Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lard, I am Fondly, Earnestly Longing

There is a chest freezer in the basement that is half full of pork fat.  It calls to us:  "Render me- before it's too late."

One, 250 lb. hog will provide you with enough lard to tamale yourself into oblivion.  Jar after jar of the fragrant stuff.  It is incredible how much sweet fat a healthy hog hauls beneath its hide. 

When I first cracked Diana Kennedy's "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico," I was shocked by the lard in many of the dishes.  Where would one acquire such a sea of rendered fat?  My experience of lard had been the foil-covered cubes at the supermarket.  I'm sure they're fine, but I always wondered how long they had been sitting there, oxidizing.  There was that as well as the sense that lard, even in it's purest form, is not necessarily in the same health category as the proverbial "apple a day." This was reinforced by recurring lethargy after eating at family-style Mexican places- which I came to attribute to the "lardy" refrieds.  I'm pretty sure these mini-comas actually have more to do with the sheer volume of food on one of those sizzling ceramic feeding troughs.  I don't care what sort of food it is, if you clear a platter of such proportions, it's going to hurt.             

These days I have a softer (and slightly more clogged) place in my heart for lard.  Especially since it is central to at least two tremendous culinary traditions:  tamales and carnitas. Tamales, in my humble opinion, are some of the most brilliant portable foods ever designed.  And carnitas, those crispy bits of pork infused with piggy perfume- there are few foods that so harness the delightful and rich flavor of swine.

With carnitas in mind, I rummaged deep in the freezer for a bag of frozen fat, skin on.  I was in a rush to make use of some country ribs that had been in the fridge a couple of days, so I cubed up the frozen fat, skin and all, and put it in a skillet on medium heat.  Cold, skin-free fat run through a grinder yields more lard, and it is actually easier to cube fat after removing the skin.  Next time.

I had enough fat for three skilletfuls.  I cooked the cubes til they shrunk and were medium-browned on all edges.  I did not want to end up with too dark a product.

In the end, I was able to fill two mason jars with hot, strained fat.

They set up nicely in the fridge.  Creamy-white.

Traditional carnitas are made from hunks of pork shoulder that are slow-simmered for a couple of hours in enough lard to cover them.  I've found that country ribs (actually slabs cut from the shoulder) also make fine carnitas.

Loosely following a recipe from Andrea Reusing's excellent Cooking in the Moment (which she lifted from Miguel Torres, the head cook at her restaurant Lantern) I cubed three pounds of boneless country ribs.  Instead of submerging the pork in lard, in this recipe you melt a bit of lard in a pot or dutch oven with the pork and then cover it all with cold water.  The recipe calls for two cups of lard for 8 lbs of pork.  I added about a half a cup of lard to my three pounds, covered with water, dropped in a couple of bay leaves, salt and pepper.  Then simmered the pork on medium until the water evaporated.  This took a little more than an hour. 

After a few minutes of brisk simmering, a delicious scent like sausage gravy filled the kitchen.    
Two ingredients make this recipe stand out:  whole milk and cola.  Once the water is evaporated, you turn up the heat to med-high and dump in a quarter cup of milk.  Stir frequently.  The pork will begin falling apart.  When the milk has almost evaporated, you add a quarter cup of Coke and squeeze in two orange halves.  You toss the oranges in and carmelize the meat, stirring frequently.  And that's it!

We were planning on eating the carnitas the following evening, but we could not help ourselves.  We warmed some corn tortillas, and broke out the salsa verde and some some pickled tomatillos.

We paired our pork tacos with tacos filled with slow-cooked King of the Early beans from the garden a few years back and crumbled goat cheese.  Cilantro would have been a nice addition, but we were out.   

Though it's probably not a good idea to indulge every day, don't be afraid to take a little walk with the lard.  It is heavenly, indeed.