Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Swine Dining: Going Whole Hog for Heritage Pork

Know what a Mangalitsa Hog is?  Well then, this story from Real Eats is for you. I'm offering a taste but you can read the whole dadgum thing by signing up for an absolutely free, no obligation trial. The writers get to use big words, talk food and a little politics, and there's some terrific recipes. Here's some excerpts from the article that's in the third issue:

Here’s a true bedtime story to relay to the kids: Back before the health-conscious ’60s and the advent of Wesson corn oil, pork was prized for its, well, piggyness. In those days, the more obese the pig the better. Not only did the animals provide tasty meat, but they also yielded copious amounts of lard, which was used in everything from French fries to pie crust to cakes.
These bygone hogs were raised outdoors, where they naturally developed a thick layer of fatback that helped protect them in harsh climates. Common on the diverse farm-scapes of yesteryear, pigs noshed on bugs and acorns, helped deal with much of the farm waste (discarded vegetables, kitchen scraps, etc.), and rooted around in mineral-rich soils, literally plowing through fields, helping to keep the ground soft and fertile.
At the end of the year, these four-legged garbage disposals would provide a delicious bonus to farm families by way of cured bacon, heavily marbled chops and roasts, ham and buckets of lard, which would sustain them through the winter months  ... [snip]
Thankfully, the locavore movement has provided increased support for small farmers who are focused on doing it the Old Way: Raising livestock in pastures on farms with healthy soils, and treating their hogs as humanely as possible from birth to slaughter, allowing them to generally muck around, reproduce and just be pigs. Many farmers are embracing heritage hog breeds like the popular and beloved Berkshire hogs, and the Red Wattle, an at-risk breed that has dark red, marbleized meat. (A heritage breed is one that dates back at least a hundred years – think heirloom tomatoes) ... [snip]
Leading the trend for sustainably raised heritage breed pork is a cadre of chefs from the farm-to-table ranks. Five years ago, I had the good fortune to taste a whole-pig, multi-course dinner prepared by Hiro Sone at Terra in St. Helena, Calif. Sone’s Japan-meets-Southern-France feast began with Kurobuta pork belly from Snake River Farms in Boise, Idaho (“Kakuni” served with fried Miyagi oysters and a black vinegar sauce); followed by crispy pig trotter with lobster salad and sauce gribiche; a carpaccio of spice-roasted Kurobuta pork jowl with string bean salad and tonnato sauce; ending with an almost creamy slow-cooked pork cheek on wild mushroom risotto with a red wine sauce. Talk about Hog Heaven ... [snip]
Some miles south, at the appropriately named Animal restaurant in West Hollywood, Niman Ranch pork is prepared by bad-boy chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who showcase a tour de force of swine from snout to tail. The restauranteurs were once chided by an LA food critic for using too much bacon, but their philosophy, according to Chef Shook, is: “It’s all good.” Pork pickin’s at Animal include a thick slab of house-made head cheese with pickled ramp vinaigrette and cornbread; “LA friendly” brined and braised pig tails “buffalo style” with a fiery sauce, celery, and ranch dressing (think oxtail with a twist); and a slow food specialty, pig ears, which are boiled 30 hours before a quick trip to the fryer. The crispy triangles are dressed in a chili-lime sauce and served with a pan-fried egg. Hog Heaven Part Deux!

If you really want to impress your foodie friends, order the next hot old/newcomer heritage pork known for its seriously heavy known for its seriously heavy marbling, the longhaired Hungarian Mangalitsa. Pronounced MON-go-leet-sa, this lard-type breed can be traced back to early 1900s Hungary. At La Provence restaurant in southern Louisiana (part of Chef John Besh’s restaurant group), the chefs actually help rear these special hogs before they become dinner. La Provence is located on farmland in Lacombe, where the restaurant staff also raises vegetables, herbs and other livestock for use in Besh’s various establishments.
La Provence’s Chef de Cuisine, Erick Loos IV, first researched the Mangalitsas to see how they’d fare in the hot and humid South before he made a road trip to Seattle to bring 10 of them home. The rare breed has been worth all the effort. “They’re like the Kobe beef of pork,” says Loos. “The sheer volume of fat is what they’re known for.”
According to Loos, the fat from the Mangalitsa hogs is mostly unsaturated due to a diet that consists primarily of wheat, barley and alfalfa (typically, hogs are fed corn and soy beans and alfalfa). The unique fat has a cleaner taste, says Loos: “You don’t get that over-stuffed full sensation when you eat it.”
The high-fat hogs, generally slaughtered at a whopping 350 pounds, take almost twice as long to raise as commercial animals do. La Provence and its sister restaurants have no problem dealing with a size XXXL pig. They use it all “from head to toe,” says Loos. Having their own Having their own smokehouse and curing room helps. In addition to making cured sausages, bacon and ham, the chefs use the head for headcheese, turn the tongue and brains into pâté, and incorporate the lard into chicken liver mousse and a pureed apple butter, which is served with house-made pretzels at restaurant Lüke in New Orleans. Unlike some of his peers, Chef Loos has yet to try his hand at whipping lard into high peaks like cream for fluffy garnish. Hopefully when he does, the end product will come with a portable defib.
To read the entire story, go see Real Eats at Nomad Editions. 
Photo credit: by David Cornwell, courtesy of Niman Ranch

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