Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Spain

Waste not, want not.

Here’s a question that comes up a lot: what happens to all the scraps and trim from all those nicely-plated dishes and tiny little vegetable cuts? Isn’t that a wasteful way to cook?

A little history. When I was a kid in Milwaukee, my mother dispensed most parental wisdom in the form of aphorisms, usually when I was under suspicion of wrongdoing or inefficiency. If she suspected me of lying about coming home at midnight rather than 3 am, she’d prod me that “honesty is the best policy.” If I complained about the unfairness of some punishment or adverse consequence – no doubt justly administered – she would declare, in an ominous tone, that “you reap what you sow.” It was as though the ghost of Ben Franklin had come to inhabit the form of a thirtysomething high school librarian in the Milwaukee suburbs. We’re both older now, but even today, a chat about spending habits and 401(k) plans might end with a raised finger and the admonition that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” I’ve often thought a great idea for a toy would be a doll, modeled after my mother circa 1973, that would utter a different aphorism every time you pulled the string.

Mom and me, summer 1973

Among my mother’s top five tenets was “waste not, want not,” which I usually heard after she found me throwing out a moldy peach or discovering that I hadn’t eaten the chicken sandwich she’d packed me for lunch because I decided to spend my allowance on pizza instead. I made great sport of this back in the day, but she was right. When it comes to food preparation, you should find a way to use everything, and to avoid waste. Trim goes into sauces, pasta, and soup; bones go into stock; fat converted to a frying or poaching medium. Which brings me to the pig. As you know, I went hogging a little while back and picked up various cuts of the raw ibérico de bellota pork product. The hallmark of the ibérico pork is its clean, sweet fat, and the belly was an unbelievable example of this lardiness. Only the day before, at WholeFoods, I’d picked up a couple of pounds of what seemed to me unusually thick Niman Ranch belly, the meat interspersed with layers of creamy fat. At the time, it seemed like a pretty awesome piece of meat (and truthfully, it is a enough nice belly). The meat embedded in the ibérico belly was the same maroon as in jamón, though, and the fat cap twice as thick. When I got home, I put them side by side.

Side by side: Ibérico belly compared to an actually very nice Niman Ranch belly. LOOK AT THE FAT.

Side by side color comparison.

I trimmed the bellies into two squared-off pieces and froze one. The fat from one I expect will make some superb lardo in the near future. I cured the other in the manner of bacon. Sliced and fried until crisp, the ibérico bacon joined some heirloom tomatoes and avocado in the best BLT ever.

Best BLT and chips EVER

The potential for waste in this process was pretty high. Turning pork belly into crispy bacon means leaving behind trim (before cooking) and melted fat (after cooking). In fact, being mostly fat, about 1 1/4 lbs of ibérico bacon yielded about a quart of clear, clean-tasting fat after cooking. Rather than waste the fat, I used it to fry paper-thin slices of russet potato, seasoned with white truffle salt. And rather than tossing out the trim, I diced it and incorporated it into a surprisingly quick yeast bread.

Note: I bought the raw ibérico product at Wagshal’s Market in DC. You can buy via mail order through their Ibérico USA site, or through La Tienda.

Ibérico bacon

Do yourself a favor and use a kitchen scale. I’ve provided approximate dry measurements, but you’re better off weighing everything. Generally, I like to smoke the bacon (or use a smoked salt or pimentón to lend the same smoky taste), but in the case of the ibérico belly, I think it’s best to let the taste of the fat stand on its own.

4 lbs (~2 kg) ibérico pork belly, skin removed (reserve for chicharron or something)
100 g kosher salt (2/3 c)
50 g granulated sugar (1/2 c)
5 g TCM (about 1/2 tbsp)
2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 cloves garlic, crushed
8 sprigs thyme, washed and dried
4 bay leaves, coarsely crumbled

Combine all the dry ingredients thoroughly. Dredge the pork belly to coat on all sides. Press the thyme, peppercorns, garlic, and crumbled bay evenly to coat.

Place in a large (2 gallon) plastic ziploc bag. Double bag. Press as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing. Place the bag in a stainless steel pan (or other large, flat) container and refrigerate for about ten days. Every day, turn the bag over and redistribute the cure evenly over the surfaces of the pork. Touch the pork each day to feel its firmness.

After about ten days, the pork should feel firmer and there should be more liquid in the bag as the salt has penetrated the meat. Once the pork feels fairly firm/rigid, remove the pork from the bag, discard the cure, and rinse thoroughly. More curing time is not better in terms of curing since your belly just gets saltier and saltier. Once it’s firm, take it out.

Preheat an oven to 180F/83C. Place the bacon on a rack over a sheet pan and roast for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours (depending on thickness) until it reaches an internal temperature of 140F. Chill promptly and refrigerate up to three days before use; otherwise, freeze.

Sliced up.

Potato chips

Unless you cook a lot of the bacon at once (say two pounds or more), you’ll need to save it up in the refrigerator or supplement it with a neutral oil, like grapeseed or rice bran oil, for frying. Use something with a high smoke point whose taste won’t compete with the ibérico’s flavor. Fry the potatoes in batches and don’t try to fry too many at once; if the temperature of the oil drops too much, the chips will be greasy.

Don’t be tempted to fry at too high a temperature (over 350F/176C); the oil will break down (rancidify) more quickly, and what’s more, your chips will burn. You can slice potatoes into cold water, soak, and rinse to remove some of the surface starch first, but I’ve never found this a necessary first step. Instead, I slice using a handheld benriner or Japanese mandoline directly into the oil.

one very large russet potato, washed well and dried
2 quarts fat rendered from ibérico bacon, strained (or as much fat as you have, plus enough grapeseed or rice bran oil to supplement)
fine salt, such as popcorn salt

Place a rack over a baking sheet and line with a double thickness of paper towels. Place a deep but not wide pan containing the fat over medium high heat, with a frying thermometer. The oil should not fill the pan more than halfway. Heat to 345F/174C. Slice using a benriner or Japanese mandoline directly into the oil, being sure not to crowd the pan. You should slice about 1/8 of the potato in each batch.

Russets frying in iberico fat.

Adjust the heat upward if necessary to keep the temperature from falling below 285F/140C (and be sure to lower it again if necessary to keep it from rising above 350F/176C). Using a spder-type skimmer, move the potatoes around in the oil to ensure that they remain separate.

Fry until the potato chips are crisp (not soft) and light golden. Remove with the skimmer and drain on the paper towels. Season with salt (I like a white truffle salt). You also can try adding some flavors – I sometimes like combining a fine salt with powdered malt vinegar, for a salt and vinegar potato chip, .

Chips fried in iberico fat.

Ibérico ring bread

The bread dough for this recipe isn’t mine; it comes straight from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Bread Bible. This is her recipe for prosciutto ring bread, substituting diced ibérico bacon for the prosciutto. Amazingly, this bread goes from raw ingredients to finished product in two and a half to three hours, meaning that it’s possible to make it on a weeknight.

Because the diced ibérico bacon is far oilier than prosciutto, you will have to incorporate it by hand rather than using a machine.

I’ve made this using both barley malt powder and barley malt syrup. I highly recommend using the powder. You will not be able to stop eating this bread once it comes out of the oven. After the first day, toast it. There’s no need for butter or any additional fat – the ibérico bacon makes the bread very rich – but if you like, a fig jam would complement the pork perfectly.

340g AP or bread flour
10g barley malt powder
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
3/4 tsp instant yeast (just shy of 1 tsp active dry yeast)
3/4 tsp salt
1 c water, 90F
1/2 lb trimmings from ibérico bacon, about 50% meat/50% fat more or less, diced 1/4″
2 tbsp melted ibérico fat

450F/232C oven, with baking stones or an upturned large cast iron pan.

Whisk together the flour, yeast, pepper, and barley malt. When combined well, whisk in the salt. Add the water and mix, using the dough hook, on a stand mixer, or with a wooden spoon. Knead by hand or in the mixer for about ten minutes on a medium-low setting, until the dough is smooth and springs back slowly when depressed.

Turn out onto a board, stretch out slightly, and spread the diced bacon on the surface. Roll up and form into a ball. Dust with flour and cover the dough with plastic wrap. Rest for about 20 minutes or so.

Roll the dough into a rope about 18″ long. Form into a ring, tucking the ends together. Transfer to a silpat-lined sheet pan. Cover with plastic wrap and rise for about 90 minutes to 2 hours in a warmish room until doubled.

Load the sheet pan onto the baking stones and throw a cup of ice onto the oven floor. Bake for about 20-30 minutes until deep golden brown on the outside. The loaf should be hollow inside when tapped, about 190F.

Cool on a rack.

See how it's studded with bacon

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Pork Products, Spain

Museum piece.

It seems a long time ago, but just six weeks ago, my husband and I were in Madrid after our annual trip to France. Learning of our plans to visit Madrid, a friend asked, and I quote, “why the hell would you go to Madrid when you can go to Barcelona?” And it’s true – Madrid and Barcelona are as different as Washington and Miami. Whereas Barcelona transcends both ancient and modern times (visit both the Barri Gòtic and the Eixample and you’ll see what I mean), Madrid, which first came into its own in the 16th century when the Spanish capital moved there from Toledo, maintains a baroque and Neoclassical feel that anchors the city in Spain’s imperial past. Similar distinctions exist between the cuisines of the two cities. Not that you can’t find a good asador in Barcelona or suitably avant-garde bistronomia in Madrid, but the geography and history of both cities have set them on different culinary paths. If we’re going to overgeneralize, Barcelona is fish and rice and adventurous modern gastronomy; Madrid is meat and beans and a conservative, classic style. And that makes sense: it’s in the middle of the country, not far from the shore, nestled beside Spain’s finest pork-producing regions, Castile y León and Extremadura. Speaking of pork, the first time I visited Madrid, in 1993, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of the Museo del Jamón, which is exactly what the name suggests – a shop dedicated to Spain’s finest pork product, jamón. A museum dedicated to ham? Why was I not informed?

Museo del Jamón, as I discovered, occupies that gray area between food store and restaurant. It’s pretty touristy, lowbrow, and mostly located near attractions like the Prado or the Puerta del Sol. I don’t care about that – the ham is delicious and the beer is cold, and even after eighteen years, I’ve never escaped a visit to Madrid without a visit to el museo. Anyway, my husband had never been to Madrid and, after my incessant chatter about ibérico pigs and all that, suggested it for lunch on the way to a Teotihuacan exhibit at the Fundación la Caixa. We made for the plato combinado, an inexpensive but filling lunch offering, and, for good measure, a ración of jamón ibérico de bellota. While we ate, the place filled up with locals, almost all men, in for a quick afternoon beer and bocadillo.

Plato combinado: jamón, huevos, patatas fritas, croquetas de jamón, ensalada. Note the ración of bellota.

Spanish cured ham comes in several forms, in order of quality. First, there’s jamón serrano, your basic dry cured ham. The term “serrano” doesn’t mean anything special in this context – it just connotes a conventional dry-cured ham from the hind legs of the white Landrace pig. Jamón serrano reminds me of conventional prosciutto. Then there’s jamón ibérico, which connotes only dry-cured hams made from the black pata negra pig, fed at least partly on acorns. Although most ibérico comes from farm-raised pigs, fattened on acorns only at the end, the fabled ibérico de bellota comes from pata negra that are allowed to forage among the acorn forests of Extremadura. It tastes like nuts, fatty and sweet, and has a dense, meaty quality rather than the saltier taste and flimsy texture of serrano. Behold the difference:

Side by side: jamón ibérico de bellota vs jamón de serrano.

I was lucky enough to try some fresh cuts of the ibérico de bellota pig earlier this summer at the Fancy Food Show. They were as sweet and rich as the cured ham. Recently, I picked up some of the bellota cheeks, belly, and a shoulder cut, so keep your eye out for future postings. Jamón is far easier to come by, though, so pick up some ibérico de bellota and enjoy with a glass of chilled sherry. Or try making your own plato combinado sometime. It’s easy – french fries, sliced jamón, fried egg, and croquetas.

Croquetas de jamón

I make these croquetas with jamón serrano. I suppose you could make them with ibérico, or if you were filthy rich and kind of nuts, ibérico de bellota, but the fact is that a fried bite like this croqueta isn’t suitable for the bellota – the rich béchamel swamps the delicate, sweet flavor of the acorn-fed pork and its delicious fat. Save the bellota for eating raw, sliced paper-thin, so you really can enjoy it.

I use gelatin in my croquetas so I can use less flour – the result is a lighter croqueta whose filling melts more in the mouth rather than a heavy, pasty item. It is important to chill the filling thoroughly before breading and frying. If you don’t, the filling will be fairly wet and hard to bread. In addition, I call for using stock: in Madrid, the filling often includes the broth of the classic meat-and-chickpea stew called cocido madrileño. You probably don’t have that to hand, but any good meat stock is fine.

You can scoop them using a tiny ice cream scoop or a spoon (the scoop releases the filling without dirtying your hands). If you like, leave them round (as in this recipe). If you prefer the traditional oblong shape, roll them slightly to flatten once you’ve coated them in flour during the dredging process. I’ve depicted the oblong shapes in the eggplant recipe below.

6 tbsp (3 oz) unsalted butter
6 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/2 c ham or pork stock, or any other meat stock
3 sheets gelatin
4 oz jamón serrano, minced
salt
grapeseed or vegetable oil
standard breading station: flour, beaten egg with a little water, breadcrumbs or panko

Start a day in advance: it seems fussy, but it guarantees that your filling will set up. You need to let it set for at least 4 hours.

Make a moderately thick béchamel sauce: place a saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When the butter melts and begins to bubble, add the flour, whisking well, and reduce the heat. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, for about 6 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Don’t allow the roux to color.

Add the milk slowly, whisking. Increase the heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Lower the heat and barely simmer for about 6 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 115F.

Bloom the gelatin in cool water and squeeze out the excess water. Whisk into the still-hot béchamel and incorporate well. Add the minced ham and distribute. Season to taste. Pour into a shallow pan, like a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until solid.

Set up a standard breading station of one pan of flour, another with beaten egg (thinned slightly with water), and another of breadcrumbs or panko. Pour about 1/3″ oil in a sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Scoop the filling using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tbsp) and bread. When the oil reaches 350F/177C, fry the croquetas. Drain on paper over a rack. Serve hot.

Homage to the plato combinado: note the serrano, pale cousin to the bellota

Croquetas de berejenas “Parmigiana”

Let’s try something different for a change. Eggplant parmigiana is classically made by frying slices of breaded eggplant, and then baking the fried eggplant with mozzarella cheese, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a light tomato sauce. It’s usually pretty heavy and greasy – other than an incredible version my husband makes that skips the breading and frying step – and I can’t say I usually love it. So how about an croqueta with the flavors of eggplant parm?

Salt the eggplant to remove bitterness (I usually skip this step in favor of microwaving, but that won’t work so well for this recipe). Then roast the eggplant and purée as part of the filling. Breaded and fried, and served alongside a light marinara sauce, these are so much better than the dish that inspired them.

4 tbsp (2 oz) unsalted butter
4 tbsp plus 1 tsp all-purpose flour
1 c whole milk
4 sheets gelatin
3 oz fresh mozzarella, diced or torn into the smallest possible bits
1 1/2 c eggplant purée (below)
salt
grapeseed or vegetable oil
standard breading station: flour plus grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (2:1), beaten egg with a little water, breadcrumbs or panko
minced parsley
Tomato sauce

Eggplant purée:

two medium eggplants or five baby eggplants
olive oil
lemon juice
salt
a little milk if necessary

Oven 400F/204C.

Halve the eggplant lengthwise, score, and season with salt. After about 30 minutes, pat dry, rinse, and pat dry again.

Place on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, and roast cut side-down until tender. Pierce the skins with a fork. Scoop the flesh from the skins and purée with a squeeze of lemon in a blender. If necessary, add a little milk to help it purée. For a really smooth texture, pass through a tamis. Set aside.

Make a stiff béchamel sauce: place a saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When the butter melts and begins to bubble, add the flour, whisking well, and reduce the heat. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, for about 6 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Don’t allow the roux to color.

Add the milk slowly, whisking. Increase the heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Lower the heat and just barely simmer for about 6 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 115F/46C.

Bloom the gelatin in cool water and squeeze out the excess water. Whisk into the still-hot béchamel and incorporate well. Add the eggplant purée and incorporate well. The mixture should cool substantially. Add the mozzarella cheese and distribute. Pour into a shallow pan, like a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until solid.

Set up a standard breading station of one pan of flour 2:1 with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, another with beaten egg (thinned slightly with water), and another of breadcrumbs or panko. Pour about 1/3″ oil in a sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Scoop the filling using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tbsp) and bread. When the oil reaches 350F/177C, fry the croquetas. Drain on paper over a rack. Serve hot, garnished with minced parsley, additional grated cheese, and the tomato sauce on the side.

Eggplant parmigiana croquetas, tomato sauce

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