. From bacon and fried eggs in the classic English breakfast, to Scotch eggs, to country pâtés encasing a hard-boiled egg, to braised pork belly and salted duck eggs in the Chinese steamed rice dumpling, zongzi (粽子), rich fatty pork and eggs are a classic combination. Hell, just today on NPR’s website, I read about a sandwich in Chicago that involves smoked ham, a breaded pork tenderloin, bacon, and a fried egg. See? Universal combination. I’m trying to move us closer to Chicago so I can get reliable access to that sandwich. Oh, and EggMcMuffin! I rest my case.
Speaking of zongzi. When I was a kid, my dad occasionally came home from trips to Chicago with a bag of zongzi, meaning he’d somehow managed to visit Chicago’s Chinatown. This was a real treat, since I didn’t get to eat them often – maybe once a year – and was in the same vein as other occasional food souvenirs, like the Baltimore crabs Dad would bring home from trips to Washington DC, or the rare lobster from Boston that always went right into the pot as soon as he walked in the door. Actually, the food souvenirs I think I received the most often were the little waxed cardboard box lunches served on short flights from the East Coast back to Milwaukee. My dad would bring the entire box home to me – little ham sandwich, cookie and all – and I considered it extremely glamorous. Is that sad? Well, I was eight years old, so I think it’s not as sad as getting excited about getting some stupid tiny little dry cookie on a Delta flight just because it’s still free.
Anyway, this is a modernized and deconstructed zongzi using a poached egg instead of a salted duck’s egg, and a seasoned sticky rice instead of a bamboo leaf-wrapped dumpling. When you eat it together, it tastes just like zongzi. I don’t kid myself that you’ll ever make this dish but maybe you’ll try one or two components. Try the pork and the egg, of course, even if you serve it over steamed rice or ramen. In fact, soy sauce-braised pork with hard boiled eggs is a classic Taiwanese dish, so that would be awesome. Or try the rice and the egg, and add some diced Chinese sausage (la chang, or lap cheong in Cantonese, 臘腸) to the rice for the pork component).
2 lb pork belly, skin on, bone removed
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1-1/2″ cube yellow rock sugar
1 pod star anise
2 tbsp soy sauce (Japanese white soy preferably)
1 bay leaf (Turkish)
4 sprigs thyme
4 cloves garlic
Prepare the belly the day before.
Blanch belly, starting in cold filtered water. Remove once water just comes to a boil. Belly may be blanched ahead of time and refrigerated or proceed immediately to the next step.
Place blanched belly in stock, in a single layer in a deep heavy pot, with the other ingredients. Bring to a bare simmer and reduce heat. Cover with parchment and a slightly ajar lid. Braise six hours.
Discard parchment and remove belly from stock and place in a small pan (1/4 hotel is good). Cover with strained braising liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and then foil, and then weight the top of the belly with a heavy flat object. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.
2-3 hen of the woods/maitake mushrooms, broken into segments, or 1/2 lb shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/2″ thick, or a mixture
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
Place a deep, heavy pan over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil to the pan. Add the mushrooms, browning well on each side, until tender.
Add the Shaoxing wine to the pan and cook until the mushrooms absorb the liquid. Finish with soy. Season with pepper. Keep warm. Alternatively, these may be prepared a day before service and chilled.
Note: glutinous rice , also known as sticky rice or sweet rice, is not the same thing as short-grain rice, sushi rice, Arborio rice, or any of those things. In its raw form, it is chalk-white and totally opaque, unlike the other translucent-looking varieties of rice, whatever their grain lengths. Do not substitute another type of rice using this cooking method – it will fall apart.
If you cannot find glutinous rice, dispense with soaking the rice and do not steam it. Rather, cook the rice by adding water in the appropriate ratio to the rice you use after sautéing the rice in oil or XO sauce and cook over lowest heat, covered, until the water is absorbed. The rice will not have the same sticky texture as the glutinous rice.
1 c glutinous (sweet) rice
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 white pepper
1 1/2 tbsp XO sauce or 2 tsp dried shrimp
Rinse the glutinous rice and soak in 3c water, in the refrigerator, for at least three hours and up to overnight. Drain thoroughly.
Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the XO sauce or, if using dried shrimp, add a small amount of vegetable oil. and then add the dried shrimp. Sauté until fragrant. Add the rice and sauté a minute more until well coated. Season with pepper and soy and remove from heat. You can prepare this component the day before service to this point and refrigerate.
Bring a pot of water to a simmer. Lightly oil a bamboo rice steamer basket (with pork fat if you have it, or with vegetable oil). If you do not have such a basket, line a bamboo or metal steamer with a triple thickness of cheesecloth draping it over the sides.. Scoop the rice mixture into the basket. Close the lid tightly. Place over the pot of simmering water and steam for 40 minutes until the rice is tender but still firm. Remove from heat and remove lid; turn out into a 6″ x 9″ pan, like a breading pan or a plastic food storage container. Press down well to compress. Slice through with a moist sharp knife into equal portions.
To assemble dish:
Remove fat from liquid (liquid will have gelled – be sure to save as much liquid as possible). Remove bellies and trim to square off edges. Reserve trimmings for future use. Cut into squares or rectangles of uniform size.
Place skillet on high heat. Place belly slices in skillet, skin side down, and cook until the skin is crisp and fat renders. Turn over and place in the oven to heat through, about 20 minutes.
3 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 c gelled pork braising stock from braise/chill, defatted
Place a small saucepan over medium low heat and add the Shaoxing wine. Reduce by two-thirds. Add the soy sauce and reduce by half. Add the stock and reduce until the sauce has thickened and has the consistency of a pan sauce. Hold until service (add water and reheat/reduce again if necessary).
Poach eggs and pat dry on clean kitchen towels.
Serve the belly with the rice, the poached egg, mushroom, and a spoon of sauce.