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Praise the Lard : Restoring a Fat’s Spattered Reputation

<i> Martinez was raised on a rancho in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. She opened her restaurant Zarela in New York in 1987. Her cookbook "Food From My Heart" was published by MacMillan in 1992</i>

As a Mexican chef and restaurateur, I am always being asked, “Do you cook with lard?”

My answer is always, “Yes, yes!”

I love lard. I use it when I want its flavor, as in refried beans, or the lightness and fluffiness it brings to tamales, or the crispness it gives to pastries and fried antojitos , or the way it melds the flavors of the countless ingredients in some moles.

But when I first moved to New York, I was surprised to find that hardly anyone there cooked with lard. They said lard severely shortened your life span. (I thought about my great-aunts who died in their late 90s, and how the only cooking fat they’d ever used was lard.)

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They told me it had a peculiar odor and a bad taste. When I tried the commercial lard available in New York, I understood what they meant. I’d grown up on home-rendered lard, made from pigs lovingly fed on the scraps of my mother’s delicious cooking and on the corn and acorns from our ranch. Store-bought lard is nowhere as good.

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No wonder people were avoiding lard. “People are so proud of not eating something they wouldn’t eat anyway,” Kurt Vonnegut told me one recent afternoon.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in northern Mexico. There were no stores around for 50 miles, and we grew our own food. So when it was zucchini season, we ate zucchini almost every day, and when we killed a cow, we ate beef every day. But when we killed a pig, we could have an endless array of flavors.

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Pig butchering was always a cause for celebration. All the ranch women would congregate in my mother’s kitchen to gossip, laugh and turn every part of the pig into some delicacy. One of the legs was made into chorizo sausage; another would be cut into thin strips, coated with red chile paste and air-dried for carne adobado . Still another leg was given to the cowboys, and my father would make a ham with the remaining one. The skin and the feet would be pickled. Even the blood was used--it went into an aromatic morcilla (blood sausage).

As for the fat, huge tubs were set out on the barbecue pit for rendering it into lard. As a byproduct, this produced scrumptious chicharrones (cracklings), with their crunchy bits of meat sticking to the fat. My sister Aida would eat the fat and throw away the meat--I would eat the meat and throw away the fat. And we liked the rendered lard itself so much (especially the sediment, with its crunchy bits of crackling) that we would spread it on freshly made corn tortillas in place of butter.

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The feast always ended with a joyful tamalada , a tamale-making party. We’d beat the cornmeal masa with the lard until it floated, spread it on corn husks and roll up the tamales with a filling of meat from the pig’s head and the butt, cooked with lots of garlic, oregano and peppercorns, shredded and mixed with red chile salsa.

When I give cooking lessons, I defend lard. I tell my students that it is the most misunderstood of fats; according to the USDA it has less than half as much cholesterol as butter. On the other hand, it contains a large amount of oleic acid, which actually helps break down cholesterol.

(After one of those classes, the food writer Peggy Knickerbocker told me the Lard Trade Board should make me their spokes-model, the way the Avocado Trade Board hired Angie Dickinson a few years ago. I politely declined the suggestion, not because I had any serious quarrel with lard but because I did not want to be the butt of lard jokes.)

Considering lard’s present disrepute, it’s difficult to believe that up until the ‘20s, when commercial oils and shortenings started making an appearance, lard was the principal cooking fat in this country. Cooks trusted lard. When vegetable shortening came on the market, Crisco tried to look as much like lard as possible.

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Pork and all its products have been used since the Neolithic Age, when man learned to grow crops and domesticate animals and settled down to live in villages, where there was a steady supply of food. The sheep and goats helped clear the land of weeds and wild grasses to make way for crops. Pigs could not digest grasses and weeds, but they could be fed on scraps from the table. They were a walking garbage disposal--or let’s say, recycling--system.

Once salting and smoking were discovered as methods of preservation, pork became even more valuable. The lean, dry, stringy meat of goats and sheep is less suited to these methods than pork. Preserved, the pig guaranteed a supply of food for the lean winter months.

Fattening pigs became a central part of family life and started as soon as the piglets were weaned. In many places the butchering of pigs coincided with the time of harvest. It was a time of rejoicing, and pork and its fat soon became associated with holidays. Witness the Christmas ham or suckling pig of today, and the sweets made with lard (such as bizcochos ) or fried in it (the Italian sfince , the Latin American bunuelos ).

Montse Guillen, a Catalan chef, once told me that though she cooks with olive oil, she always adds a spoonful of lard for flavor. George Lang, the famed restaurateur and author of “The Cuisine of Hungary” (Atheneum: 1971), says: “When making dishes with paprika, the Hungarians use lard almost exclusively, because the burning point of lard allows the paprika to release a higher percentage of its color and flavors.”

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Pork is so important in China that the word for meat literally means pork. Until the extraction of oils from plant sources was perfected in this century, lard was used in Chinese cooking both for deep frying and stir-frying. Cookbook author Barbara Tropp writes that it is still used in shrimp pastes and dim sum pastry doughs.

Pork was important in Europe too, and not just in the Germanic and Slavic lands. Paula Wolfert quotes a chef in “The Cooking of Southwest France” (Harper & Row: 1983) as saying, “You must understand how important the pig is to us. It is the basis of our cuisine.”

Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous people of Mexico used no fats at all; frying was completely unknown. But when the pig was introduced, lard began to appear in everything from refried beans and tamales to crisply fried tacos. Even stewed dishes often contain a step where ingredients are fried; lard beautifully melds the flavors and textures in moles and pipianes .

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It is still a favorite Mexican cooking fat. However, most Mexican cooks are using safflower and other oils these days because they’re cheaper.

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Another factor in lard’s fall from popularity, of course, was the discovery of the connection between cholesterol and animal fats such as lard, butter and beef tallow. But fats and oils, which differ mainly in that fats are solid at room temperature, have more in common chemically than people think. Both are made up of a glycerol molecule linked with three compounds belonging to the group known as the fatty acids.

Now, a fatty acid molecule is a chain of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The length of this hydrocarbon chain varies, but there is a maximum number of hydrogen atoms it can have. If a molecule has its full capacity of hydrogen, it is called saturated. If it has two fewer hydrogen atoms, it’s mono-unsaturated, and if it has room for four or more hydrogen atoms it’s polyunsaturated.

Though shortening and margarine are made from plant sources, they have to be hydrogenated to give them a solid consistency. Hydrogenated--that is, saturated. They’re still plant products, but the health benefits of mono- or polyunsaturation have suddenly diminished. The hydrogenation process also produces trans-fatty acids, which are considered to be as harmful as saturated fats in causing coronary heart disease.

And the hydrogenation process also lowers the smoke point (the temperature at which fats break down into gas). Smoking margarine or shortening doesn’t just smell bad, it produces chemically active materials that remain in the liquid and may ruin the flavor of fried foods. And the scorching also produces the chemicals classed as free radicals, which have been associated with cancer.

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While vegetable oils have a smoke point of 450 degrees, hydrogenated shortenings smoke at 370 degrees. Lard, however, has a smoke point of 400 degrees. When it’s flavor and crisp texture you want, lard makes an excellent fat for pan- or deep-frying.

Because lard has a grainy texture, its coarser and less homogeneous particles separate the gluten from each other in dough, producing wonderfully flaky crusts. In doughs made with the rolling-and-folding method, it isolates whole sheets of dough from each other. This is true of home-rendered lard, but less true of the homogenized varieties available in most grocery stores.

Lard has a place in the kitchen, not only because biochemically it is not as great a villain as it has been made out to be--it’s superior to other saturated fats and contains large amounts of beneficial fatty acids, namely oleic acid, which helps keep arteries unclogged--but because in some dishes no other fat will do. Most of the dishes at my restaurant are not made with lard, but there are some I just won’t make without it.

Que viva manteca !

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“En escabeche” means pickled in vinegar. “I don’t know what makes this a crazy escabeche,” says Martinez. “That’s just what it’s called.” The cinnamon called for here, as in most Mexican recipes, is true or Ceylon cinnamon, which is paler and more delicate than what we call cinnamon in this country (American “cinnamon” is more correctly called cassia). Quintana Roo oregano comes from a tree, rather than a shrub, and has long leaves that turn black when they dry. Ordinary or Mexican oregano can be substituted for it.

TURKEY IN CRAZY ESCABECHE

(Pavo en Escabeche Loco)

1 (12-pound) turkey, quartered

2 heads garlic

1/2 pound lard

Salt

1 large red onion

1 cup white vinegar

8 large leaves Quintana Roo oregano, or 1 1/2 teaspoons Mexican oregano

1 (3-inch) stick Ceylon cinnamon

6 cloves

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

4 allspice berries

Scant 1/4 cup whole peppercorns

1 bunch cilantro

1 bunch radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 head romaine, shredded

Rinse turkey inside and out and pat dry with paper towels.

Roast garlic heads on ungreased griddle over low heat, turning frequently, until soft, about 30 minutes. Let cool.

Remove skin from garlic and mash softened cloves with fork. Mix garlic with lard and salt to taste. Rub turkey skin all over with mixture.

Place rack over turkey roaster or large baking dish. Add 1/2 inch water to dish. Arrange turkey pieces on rack, place in oven and cook at 350 degrees until half done, about 45 minutes.

Slice red onion thinly or cut into 1/4-inch dice. Cover onion with boiling water, let rest 2 minutes and drain. Add 1/2 cup vinegar and salt to taste. Reserve.

While turkey cooks, grind oregano, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, allspice and peppercorns in spice grinder or blender. Mince cilantro. Add cilantro and remaining 1/2 cup vinegar to spices.

When turkey is 1/2 done, remove from oven and rub all over with vinegar and spices. Return to oven and continue to cook until done, about 45 more minutes. Remove from oven and let rest until cool enough to handle. Turkey may be served in pieces at this point.

Remove turkey skin. Shred meat, discarding cartilage. Combine shredded meat with cooking juices and pickled onion. Serve with radishes and romaine. Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

548 calories; 210 mg sodium; 236 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 61 grams protein; 0.25 gram fiber.

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These Central American filled tortillas are known as pupusas in San Salvador. In Mexico, where they are called tlacoyos, they’re shaped like a huarache (sandal), by which name they are also known. They’re often sold on the street at stands called agachados (“hunched-over ones”), which have no seating, so the customers eat standing up, hunched over the counter. The fillings for tlacoyos vary, but beans are especially popular. When topped with salsa fresca, some sliced longaniza (a spicy sausage) and shredded queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese), they make a great appetizer or even a light dinner. Most of the ingredients, including the queso fresco, masa harina and longaniza, are available in Latino grocery stores.

BEAN-STUFFED CORN TORTILLAS

(Tlacoyos)

1 tablespoon lard

1 small onion, thickly sliced

1 cup pureed cooked black beans

2 cups masa harina

Warm water

1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco, optional

1/2 pound sauteed sliced longaniza or chorizo sausage, optional

Fresh salsa, optional

Before beginning, prepare anti-stick liner for tortilla press by cutting open 2 sides of 1 medium-size (6-inch-square) heavy plastic bag, such as zip-closing freezer storage bag, to make rectangle at least 12x6 inches.

Heat lard over medium-high heat in small, heavy pan until melted lard ripples.

Add onion and fry, stirring often, until browned, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard onion.

Add pureed black beans to lard, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring often, until mixture has reduced to smooth paste, about 10 minutes.

Combine masa harina and 1 cup warm water in medium-sized bowl. Using wooden spoon or hands, mix to form smooth, somewhat stiff dough. Add more water as needed. If using fresh masa, place in bowl and work with wet hands to check consistency. If it is crumbly, work in water by tablespoons until masa holds together.

Dampen hands with cold water and shake off excess. Shape dough into 10 to 12 equal balls, about size of ping pong balls. Dampen hands again as needed. Take 1 ball, pat to form 3-inch circle and place 1 teaspoon bean puree in center. Fold sides of tortilla over bean puree and roll carefully back into ball shape. Repeat with remaining balls. Keep balls covered with damp towel while working to prevent drying out.

Heat griddle or cast-iron skillet over high heat until drop of water sizzles on contact. Using paper towel dampened with vegetable oil, quickly rub surface to grease.

Open tortilla press and place plastic liner in it with creased edge next to hinge. Place 1 ball dough in center of press between flaps of plastic, then lower top of press and press down lightly on handle to make tortilla 4 to 5 inches wide and about 1/10 inch thick. Open press. Peel top flap of plastic off, lift out tortilla and peel away bottom flap, dampening hands again if needed.

Place tlacoyo on hot griddle and cook until lightly flecked with brown on under side, about 1 1/2 minutes. Turn with spatula and cook 1 to 1 1/2 minutes on other side. Repeat with remaining balls.

To serve, place warm tortillas on plates and top with cheese and sausage. Serve with salsa. Makes 10 to 12 tlacoyos, about 6 appetizer servings, 3 entree servings.

Each of 10 tlacoyos, without optional ingredients, contains about:

100 calories; 1 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.33 gram fiber.

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These lard cookies come out crisp if they’re rolled thin, puffy if they’re rolled thick. If you have the decorative bizcocho cutters sold in Mexico and the Southwest, you can cut them into shapes of birds, flowers, suits of cards and other fanciful images. This is one case where Martinez prefers cassia to true cinnamon for a Mexican recipe, because cassia has a sharper flavor. Recipe from “Food From My Heart.”

HOLIDAY COOKIES

(Bizcochos)

1/2 pound lard

1 cup sugar

1 jumbo or 2 medium eggs

Grated zest 1 orange

3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 tablespoons orange juice, optional

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Cream lard in large mixing bowl with spoon or electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar little at time. Beat in egg and orange rind.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in bowl. Add flour mixture to creamed lard mixture about 1 cup at time, beating well after each addition. After 3 cups flour are added, dough should be smooth and workable, somewhat stiff. If it seems too loose, beat in up to 1/2 cup more flour. If too hard to mix, add up to 2 tablespoons orange juice. Refrigerate dough until thoroughly chilled, 30 to 40 minutes.

On lightly floured surface, roll out dough about 1/8-inch thick and cut with cookie cutters (or pipe onto ungreased baking sheet using large pastry bag fitted with No. 5 star tip). Bake on ungreased baking sheet at 350 degrees until edges are golden, about 10 to 12 minutes. Combine cinnamon and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in bowl and roll cookies in mixture. Makes about 36 small cookies.

Each cookie contains about:

119 calories; 38 mg sodium; 18 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.03 gram fiber.

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If you don’t have a tamale steamer, Martinez recommends propping a cake rack on sawed-off tin cans in a large stockpot or Dutch oven, or placing the tamales directly on the bottom of a large Dutch oven and leaning them tepee-style against a central prop such as a large ball of wadded aluminum foil (if the tamales are tightly wrapped, they will not leak when you add the 1 inch of boiling water needed for steaming). Remember that water evaporates faster in a wider pot. Banana leaves and piloncillo (conical loaves of brown sugar) are available in most Mexican markets. Recipe from “Food From My Heart.”

OAXACAN PUMPKIN TAMALES

(Tamales Miahuatecos)

1 pound banana leaves, thawed if frozen

2 heaping cups masa harina

2 to 2 1/2 cups warm chicken stock or water

1/2 pound lard

2 cups pureed cooked or canned pumpkin or winter squash, drained if watery

1 1/2 teaspoons ground Ceylon cinnamon or 1/2 teaspoon cassia cinnamon

3 ounces piloncillo, grated or crushed, or 1/2 cup firmly packed dark-brown sugar

Salt

Bean Filling

Unfold banana leaves, being careful not to split them unnecessarily. Wipe with clean damp cloth and pat dry. With kitchen scissors, trim leaves into 12 to 14 rectangles, each about 14x11 inches. Save some of longer trimmings.

Mix masa harina in bowl or pot with enough warm stock to make soft but not sticky dough. Beat lard in separate large bowl on medium speed until very light and fluffy. Add masa harina mixture and pumpkin puree to lard little at time, beating on medium speed and scraping down as needed. Mixture should be as light as butter cream. Beat in cinnamon, piloncillo and salt to taste.

Place 1 or 2 banana leaf rectangles flat on work space. Tear off some long, thin strips from reserved banana leaf trimmings. Place 2/3 to 1 cup masa mixture in center of leaf and with spatula or fingers spread into 3x4x1/2-inch-thick oval. Place 1 heaping tablespoon Bean Filling in center of oval.

Fold right and left edges of banana leaf toward center to meet, overlapping little to cover filling, then fold top and bottom edges to center to make neat, flat package about 4x5 inches. Fasten by tying with thin strip of banana leaf. Repeat with remaining banana leaves, masa and filling.

Place tamales flat in steamer, seam-side-up, arranging in layers as necessary. Place some extra banana leaves on top to help tamales absorb steam. Steam, covered tightly, over boiling water 1 hour, replenishing with hot water as needed. Remove steamer basket and let tamales rest 10 minutes before serving. Makes 12 to 14 tamales.

Each of 12 tamales contains about:

351 calories; 184 mg sodium; 20 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.13 grams fiber.

Bean Filling

2 cups water

2 teaspoons anise

2 to 3 dried Oaxacan pasilla or dried or canned chipotle chiles

2 to 2 1/2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained

5 to 6 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons lard

Salt

Put water in small pan, add anise and boil until reduced by half. Strain and reserve infusion.

If using Oaxacan pasilla or dried chipotles, cover with boiling water and let soak until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and remove stems. Canned chipotles need no preparation.

Working in batches, if necessary, puree beans with chiles, garlic and anise infusion in blender or food processor fitted with steel blade.

Melt lard in heavy skillet or wide, shallow saucepan over high heat. When very hot, add bean puree, watching for splatters. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until liquid is evaporated. Season to taste with salt. Cool to room temperature.

Lard versus Butter:

Lard: 12 mg cholesterol; 5 gms fat

Butter: 33 mg cholesterol; 8 gms fat

Source: “Food Values: Fats and Cholesterol” (Harper Perennial).

Figures based on per tablespoon analyses.

Food styling by DONNA DEANE and Mayi Brady


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