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In all its splendor

Times Staff Writer

THEY call me Pork Boy, and as far as I’m concerned, the Year of the Pig couldn’t have come at a better time. At long last, after decades of abuse, my favorite meat is once again getting a little love.

I come by my nickname honestly. It’s a rare week that goes by at my house when I don’t fix pork in some form or another. In fact, I’ll bet if you added it all up, I probably cook as much pork as I do all other meats combined.

No meat offers a cook more than pork does. Beef and lamb have force of personality; pork has depth and subtlety. It offers a variety of flavors and textures. You can roast it, stew it, grill it or fry it. It has been the foundation of cuisines as diverse as Mexican, Italian and Chinese.

One of the best restaurant meals I had last year was a suckling pig feast at Triumphal Palace, the fine Chinese restaurant in Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley. Um, actually, make that two of the best meals -- the first was so good I went back and did it again.

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It seems that you can’t turn around these days without bumping into a charcuterie platter, and what are prosciutto, salumi and Serrano ham but the pig’s leap toward immortality?

Then there are carnitas -- perfectly fried (in lard, of course) so they’re crisp on the outside and creamy inside. And what about barbecue ribs, slow-smoked so long that the meat is firm and a little chewy but still pulls cleanly away from the bone?

And surely it’s occurred to someone besides me that pork belly -- usually braised until it’s silky and then browned to a delicious crunch -- seems to be the new foie gras. The dish is everywhere, so ubiquitous that chefs may be in danger of loving it to death. Wait till they discover the chewy goodness of trotters!

Pork is a boon to home cooks too, because you can do so many things with it. With pork in the refrigerator, a great dinner is never far away. Here are just a few of the ways I’ve most enjoyed pork in the last couple of months:

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For Christmas dinner I brined a crown roast in spiced apple cider and filled the inside of the crown with wild rice spiked with dried fruit. It was regal, particularly when served with the old Chateau Margaux a generous friend brought.

Another grand holiday dinner at a friend’s house featured a wonderful arista -- a rack of pork generously dusted with fennel pollen, then roasted. Still another starred a moist porchetta baked on a thick bed of fennel and other vegetables.

One of my favorite party dishes is a big picnic shoulder, roasted low and slow until the meat is moist, then finished with a blaze to crisp the skin to crackling. For less than $1 a pound, you can feed an army.

Thick-cut pork chops are perfect for the grill pan. Sear them on both sides, then reduce the heat and cover them to cook through. All you need is a vegetable -- last week my choice was sauteed kale -- and you have a wonderful weeknight dinner that’s prepared in about half an hour.

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A couple of nights later I pounded thin-cut chops flat until they were nearly wide enough to fill a small plate. Then I dredged them lightly in flour, an egg wash and finally fresh bread crumbs before frying them until they were shining and golden (in butter, of course, or maybe butter cut with vegetable oil). I topped these with an arugula salad spiked with a tart lemon juice dressing.

I’ve made three or four ragus. Pork braises well if you start with a nice fatty cut, like the butt, shoulder or country ribs (these come from the blade end of the loin near the shoulder; they’re meatier but a little tougher than those farther back).

Stew them in a tomato sauce, or go for something German by cooking it in white wine, with cabbage and caraway. Simmer cubes of pork butt in a red chile broth until the meat is falling apart, and then stir in cooked hominy for an amazing pozole.

Pork loves to be cooked with its own kind, so the more different cuts you add to a braise, the better -- prosciutto, pancetta, salt pork, salumi, fresh sausage, bacon (say them loud, it’s like music playing!) -- they’ll all add their own particular savor.

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Still, even with all of those wonderful possibilities, it hasn’t been easy being a pork lover during the last couple of decades. In the first place, so much of the pork we get just isn’t very good. It’s lean and pale, and if mishandled it winds up virtually flavorless and so dry it has the texture of shoe soles.

To try to correct that, the big pork producers have taken to selling meat that is already brined in a salt and phosphate bath. This may keep the meat moist, but it makes it oddly rubbery and slippery, almost like badly cooked octopus. It is an abomination.

And you don’t have to look very far to find horror stories about how pigs are raised. If the term “manure lagoon” doesn’t spoil your appetite, nothing will.

Fortunately, things are beginning to turn around.

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What happened to modern pork is a simple combination of diet and economics.

Pork gets a makeover

THE diet part came first. Until World War II, fatty pork was valued because lard was one of the most common cooking fats. But with the introduction of vegetable oil, lard became expendable. And, as vegetable oil manufacturers emphasized in their advertisements, pigs are, well, big-boned, and who wants to look like that? (This despite the fact that lard has the same number of calories as vegetable oil and half the saturated fat of butter. Oh, calumny!)

Pork producers responded by putting their swine on a diet and breeding for leaner meat. The thickness of the back fat in slaughtered hogs was cut almost in half between 1927 and 1971, and it has gone down from there.

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Porcine “improvement” did not stop there. Compared with 40 years ago, each sow today produces 50% bigger litters, according to a study in the journal Advances in Pork Production, and pigs need one-third less food to produce one-third more lean meat (and are ready for slaughter at a far younger age -- hence pork’s turn from pink to pale). Welcome to “the other white meat.”

The economics of the pork industry have changed just as dramatically. From 1980 to 2002, the number of pig farmers in the United States plummeted from 65,000 to 10,000 and the number of hogs on the average farm jumped from 200 to 1,400. Today, only four big companies handle 65% of all the pork sold in the country.

But as small farmers became pressed to find ways to stay in business, some turned to producing the kinds of pork that the big guys were ignoring.

In most cases, this falls into two overlapping categories: pork that tastes good and pork that is raised in a way that makes you feel good about buying it (without antibiotics or growth promoters, on organic feed, and humanely raised and slaughtered).

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These porky pioneers have become wildly successful. Despite the fact that specialty pork usually costs two or three times as much as its conventional competition, niche sales are increasing so fast that the biggest problem today is finding enough farmers who can raise the stuff.

Bay Area gourmet meat supplier Niman Ranch, which specializes in high-quality, humanely grown products, estimates that sales at the Iowa-based pork branch it founded in 1998 are growing by more than 40% a year.

The number of American-bred black Berkshire pigs, famous for their tenderness and flavor, has gone up by more than 400% in the last decade. Ironically, though the breed is British and they’re raised in America, you’ll probably find them sold only under their Japanese name: Kurobuta (which means “black pig”).

An expanding niche

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INDEED, a recent study found 35 to 40 niche pork marketing efforts in Iowa alone. It has gotten so big that even the National Pork Board, which represents the industry’s giants, has started its own niche pork campaign.

The movement has even penetrated fast food. A significant part of Niman Ranch’s pork goes to McDonald’s, for use in their Chipotle restaurants. And British food giant Compass Group also has announced that it is switching over to pork raised without antibiotics.

As quickly as this part of the pork market is growing, it is still a minuscule part of the big pig picture. And, particularly because it is so expensive relative to commercial pork, it is still hard to find at markets.

Vicente Foods in Brentwood carries Kurobuta pork, as do the Marukai and Mitsuwa chains of Japanese markets (see related story).

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But even if you can’t find these new types of pork, there’s no reason you can’t still enjoy the pig. You’ll just have to choose fattier cuts or cook it more carefully.

With chops and other lean cuts, it’s best to brine them first. This seasons the meat and helps it hold moisture during the cooking process.

The simplest brine is just water and salt (I like a ratio of two-thirds-cup salt per gallon of water). But for Christmas, I wanted to add other flavors, particularly apple cider. So I played with brines using four different proportions of cider in the liquid.

To my taste, half-cider was just a little too apple-y; it overpowered the pork flavor. But I really liked the mixture with one-third cider, which really brought out the pork flavor in addition to adding a subtle sweetness.

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The brine works as well for a chop as it does for the full crown roast, and so does the wild rice stuffing -- just serve it alongside.

Another approach to cooking pork is to concentrate on the cuts that are naturally fatty -- the butt and shoulder and the country ribs. These are wonderful for braising, particularly in ragus.

The Italian term refers to something between a sauce and a stew. The concept is almost infinitely flexible, but I like the technique described by Jeanne Carola Francesconi in her classic book “La Cucina Napoletana.”

Rather than following a typical stew technique -- browning the meat and then simmering it -- Francesconi simmers the meat in red wine, onions and pancetta until the wine almost cooks away. Then she browns tomato paste in the bottom of the pan, adds some chopped tomatoes and simmers the meat more, with some crumbled sausage.

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The final result doesn’t taste like any one ingredient but rather like some alchemical mixture of everything in the pot plus all of the simmering time. I served it on a bowl of golden polenta dusted with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano -- the whole thing looked like a giant harvest moon rising above a burnt sienna landscape.

And, of course, you can always go with pork belly, the inexpensive cut that is smoked to make bacon. It is a staple at Asian markets. In Japanese groceries, in fact, you can find it thinly sliced, which is not only good for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu but also for grilling. At the marvelous Gardena yakitori restaurant Shin-Sen-Gumi, they wrap thinly sliced pork belly around a piece of shiso leaf, thread it on a skewer, then grill it until the pork is crisp and sizzling. This practically explodes with flavor.

Choose a chunk that looks like it’s about half lean, and you can roast it just as you would any other cut.

I like the way Corinne Trang treats pork belly in her book “Essentials of Asian Cuisine,” marinating it in soy and five-spice powder, then roasting it on a rack in a hot oven. The fat renders as it cooks, keeping the meat moist, and the rind crisps to an almost glass-like texture. The five-spice powder lends a subtly Chinese perfume to the meat, but not overpoweringly so.

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In fact, for a picnic before a concert the other weekend, I prepared pork belly this way. Then I sliced it thin and mounded it on a hollowed-out baguette that I had smeared with good, hot mustard. I scattered some sliced cornichons across the top and we were set. Or almost.

Because that still wasn’t quite enough pork for me, I spooned some leftover meaty ragu into another baguette, topped it with sliced mozzarella and baked it in a hot oven until the cheese melted and began to brown.

Dinner was a regular pork-a-palooza, and the Year of the Pig was off to a most auspicious start.

russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Cider-brined pork chops with wild rice

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes, plus brining time

Servings: 4

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Salt

3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

3 whole cloves

1 cup apple cider

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4 medium-thick pork chops (about 2 pounds)

1 1/2 cups wild rice

1 shallot, minced

1/2 cup dried cherries

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1/2 cup chopped dried apples

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

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Pepper

1. In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups of water, 2 1/2 tablespoons salt, the peppercorns and cloves to a simmer. Remove from heat and let steep until room temperature. Add the cider.

2. Place the pork chops in a sealable plastic bag and strain the brining mixture over it, discarding the peppercorns and cloves. Squeeze out any air; the brine should just cover the chops. Seal tightly and refrigerate 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

3. Combine the wild rice, 5 cups of water and three-fourths teaspoon salt in a large saucepan and cook uncovered over medium-high heat until the water has almost entirely evaporated and the rice is tender, 40 to 45 minutes. Drain the rice and return to the pan. Add the shallot, cherries and apples. Cover the pan and let stand until the pork is ready.

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4. Heat a grill pan or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Remove the chops from the marinade and pat dry thoroughly. When the pan is very hot, add the vegetable oil to the pan and add the chops. Sear on one side, about 2 minutes, then turn the chops over and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, covered, until the pork is lightly browned and firm, about 7 to 8 minutes and 132 to 135 degrees (the temperature will increase as it rests). It should still be slightly pink inside and moist. (If using a grill pan, you can use any metal pan lid that will cover the chops as you cook them; the objective is to keep them covered so they can steam as they grill and cook faster.)

5. When the pork is ready, season the rice to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the almonds and red wine vinegar. Spoon a mound of wild rice on each plate and tilt a pork chop against it. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 625 calories; 45 grams protein; 75 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 92 mg. cholesterol; 88 mg. sodium.

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Ragu with pork ribs, sausage and pancetta

Total time: 4 hours, 45 minutes

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Serve over polenta or pasta. The technique for this recipe is adapted from the classic “La Cucina Napoletana” by Jeanne Carola Francesconi.

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2 pounds pork “country ribs”

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons finely minced parsley

1 pound onions, cut into pieces

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3 cloves garlic

2 ounces chopped pancetta

1/4 cup olive oil

2 1/2 cups dry red wine

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1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1 cup chopped tomatoes

1/2 pound Italian sausage, crumbled

1. If the pork is on the bone, cut it into pieces. If it is boneless, cut into large chunks (about 1 1/2 inches) that are about the same size. Season the pork all over with salt and pepper to taste and parsley.

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2. In a meat grinder or food processor, chop together the onions, garlic and pancetta until they are finely minced but not pasty.

3. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole, preferably earthenware or cast iron, over low heat. Add the pancetta mixture and stir to combine. Scatter the pork pieces over the pancetta mixture, cover and cook very slowly. After about 30 minutes, give the mixture a stir, replace the lid and continue cooking until the onions have begun to color, about 30 minutes more. The meat won’t brown.

4. Add the red wine and increase the heat so the liquid just comes to a simmer. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 2 hours.

5. Raise the heat to medium, add the tomato paste, half at a time, and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste mixes in and becomes dark brown. Season to taste with salt.

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6. Add the chopped tomatoes and one-fourth cup water, reduce heat to low, cover and cook another hour, stirring occasionally and adding water from time to time to keep the sauce somewhat liquid. Keep an eye on it; if the sauce gets too thick, it will tend to scorch toward the center of the pan. Just add a little more water and keep cooking. You may add as much as three-fourths cup in all, depending on the heat.

7. When the pork is tender enough that it starts to shred when stirred, after about 30 minutes, add the sausage and continue cooking the sauce for another 30 minutes or more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The sauce should be very dark red, shiny and thick, almost sticky. If the meat has slipped from the bones, remove the bones before serving.

Each of 10 servings: 270 calories; 15 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 43 mg. cholesterol; 231 mg. sodium.

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Five-spice roast pork belly

Total time: About 1 hour and 5 minutes, plus 4 hours marinating time

Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from “Essentials of Asian Cuisine” by Corinne Trang

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1/4 cup Chinese soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon five-spice

powder

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1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 pounds pork belly, at least 50% lean, with rind intact

1. Make the marinade by mixing the soy sauce, sugar and five-spice powder in a bowl until the sugar is completely dissolved. Stir in the sesame oil. Place the pork belly in a sealable plastic bag and pour the marinade over it. Marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours, turning occasionally.

2. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Pierce holes every inch through the pork skin with a metal skewer. Place it skin side up on a rack set over a baking dish, containing about one-half inch of water. Roast until dark golden and crispy, about 1 hour, basting the top (skin) side with the soy sauce mixture every 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing. Thinly slice lengthwise with a serrated knife.

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Each serving: 593 calories; 11 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 60 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 82 mg. cholesterol; 162 mg. sodium.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where to shop for top-of-the-line pork

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Vicente Foods has several cuts of Kurobuta pork. 12027 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-4613.

Mitsuwa Marketplace stores have “black line” pork from Berkshire pigs. Most of it is thinly sliced, but they do have boneless loin chops. 333 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-6699; 3760 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 398-2113; 21515 Western Ave., Torrance, (310) 782-0335; 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6699; 515 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 457-2899.

Marukai Markets has Kurobuta pork. Most of it is thinly sliced, but they usually have boneless loins that can be sliced to order. 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 660-6300; 123 S. Onizuka St., No. 101, Los Angeles, (213) 893-7200; 1420 S. Azusa Ave., West Covina, (626) 430-0900; 2975 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-8433.

The Internet is a rich source for gourmet pork, which can usually be delivered within a day or two of ordering. Niman Ranch has its own website (www.nimanranch.com). And there are several suppliers of Kurobuta pork, including Snake River Farms (www.snakeriverfarms.com), the company that helped introduce Wagyu beef. The American Berkshire Assn. sells meat through its website (www.berkshiremeats.com). And Heritage Foods USA, a spinoff of Slow Food USA, has a website with links to producers of Berkshire and several other heritage types of pork (www.heritagefoodsusa.com).

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-- Russ Parsons


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