What’s new in the pork world is, in fact, old. We’re hankering for the pork our grandmothers used to cook – fattier, juicier, and more flavorful. Pork tenderloin is lean and tender, but it’s also bland. “It lacks identity,” declares Chef John Brand of Ostra restaurant located in San Antonio, TX. However, he has no reservations about pork belly: “Cooked right, it’s a beautiful thing.”
The rich texture of properly cooked secondary cuts has made them a hit with white-tablecloth chefs, but despite pork's popularity, offering it the old-fashioned way presents some challenges. Diners have been trained to reject the most succulent cuts of pork in the name of healthier habits, and in response, American producers have bred leaner pigs. The delectable, lightly marbled pork that chefs now want is harder to find, but they are not deterred. Reintroducing pork’s richness to customers has chefs’ creative juices flowing.
Tricks of the Trade
While pork belly sells like hotcakes in California and New York, some chefs have found that their markets aren’t as adventurous. Brand suggests highlighting the cooking method, rather than the cut, on the menu. Calling it pork confit or slow-roasted pork may help hesitant diners get on board. Brand’s other tricks include blanching pork belly in stock to render some of the fat and dry rubbing it with salt and spices before roasting it until it’s meltingly tender. “You should be able to pull off a chunk with a plastic spoon,“ he counsels. For the presentation, he weights down the meat as it cools and then portions it. After glazing the pork belly with coffee-molasses sauce, he serves it with stone-ground grits-corn pudding and a quail egg for his own take on bacon and eggs.
Evan Treadwell of Lido at the Dolphin Bay in Shell Beach, CA, is a fan of fattier pork shoulder (about $2/lb), which he braises then simmers in barbecue sauce to stuff into empanandas. He also buys whole pigs, a huge project, he concedes, but one that inspires him to get creative. He might dry rub a leg with salt and spices, wrap it in cheesecloth, and hang in walk-in for nine months to cure, prosciutto-style. He also makes head cheese with braised cheek meat and vegetables in gelee, which he serves sliced alongside a vegetable salad.
For his rendition of pork rillettes, Chef Kendal Duque of The Chicago Firehouse, braises a mix of belly and shoulder and then reduces the liquid completely away before stir-frying the cooked meat in the remaining fat. He packs the meat in small preserving jars, capping them with fat in the traditional French manner, and serves the rillettes in the jar on a wooden board with fig or quince preserves, mesclun salad, and grilled sourdough.
Pouring it On
However succulent, pork shoulder and belly will never outsell the leaner cuts. To battle bland tenderloins and leathery chops, chefs have turned to marinades, rubs, and brines to add flavor and moisture. Treadwell makes his own brines flavored with apple cider vinegar or juice, maple syrup, mustard, herbs, and sweet spices. “Experiment with brining times,” he suggests. Leaner cuts can stay in the brine longer, whereas fattier cuts absorb the brine more quickly.
Pretty in Pink
Because a raw, double-cut chop requires a 30-minute firing time, preroasting is a real time-saver. Treadwell notes, “On a busy night, you can pick up ten or 15 minutes if the chop is preroasted.” Brand advises steering clear of the convection oven for the preroasting step, though, because of shrinkage. “You completely lose the end cut, and the meat becomes way too dry. He confesses, “We learned the hard way!”
Duque has a different take. He removes marinated double-cut chops from refrigeration in batches 30 to 45 minutes before needed, and he preseasons them. Preseasoning acts like an abbreviated version of salt curing, he explains, adding remarkable depth of flavor. Like brining, preseasoning keeps meat juicier. He marks the chops on the grill but finishes them in the oven’s gentler, indirect heat, about 20 minutes for a 12-ounce portion. While the chop rests, he makes a warm vinaigrette with the fat remaining in the pan, a splash of cassis vinegar, and Maldon salt. A slice of Berkshire pork bacon and arugula-green apple salad round out the plate.
Most chefs insist that lean cuts must not be overcooked. When trichinosis was a concern, everyone ate pork well done. Now we know cooking pork to 144°F is enough to kill the parasite. A little bit of pink means better flavor, texture, and juiciness. If a customer requires well-done pork, Treadwell butterflies a pre-roasted chop. If it’s thinner, it won’t have to stay on the grill as long.
While commodity pork growers have been choosing low-fat breeds that are suitable for intensive farming operations, a niche market for old-fashioned purebred pigs has blossomed. These include Berkshires (called Kurobuta in Japan, where they are very popular), Durocs, and others. Four-footed equivalents of heirloom vegetables, heritage breeds pack more fat, because they haven’t been intensively crossbred. Their meat is darker pink, lightly marbled, juicier, and more flavorful than standard pork. Sources for heritage pigs include family farms and farming coalitions such as Niman Ranch and Eden Natural Certified Berkshire Pork. Even Sysco has created its own brand called White Marble Farms pork.
Most of the new heritage pork is touted as “all-natural,” but every pedigreed pig is not created equal. “Natural,“ according to the USDA, means only that the pork is “minimally processed.” While some heritage producers raise their animals in confinement barns similar to high-production operations, others raise their pigs outside, sustainably, on a completely vegetarian diet, or without antibiotics and hormones. Chefs need to ask how their supplier operates and exactly what they’re paying for. Partnering with a local farmer can help ensure the quality and sustainability of the meat.
“Heritage pork is the Kobe beef of pigs” quips Treadwell.
Brand adds, “We have the idea pork is cheap, but heritage pork loin costs me almost as much as beef tenderloin” -- almost $9 per pound through his Denver meat purveyor. “But it's well worth it,” he insists. “There's no trim needed, so it’s 100 percent yield.” In addition, heritage pork can shrink up to 50 percent less during cooking, also resulting in better yields.
In all cases, today’s pork requires a little lip service in the dining room. Treadwell trains his waitstaff to talk to customers about heritage pork. Duque has put the word Berkshire on the menu to pique interest and to invite diners to ask questions. “Sourcing great ingredients is the most important thing I do as a chef,” he contends. “We tasted eight different brands of pork before selecting the one we now offer, and I use simple presentations to let the meat shine.”
Suppliers of Heritage and Natural Pork
Brown Boar Farm www.brownboarfarm.com Vermont
Flying Pigs Farm www.flyingpigsfarm.com New York
Hollins Farm www.hollinfarms.com Virgina
S. Texas Heritage Pork www.southtexasheritagepork.com Texas
Niman Ranch www.nimanranch.com California
Eden Farms www.betterpork.com Iowa
Salmon Creek www.independentmeat.com Idaho