Friday, September 26, 2008

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Rowley Down with Swine, Lard

Even to two Southern boys like us,
it was a shock.
Lard seems as outdated as
a wood-burning stove,
as risky as a quart of moonshine…
Today, most Americans would sooner
smoke unfiltered Camels
while riding a motorcycle without a helmet
than eat lard.

~ Matt and Ted Lee

Pigs are intelligent animals, prolific, curious, and, from a distance, adorable. But more than anything, from trotters to tail, pigs are delicious.

Though I refrain from contaminating my finest whiskeys with rendered bacon fat as some inexplicably do (see below), a bloody mary tarted up with a rim of Allan Benton’s cooked and pulverized bacon is a meal in itself.

In fact, I am so down with swine that I make my own lard in a big cast-iron Dutch oven. Turns out, the stuff is not nearly so deadly (except to pigs) as nutritionist thinking has led us to believe, so when James Temple’s article came out in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle praising that very essence of piggy deliciousness, I was happy to see what he had to say on the subject.

But my jaw dropped at the inexplicable waste included in a lard-rendering recipe from Staffan Terje, executive chef at Perbacco in San Francisco. Terje’s recipe as reported goes like this:

In a large pot, add about 2 quarts of water and the [five pounds of] ground-up fat. Bring to a simmer over low heat. Continue to simmer for about 6-8 hours over very low heat, about 170°. Add water when necessary so that there is 1-2 quarts of water in the pot at all times. This ensures that the fat does not burn.

So far, so good, though the water forebodes something sinister. He continues:
Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth and into a large glass bowl or transparent plastic container. Discard solids.

Discard the solids? WTF? In rendering lard, discarding the “solids” is tantamount to wasting one of the best parts. The solids, also known as cracklin’s or grieben (if rendering duck, chicken, or goose fat), are crisped bits of skin and flesh that make delicious additions to salads, to sandwiches (John Thorne turned me on to duck skin po-boys), and to breads when folded into the dough.

Easiest thing? A chef’s treat that might, in fact, never make it out of the kitchen: strain the solids cracklin’s from the liquid fat, drain them on a paper towel, and toss them while still hot with salt. Get fancy and drizzle it with cane syrup if you like.

Alternately, toss them in the batter the next time you crank out a batch of cornbread. Don’t have a favorite recipe? You may notice the Southern pedigree in this one, given its lack of sugar and lardy deliciousness. I’ve adapted it slightly from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s sour milk cornbread recipe in The Gift of Southern Cooking:

Cracklin’ Cornbread

1 ½ c finely-ground cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 ¾ c buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½-1 cup pork cracklin’s
2 Tbl homemade lard*

Preheat the oven at 450°F/230°C. When the oven comes to temperature, combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl large enough to allow some vigorous stirring. Add the buttermilk and eggs and stir to create a smooth batter, free of lumps. Fold in the cracklin’s.

Add the lard to an 8” cast-iron pan and place on the middle shelf of the heated oven. When then lard melts, take out the pan and swirl it gently (this is hot, hot, hot) to cover the bottom and sides of the pan, then pour the excess lard into the batter and listen to it sizzle. Give it a few stirs to fully incorporate the fat, then pop it back in the oven. Cook about 30 minutes (maybe a little more) until the top is golden and it pulls away from the sides.

Cut in to wedges and serve hot.

*Use butter if all you have is processed snow-white store-bought lard: I wouldn’t feed that stuff to a hog.

Goes well with:

Lastly, one of the most cherished provisions in my fridge is the occasional package of Allan Benton’s bacon or country ham

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 Hwy. 411
Madisonville,TN 37354
Phone (423) 442-5003


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