Saturday, June 9, 2012

Braised pork foreleg and belly

We are eating the last bits of the half a pig we bought late last year. This week, I braised two forelegs and the last two pieces of pork belly that were in the freezer.

There are two challenges to working with this pig, both challenges that I relish. One is to use as much of the pig as possible, while minimizing the overwhelming porkiness. I put whole pig’s feet from this farmer into a pot of split peas, once, and ruined them, because these are not my father’s pig’s feet. I wrote a micro essay for Meatpaper in which I described the way my father would eat the pig’s feet that my mother would braise in tomato sauce. Even as a child, trying to eat one of those fatty trotters was a disappointment. There’s no meat on them, just bone and connective tissue, which are great for making silky, rich sauces, but on a pastured pig, there is also nothing porkier. The scent and flavor are strongly musky, almost human. And there lies the second challenge in working with this pig: being pasture raised, it ate a rich diet that makes it taste more like a pig than grain-fed pork raised in commercial operations, like what you buy in the supermarket and what my mother bought to put in her sauce.

My farmer tells me there are several factors that make a pig porkier tasting, including breed, diet, and exercise. This pig foraged in woods, ate bugs and roots, and had room to run around. The color of the animal’s skin is supposed to speak to the depth of flavor, too, with red pigs having redder, stronger-tasting flesh. Our pig has white skin, which I removed this time before cooking. I’ve braised some belly before with the skin on, and decided I could do with a milder flavor. Besides, I was also going to braise the forelegs, which I was sure would be stinky.

Previous experiments with this pig have proven that the best approach to the tough and flavorful bony cuts, like the ribs, has been to marinate the meat in a mojo criollo type of mixture (OJ, oil, and garlic is the barest-bones version of this), then rub it with dry spices, sear the ribs, then braise, finishing it with a barbecue sauce in the last hour or so of cooking. I’ve also had excellent results braising pork belly with strong spices and aromatics. The cooking is the same for the ribs as for the belly: sear, then braise. I decided to bring my simpler belly process to the forelegs, and braise everything together until the forelegs fell apart.

I worked from a recipe for Chinese Braised Pork Belly, made a couple substitutions (brown sugar for rock candy, jarred minced ginger for fresh), left out the eggs, and added water as necessary to braise. I have a giant, extremely heavy cast iron roasting pan that deserves some of the credit for the excellent results I get using it to roast vegetables and meat. The steady heat that it holds, and how hot the surfaces get, all do an amazing job. One of the disadvantages of cooking in a typical home kitchen like mine, compared to the kitchens in restaurants and on cooking shows, is that their stovetops and ovens can get much hotter than mine. Iron helps even the score.

To take the skin off, you want a very sharp knife. I sharpened my knife twice during this process, because taking off skin requires sharpness, and cutting through tendon and hitting bone will dull the blade considerably. After taking the skin and foot off one foreleg, I needed to sharpen up again for the next.

Taking the skins off the squares of belly is not unlike skinning a fish fillet or taking a chicken breast off the bone. I hacked the shit out of these bellies, like I did the first few times I filleted salmon. Not that anyone cared after it was cooked.

I cut a long incision in the skin, worked the knife under it, and kept the tension on the skin as I worked, in order to remove as little fat as possible, and no meat. 

To take the feet off, I cut through the skin around the foot at the "wrist," just above the thumb-looking toes. There are strong connective tissues on the front, rear, and sides of the joint, and running through the middle of the bones. After cutting through the outer connections with a knife and clearing the way between the bones, I used a pair of kitchen shears to cut the ligament in the middle.

After searing the meat in the roasting pan, I added the other ingredients from the recipe, including water, and began to braise at 250 for several hours, turning the pieces over every hour or so, to allow for browning above the liquid.

Each of these forelegs was good for more than one generous serving of meat. We ate the braised foreleg and belly together, which was a good combination because the fat content averaged out nicely between the fairly lean forelegs, which are a lot like turkey legs in the amount of connective tissue and the leanness of the meat, and the extremely fatty belly.

In the picture above, the sliced belly is between three and five o'clock, most of one foreleg is from five to nine, and along the top is the remnants of another foreleg after we'd already savaged it.

We ate from these for a few meals, eating bits of the foreleg and belly over lentils and rice. This morning we finished it off for breakfast with pancakes. It was so good that Kevin started singing “Pork and Pancakes” to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus in Handel’s Messiah.