My quest for real lard began about 7 years ago, when I decided to learn myself some Mexican cooking. I'd spent a few days eating my way around Chicago with a bunch of girlfriends, and a raucous dinner at Frontera Grill pointed up a glaring gap in my culinary repertoire (I'd wanted to cruise the Maxwell Street Market for the real deal, but our travel schedule got us into town too late on Sunday).
So I did what any reasonable cooking obsessive would do. I bought a cookbook on the subject (Rick Bayless's Mexico: One Plate at a Time) and invited a bunch of people to dinner. Finding ingredients wasn't too hard. For one thing, it was early September and I had a surplus of tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro, and tomatillos growing in my garden. And I was able to order corn husks, dried chiles, and masa harina online (from the late, lamented CMC Company). The one thing I couldn't lay hands on was the lard required for the tamales and refried beans.
Sure, even the groceria up the road had turquoise boxes of Sno-Cap “Manteca”, but oh, my brothers and sisters, that crap bears about as much resemblance to home-rendered pig fat as Bud Light® does to a cask-conditioned bitter ale. It's an exemplar of the processed, sanitized, hydrogenated, industrialized “food” that's overtaken this country.
I thought I could just buy some pork fat from the butcher counter and render it myself, but at every grocery store in a 30-mile radius (and there are at least 3) my request for pork fat was met with laughter or incredulity or both. You think we actually butcher pigs here?
In the end, I stooped to the industrial lard and baked some
country-style spare ribs in it to impart some flavor. The dinner
was a huge success, and I even scored a husband out of it (a story for another time). But finding pig fat became my Quest.
You'd think the ubiquity of fat on a pig would make it as easy to come by as pork chops. But you'd be wrong. Even once I'd made contact with an honest-to-god pig farmer, it was over a year before you'd find a vat of boiling lard on the premises. One of the vendors at my farmers' market ('06 season) was raising pigs and selling the meat, and when I asked if she had any lard, she promised me the 15 pounds she had languishing in her freezer. She was so surprised that any one would actually want it, she offered it to me for free. But weeks and then months went by, and even though I gently reminded her every so often, she never did manage to come through.
During that winter, I learned that a small “family farm” had sprouted up a town away. I became aware of them after buying their gorgeous eggs at the health food store in town, then checked out their website to discover they were raising free-range pigs, and called to find they had a Gloucestershire Old Spot (an “heirloom” pig, if you will) nearing slaughter. I asked if they would reserve the fat for me (my request was again met with surprise), which they were happy to promise. A month went by, and I hadn't heard anything. One afternoon I happened to be stopped at an intersection with Farmer Guy opposite. When he noticed me, he waved excitedly, pulled alongside, and through his open window cheerfully announced that he had my fat!!, and if I wanted, I could follow him up to the farm right then and pick it up! Such joy filled my heart!
What a farm it was. Farmer Guy was, in fact, a young hedge fund manager who'd moved his family to the country and had spared no expense in building new barns, clearing land, and locating heritage breeds of chickens, pigs, and cows, with the intention of raising humane food for his family and to sell to the local public. Most honorably, he was doing a lot of the work himself, slogging water and feed down through the muddied snow-covered meadow. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I felt so lucky to have such a fine resource so close by. As it happens, they didn't last – apparently, farm livin' wasn't the life his wife wanted. They auctioned off the livestock, sold off the farm, and high-tailed it back to Bridgehampton. But not before I got my pig fat.
I was somewhat deflated when I was handed a dainty little package, having anticipated a whole pig's worth of fatback. Apparently, the butchers around here have a prescribed list of the cuts they'll take from a pig. All the nasty bits – the wads of fat, the liver, the ears, the jowls, the tails – get scrapped. It's a crying shame. The only fat they'll give you back is the leaf lard. Not that there's anything wrong with leaf lard, prized as it is for making light, crisp pastry. Just...I wanted to put by a healthy store of snowy white porky lard, enough that I could scoop it out with abandon, and 6.5 ounces just wasn't going to get me there.
For the '07 season, the farmers' market took on a new meat vendor – Tilldale Farm – who were selling organic pasture-raised grass-fed beef and grain- & grass-fed pork. After my first purchase (an 8-lb. bone-in shoulder for carnitas), I inquired about fat. Real fat, back fat. Joanne enthusiastically promised me a boxful for the following week. Which turned out to be a boxful of dainty little packages of leaf lard – 8 lbs. of it. Well. At least there was enough of it to render up a goodly amount. So on a rainy July evening, I set a pot of it cooking on the outdoor gas burner.
I chose to use the wet-rendering method, in which the fat is cooked with some water. This was promised to produce a finer, more neutral-tasting lard, as opposed to dry-rendering, in which the lard takes on a more robust cooked-pork flavor. I chunked up the lard, then ground it coarsely with the Kitchen Aid. The grinding was recommended for leaf lard; I'm not quite sure why, but it may be because of its dense, almost fibrous texture. And I suspect the smaller bits render faster than big ones.
I dumped it all in a tall stock pot (16 qt.) and then added water just to cover the fat. I'm sure the aroma of slow cooking pig fat filling the house might thrill most piggiephiles, but I imagined that in humid summer weather the smell would permeate and stick around for days; I plunked it on the side burner of my awesome Vermont Castings grill out on the deck and fired it up to medium-high. Once it was at a boil, I dropped the flame to medium-low and let it simmer, checking and stirring from time to time. In about 2 hours, the solids had been reduced to anemic grey pellets floating in clear golden fat – the water had evaporated away. I strained it through a fine chinois lined with cheesecloth, harvesting just over 3 liters of fine, perfectly fragrant and flavorful lard.
I've yet to make tamales with it, but it's made for some righteous refried beans, a very fine pie crust, some glorious buttermilk biscuits, and cornbread to make you weep. I think I feel a tamale bender coming on.
• • • • • •
This is surely the time to confess our household devotion to all things pig. Astute observers may have noticed in previously posted pictures a small plastic pig nosing into the frame. He lives on the table, right there with the salt and pepper. Sort of the third essential seasoning.
No weekend breakfast would be complete without bacon or sausage, and I've found an unimpeachable source for both. At Christmas, I ordered a 10-lb. sampler from Broadbent Hams as a gift for my precious TJ. He's been kind enough to share with me and the kids; the bacon is all very fine, but the real revelation is Grandma Broadbent's Smoked Country Pork Sausage. Supermarket “breakfast links”, even the respectable ones (McKenzie's, for example) should just give up the pretense. I'm sure it won't be long before I find myself in possession of one of their country hams.
Back in September, I read a post on Mouthfuls that dismissed slow-cooked pork belly as a culinary cliché that had run its course. Holed up here in Vermont, I seem to miss all the good culinary clichés, this one no exception. In a typical Mora coincidence, that very night I found braised pork belly on the menu at a local restaurant. Delicious, of course, passé or not. No surprise, then, that I found myself hot to get my mitts on a slab of pork belly. Tilldale Farms to the rescue; a week later I had a veritable doormat of pink-streaked belly fat, 10 impeccable pounds of it. I supposed I might find 8 or 10 willing participants to choke down a dinner of braised pork belly; I could freeze the rest, but instead offered it in trade to an equally food-obsessed friend.
Not three days later, Bob del Grosso posted on his blog, A Hunger Artist, about making his own pancetta from a fine slab of pork belly, according to the recipe in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's excellent tome, Charcuterie. He even included a link to the recipe on Leite's Culinaria, sparing me the need to run out and buy the book. It took me under an hour to weasel out of my commitment (a promise of a chunk of house-cured pancetta softened the blow) and get half the slab on a cure (I even had pink salt in the house, having purchased it several years ago with the self-knowledge that I would need it sooner or later).
• • • • • •
I spent a few hours hunting down pork belly recipes online, and settled on a promising-sounding one from the restaurant Corduroy in Washington, DC. Adapted for my own use:
Braised Pork Belly with Savoy Cabbage
4 pounds fresh raw pork belly
8 cloves garlic, mashed to a paste
8 tsp Dijon mustard
1.5 oz. brandy
8 pods star anise
1 bunch fresh thyme
4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
2 cups rich veal stock
½ cup dry red wine
3 carrots, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
Make a paste of the garlic, mustard, brandy, anise pods, thyme, salt and pepper. Rub the pork belly all over with the paste, using all of it, then seal it in a Ziploc bag (or place it in a glass dish and cover tightly with plastic wrap) and refrigerate for at least 24 hours to cure.
Heat the oven to 325°F.
In a heavy ovenproof pan (preferably one with a lid), bring the veal stock and wine to a simmer, then add the pork belly (no need to wipe off the curing paste), then scatter in the carrot, onion and celery and tuck in the bay leaf. Cover the pan; if the pan has a lid, place a layer of foil between the lid and the pan, otherwise cover the pan tightly with foil.
Put the pan in the oven and let the pork braise for 3 or 4 hours or until tender (the tip of a paring knife should slip in with absolutely no resistance). Remove the pan from the oven and let cool. Carefully pour off the braising liquid through a fine strainer into another container and set it aside (discard the solids). Let both the pork and the liquid cool completely, then cover both tightly and refrigerate over night.
Heat the oven to 450°F.
Remove any hardened fat from the braising liquid. Heat it to a low boil in a heavy saucepan, then lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced and syrupy.
Cut the pork into 8 portions and arrange it in a shallow ovenproof pan. Pour the sauce over the pork and put the pan (uncovered) in the oven. Let the pork cook (baste it with the sauce a few times) until it’s heated through and slightly crusted on top (about 20 minutes).
While the pork is heating, make the cabbage.
Braised Savoy Cabbage
1 ounce pancetta, diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 head Savoy cabbage, cut in wide shreds
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ cup dry white wine
Sweat the pancetta, onion, carrot, and garlic over low heat until the onions are translucent (5 or 10 minutes). Stir in the cabbage, wine salt, and pepper; cover and braise until tender (stirring occasionally), about 15 minutes.
To serve the pork belly:
Place a mound of braised cabbage on each plate and top with a portion of pork. Spoon some of the sauce over each portion.
• • • • • •
We don't have a basement, per se, but because our house is built into the side of a hill, most of the first floor is below grade. The rooms to the rear of the house are dark, cool, and mildly humid. I decommissioned the bathroom there, and have found it to be a perfect spot for storing root vegetables and wine and also, apparently, for curing meats: 50% humidity and a steady 55 - 60°F.
Pictured below is a chunk of my house-cured pancetta. One week curing in the fridge, 3 weeks hanging in the dark. Perfection. I did finally buy Charcuterie; I expect Pig Fat Follies will be a long-running show here.