THEY call me Pork Boy, and as far as I'm concerned, the Year of the Pig couldn't have come at a better time. At long last, after decades of abuse, my favorite meat is once again getting a little love.
I come by my nickname honestly. It's a rare week that goes by at my house when I don't fix pork in some form or another. In fact, I'll bet if you added it all up, I probably cook as much pork as I do all other meats combined.
No meat offers a cook more than pork does. Beef and lamb have force of personality; pork has depth and subtlety. It offers a variety of flavors and textures. You can roast it, stew it, grill it or fry it. It has been the foundation of cuisines as diverse as Mexican, Italian and Chinese.
One of the best restaurant meals I had last year was a suckling pig feast at Triumphal Palace, the fine Chinese restaurant in Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley. Um, actually, make that two of the best meals -- the first was so good I went back and did it again.
It seems that you can't turn around these days without bumping into a charcuterie platter, and what are prosciutto, salumi and Serrano ham but the pig's leap toward immortality?
Then there are carnitas -- perfectly fried (in lard, of course) so they're crisp on the outside and creamy inside. And what about barbecue ribs, slow-smoked so long that the meat is firm and a little chewy but still pulls cleanly away from the bone?
And surely it's occurred to someone besides me that pork belly -- usually braised until it's silky and then browned to a delicious crunch -- seems to be the new foie gras. The dish is everywhere, so ubiquitous that chefs may be in danger of loving it to death. Wait till they discover the chewy goodness of trotters!
Pork is a boon to home cooks too, because you can do so many things with it. With pork in the refrigerator, a great dinner is never far away. Here are just a few of the ways I've most enjoyed pork in the last couple of months:
For Christmas dinner I brined a crown roast in spiced apple cider and filled the inside of the crown with wild rice spiked with dried fruit. It was regal, particularly when served with the old Chateau Margaux a generous friend brought.
Another grand holiday dinner at a friend's house featured a wonderful arista -- a rack of pork generously dusted with fennel pollen, then roasted. Still another starred a moist porchetta baked on a thick bed of fennel and other vegetables.
One of my favorite party dishes is a big picnic shoulder, roasted low and slow until the meat is moist, then finished with a blaze to crisp the skin to crackling. For less than $1 a pound, you can feed an army.
Thick-cut pork chops are perfect for the grill pan. Sear them on both sides, then reduce the heat and cover them to cook through. All you need is a vegetable -- last week my choice was sauteed kale -- and you have a wonderful weeknight dinner that's prepared in about half an hour.
A couple of nights later I pounded thin-cut chops flat until they were nearly wide enough to fill a small plate. Then I dredged them lightly in flour, an egg wash and finally fresh bread crumbs before frying them until they were shining and golden (in butter, of course, or maybe butter cut with vegetable oil). I topped these with an arugula salad spiked with a tart lemon juice dressing.
I've made three or four ragus. Pork braises well if you start with a nice fatty cut, like the butt, shoulder or country ribs (these come from the blade end of the loin near the shoulder; they're meatier but a little tougher than those farther back).
Stew them in a tomato sauce, or go for something German by cooking it in white wine, with cabbage and caraway. Simmer cubes of pork butt in a red chile broth until the meat is falling apart, and then stir in cooked hominy for an amazing pozole.
Pork loves to be cooked with its own kind, so the more different cuts you add to a braise, the better -- prosciutto, pancetta, salt pork, salumi, fresh sausage, bacon (say them loud, it's like music playing!) -- they'll all add their own particular savor.
Still, even with all of those wonderful possibilities, it hasn't been easy being a pork lover during the last couple of decades. In the first place, so much of the pork we get just isn't very good. It's lean and pale, and if mishandled it winds up virtually flavorless and so dry it has the texture of shoe soles.
To try to correct that, the big pork producers have taken to selling meat that is already brined in a salt and phosphate bath. This may keep the meat moist, but it makes it oddly rubbery and slippery, almost like badly cooked octopus. It is an abomination.
And you don't have to look very far to find horror stories about how pigs are raised. If the term "manure lagoon" doesn't spoil your appetite, nothing will.
Fortunately, things are beginning to turn around.
What happened to modern pork is a simple combination of diet and economics.
Pork gets a makeover