Sunday, January 25, 2009

All Hail the Pig

Ever since leaving vegetarianism by the side of the road, I keep coming back to one essential meaty truth: pork is fucking awesome. I grew up believing I didn't like pork because I ate a lot of thin, overcooked, dry pork chops, which no matter how much applesauce you drowned them in, were really not that good. Somehow, I thought of all the prosciutto, sausage, and capicola I inhaled at Nanny's as some other animal. In terms of taste, they may as well have been.

When I moved out to the west coast I was dazzled by the pork offerings across every cuisine: chorizo, carnitas, linguica, Vietnamese barbecued pork ... I was in hog heaven, literally. This is when I parted ways with vegetarianism and embraced my flesh-chomping instincts. But since I learned how to cook at a vegetarian co-op, I really didn't know how to cook meat. I still don't, really, but I've fumbled my way through a few things enough times to have a bit of kitchen wisdom to share.

This weekend I had a number of my favorite pork products on hand and decided to hole up and cook up a pork storm. Here's the menu, with commentary:

Oven roasted red and sweet potatoes. Not much to say about this, but be liberal with the salt and the fat. Using both olive oil and dots of butter makes a huge difference. I came to cooking salt-phobic, as I think most Americans are because we've been fed a line of hooey about salt. Did you know that most salt in America's diet does not come from salt shakers in home kitchens but from processed food? So relax already, make dinner at home and salt your food.

Pork tenderloin crusted with sea salt, pepper and rosemary. Again, the key here is adequate salt and for the love of God, do not overcook it. A pinkish hue is not the death knell of trichinosis, it's completely necessary. If it's all white, it will not taste good. Please trust my many pork mistakes and if you don't, check out this guide that tells you in caps, twice, DO NOT OVERCOOK. You could brown it in a pan beforehand for extra yumminess, and while I support that decision completely, I'm too lazy for that.

I want to take a minute to talk about silver skin. That's the tough, connective tissue on tenderloins that isn't edible, doesn't melt away like fat and makes for unpleasant dining. Initially I didn't understand it and was intimidated by doing stuff to raw meat so would ignore it. Then I read Bill Buford's Heat and understood it really did need to go and I could do it. I remove the bigger clumps of fat with a scissor but the silver skin needs a sharp, pointy knife to separate it from the meat. This little guy sharpened my knives up nicely.

Roasted brussels sprouts with pancetta. I use a variation of this recipe. I had made this once before with amazing results. This time it wasn't as good and I want to share why so you don't make the same mistakes.

Pancetta quality. First time around I bought the pancetta from a butcher, who cut me a large slab, then trimmed into smaller pieces for me. When I got home I then trimmed those into even smaller pieces using a scissor. This time I used packaged, pre-cubed pancetta at Trader Joe's. Certainly faster, more convenient and cheaper but taste was a big FAIL. Don't bother. If you can't find pancetta, you'd be better off swapping it out with good quality bacon.

Amount of fat. Last go around was quite delicious, though a tad greasy, so I decided this time after draining the pancetta, I would take half of the fat out of the pan before continuing with the recipe. I'm wishing I hadn't been so drastic. But maybe with a higher quality pancetta I would be able to use less fat because it would have more flavor.

Pan choice. Last time I used my go-to pan, a heavy stainless Calphalon, and the result was beautifully browned and carmelized. This time I used a non-stick Calphalon, not for any particular reason, and didn't get nearly the same nice browning and carmelization. I'll definitely go back to the other pan. I keep learning that the overwhelming majority of the time, non-stick is not the right choice and since maybe it will kill us anyway, that's probably for the best.

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