Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Making Pork Skin Cracklings and Chicharrones

Growing up, I didn’t think much of pork rinds.  They seemed to live only in truck stops, nestled between corn nuts and those orange circus peanuts that taste like Styrofoam rolled in confectioner’s sugar.  Only later, reading old Time-Life cook books, did I become excited about “cracklin’s.”  Pictures of community pig butchering in the rural south amazed me; it seemed to be more of a party than a harvest.  In the center of one photo was an enormous fire pit holding a cast-iron kettle full of bubbling, rendered lard.  The caption explained that the skin of the pigs was fried in the lard for a snack while the family prepared the rest of the meat.
Pork Skin Landscape
The cauldron-fried cracklings were miles away from those plastic baggies I had seen in the gas station.  They also looked different in the cook book; not puffy like the bagged variety, but more like thick, crispy strips.  As time went on, I realized there are two main types of pork rinds: cracklings and chicharrones.  Cracklings are the thicker, more rustic strips of crispy pork skin.  It’s also the type of pork skin you’re likely to get with a skin-on ham roast.  The fat between the skin and meat gently renders out, while the skin crisps and puffs slightly.  The result is a slightly crispy, slightly chewy pork skin that is very savory.

On the other side, chicharrones are the name for Mexican-style pork rinds, and what I saw in the gas station years ago.  These are about ten times as puffy as cracklings and have the texture of a cheese puff.  Chicarrones have also become the darling of many famous restaurants in the past few years, from Momofuku and the Breslin in NYC to southern stars like Husk and 610 Magnolia.
I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to make cracklings or chicharrones with my North Woods Ranch pork skin, so I decided to make both.  Both recipes started the same, I gently poached the pork skin in water for about 1.5-2 hours. I knew the skin was fully cooked when it could easily be pierced with a butter knife.  Once tender, I removed the skin from the pot, patted off any excess water, and refrigerated the skin in a covered container.  For my cracklings, I was inspired by the British chef and champion of offal, Fergus Henderson.  He actually confits the skin in lard, then smears the skin with more lard to store it.  I skipped the confit step, which seemed to be unique to his recipe for “pork scratchings." I just boiled them in water, but I did smear a bit of lard on top of the skin destined to be cracklings.

The cracklings were very simple.  I preheated an oven to 350 F, then arranged the boiled skin with lard on a baking rack set on top of a baking sheet.  As the skin baked, the lard rendered down over the skin, crisping the surface.  Once fully cooked, the skin puffed up slightly and took on a golden color.  The resulting crackling was quite tasty, although some thicker parts of skin were more chewy than crisp.  I’ve read that a convection oven will give you a better puff because the hot air circulates more, but I found that a regular oven still produces delicious results.
The chicharrones were a bit more work, but produced a more captivating final product.  After boiling and cooling the skin, I scraped the skin to remove all the excess fat from the underside.  I found that using the back of a knife was the best way to complete this task. It scraped the fat off without cutting into the skin.  After scraping all the fat of the skin, I cut them into small squares and dehydrated them overnight.  The smell of drying skin gave my house a…peculiar…odor.  I suggest if you try this at home, to put the dehydrator in the garage or other out of the way location.
Once dried, the pig skin was ready to cook!  The dried skin looked like brittle, crystalline sheets of sugar.  I filled a heavy Dutch oven half-way with peanut oil and heated it to 375 F (ghee oil would also work).  Then the fun part began.  Frying a chicharrones was like watching a pork skin transmogrify into a pork skin butterfly.  The thin fragment of skin quivered in the oil, and then burst open, almost like it was foaming up.   
As soon as the puffing stopped, I removed the skin from the oil and dusted it with salt, pepper, and chile powder (optional).  I found metal chopsticks were perfect for swirling and retrieving the skin from the oil, but tongs would be fine too.
While reading about different ways to cook pork skin, I was surprised to learn they’re actually not that nutritionally bad if made at home.  Because skin is mostly protein and fat, it has no carbs and (unless you go really heavy on the salt) will have less sodium than the truck stop varieties.  Plus, by purchasing skin from pastured Berkshire hogs, you’re getting more flavor and a better product than from skin of industrially raised hogs

Cooking and puffing the chicharrones is a lot of fun, and since they are best hot out of the oil you should have your guests gather around to see the glass-like shards of dried skin explode into a porky cloud.  Just don't have them gather too close to the pot of bubbling oil.

Recipe at a Glance: Pork Rinds
- Any amount of pork skins

Cover the pork skins in cold water and simmer over low heat for 1.5-2 hours, topping up water if needed to keep skins covered.  Once skins can be easily pierced with a butter knife, remove from water and allow to cool.

Once cool, you can bake them in a 350 F oven on a wire rack for pork cracklings.

Alternatively, for chicharrones, scrape the undersides of the cooked skins with a pastry scraper, back of a knife, or off-set spatula.  Remove as much of the fat as possible, leaving just the skin behind. Cut the skin into 3"x3" squares or so and lay them out in a food dehydrator for 12 hours until crisp and slightly opaque.

Heat a cast iron pot or home deep-fryer half-way full with oil and heat oil to 375 F.  Add the pork rinds one at a time and swirl in the oil to help cook evenly.  As soon as the skin puffs up and no more flat, crystalline areas remain, remove from oil and season to taste.  Enjoy right away.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Grassfed Beef Meatballs

I’ve been making these meatballs for several years now, and they’re wonderful for a quick lunch that can be prepared ahead of time.  My wife sticks to lean proteins, but roast chicken can get tiresome quickly, so I make these for her on a regular basis.  These meatballs are also convenient for days when there isn’t a microwave handy, as these meatballs are just as tasty when eaten cold.  Usually, people get hung-up on the whole “eating cold ground beef” thing.  Most of us have seen the forgotten hamburgers sitting around at a cookout with the grease from the burgers caking them with a white, waxy glaze.  So let’s totally banish that image. These meatballs are good hot or cold.
The trick to this recipe is to use grass-fed, pasture-raised beef.  The grind from these cows is incredibly lean and very flavorful.  I usually make these when I’ve got dinner going, as they’re simple to whip up.  A package of North Woods’ ground beef usually makes enough for three lunch portions.  Just mince up an onion or shallot (usually whatever I’m using for dinner that night), a clove of garlic, and knead that into a pound or so of ground beef. I use an egg to help bind everything and leave out the traditional breadcrumbs you see most meatball recipes. The breadcrumbs would trap the fat that otherwise renders off into the pan during cooking, so eliminating the breadcrumbs helps keep these meatballs lean and without any of that clinging fat.
For seasoning, you can go any route you like.  I’ve been using dried oregano, thyme, and sesame seeds lately, but mustard powder or curry powder are also great combinations.  Just go a little heavier than you normally would, if you plan to eat these cold, as cold meat can mute flavorings.  Add some salt and pepper to taste, then roll into the mixture into little balls and place on a non-stick baking sheet (silpats work great).  Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until cooked through.
Portioned and Ready for the Start of the Week
The results are very tasty little meatballs, and great for a healthy lunch during a busy work day.  Over time, I have played around with the recipe quite a bit, but it all started with a gyro recipe. If you did want to cycle back to the original recipe, they’re perfect stuffed into a pita with Greek yogurt, dill, and lemon.

Recipe at a Glance:
1 lb ground grass-fed beef
1 egg
1 shallot or half a medium onion, minced
2 tsp favorite seasoning blend (curry, za'atar, Mrs. Dash, etc)

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Mix all ingredients together and form into small balls.  Place on a greased baking sheet and cook for 15-18 minutes until cooked through.

Serve plain or stuffed into warmed pitas.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Berkshire Pork Shoulder with Sauerkraut

Symbolism abounds at the start of a New Year, especially when it comes to traditional foods.  Coin-shaped lentils are served to ensure wealth, while chicken and turkey are shunned as they scratch in the dirt for food, as if scraping by in poverty.  Furthermore, unlike the chicken that scrapes backwards, the pig roots forward in progress. As such, the portly pig gets a much better deal on New Year’s, being a traditional celebratory food, as well as an animal that’s usually harvested in the winter.  In fact, many people believe pork is the classic dish for New Year’s Day.

North Woods Ranch Pork Butt
Whatever your reasons for cooking pork, it’s hard to go wrong with the classic New Year’s Day dinner of pork and sauerkraut. Both are traditional winter foods and pair perfectly together. It’s a rich, hearty dish that can easily feed a crowd with minimal work.  It also keeps very well, so you can reheat it in the coming days while you begin working on all your 2015 resolutions.  
For this dish, I used a large Berkshire pork shoulder (often called "pork butt", because it comes from the butt-end of the shoulder).  I chose this cut because it had a lot of flavorful meat on it. The shoulder gets a lot of exercise as the pigs move around North Woods Ranch, which makes it an intensely flavorful cut of meat to cook.  Ringing the shoulder’s outer edge is a generous layer of fat that slowly renders out during cooking.  This fat enriches the sauce while keeping the dish moist and succulent. A large cut like this, with multiple muscle groups all joining together, benefits from slow and gentle cooking.  Some people have a tradition of starting the pork on New Year’s Eve, so it cooks all night in the previous year and is served in the new year.  If you have a crock pot, this might be a good time to get it ready.
Rendering out Berkshire Bacon
To start this dish render out some fat from North Wood’s bacon in a large oven-safe pot, cooking it until the bacon is crisp and brown.  This bacon will be used later on, so put it aside and try to keep your family from eating it all.  While the bacon is frying, preheat the oven to 350 F.
Searing the Pork
Next, sear the pork roast in the bacon fat on both sides to get a nice golden-brown crust.  Once the pork is browned, add 3-4 sliced onions and a bay leaf.  Turn the heat down to medium and let the onions soften.  When the onions are soft and translucent, add half a bottle of dry white wine or hard cider to deglaze the bottom of the pan.  I used a bottle of Riesling, as I enjoy the slightly sharper flavor of the wine.  Cider works well, too, but produces a sweeter, fruitier sauce.
Adding the Riesling
After the wine, top up the pan with stock to just cover the pork, then bring the wine and stock mixture to a simmer on the stove top.  Once it’s bubbling, cover the pot with a lid and place it in the oven.  About every hour or so, turn the temperature down by 25 F to keep the liquid at a very slow, gentle simmer.  Eventually the meat should be gently braising at about 275 F.
I cooked this pork shoulder for 6 hours, or until I could easily pull off a few strands of meat with a fork.   At this point, it's time to add the sauerkraut.  Be careful about salting this dish too much early on, as the sauerkraut and bacon will add their own salt to the sauce.
To cook the sauerkraut, give it a good rinse to get off any excess salt, then pack it in around the now-tender pork in the roasting pot.  You can also add some tart cooking apples, the reserved bacon crumbles, and a bit of freshly minced garlic at this time.  Now cover the pot again and return it to the oven for an hour to let the sauerkraut soften and soak up the porky juices.  After adding the sauerkraut, you’ll probably have to raise the temperature to bring the liquid back to a simmer.
Ready to Serve!
Once the sauerkraut is tender, the dish is ready to serve!  Give it a quick taste to see if you need to add extra salt or pepper.  You can pair this with whatever you like, from potatoes to roasted squash.  I served this dish with spatzle noodles and a tart applesauce my mother had made earlier in the fall.  I think some sharpness, such as the applesauce, is nice in a rich, slow-cooked dish like this.  You might try horseradish or sharp mustard, depending on your tastes.
Pork, Sauerkraut, Spatzel, and Applesauce
 From North Woods Ranch to your table, Happy New Year!

Recipe at a Glance:
1 pork butt (4-5 lbs)
8 oz bacon, sliced into 1/2" strips
1/2 of a 750 ml bottle riesling
3 medium sized onions, sliced
12-16 oz pork or beef stock
2 tart cooking apples, like Granny Smith or Sheep's Nose
3 cloves garlic

In a large, oven-safe pan, render out the fat from bacon until brown and crisp.  Remove the cooked bacon and reserve.  Brown the pork shoulder in the bacon drippings on both sides until brown and crusty.

Add the sliced onions and stir around the bottom of the pot, working the onions underneath the pork butt.  When the onions are soft and translucent, add the wine.  Scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze.  Add enough stock to cover the roast, and then bring to a simmer on the stovetop.

Cover the pan and place in a 350 F oven.  After an hour, check to see that the sauce is still bubbling gently.  Then turn the oven down to 325.  Continue this each hour until the roast is gently cooking at 275 F.  Check the pork after 5 hours to see if it's tender enough to be shredded with a dinner fork.  If not, let it continue to cook for another hour.

When the pork is tender, prepare the sauerkraut, garlic, and apples.  Rinse the sauerkraut under cold water and squeeze dry.  Mince the garlic, then core and slice the apple.  Add all of these ingredients to the pot, nestling them in and around the pork roast.  Bring the oven back to 350 F and cook at a simmer for one hour.

After an hour, check the pork and sauerkraut.  Add additional salt and pepper if needed.  At any point, if the pork looks to be loosing too much liquid to evaporation, top up with additional stock.

Serve each guest a large helping of pork and sauerkraut, making sure to toast both the past year and the coming new year!