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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.