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One Good Meal Wed Jan 19 2011
I love deep-fried pork skin. Whether you call them cracklins because they still have a touch of meat attached, or whether you call them pork rinds because they don't, I love them. The pork rinds at The Publican are something I have to order every time we go.
About a year ago I was wandering the meat counter at my local grocery store and I saw a package of "Belly Skin." I picked it up, asked the butcher what it was for, and in his broken English he told me it was pork skin with fat attached. The 3 pound package cost about $1, so I figured I'd find something to do with it. I took it home, did some research, and decided that I would marinate it in beer, cut it into small pieces, and deep-fry them. Well, not only did it almost result in my Fry-Daddy overflowing due to the excess beer in the pieces, but they were bitter. Horrible, awful. Not at all what I wanted. So I gritted my teeth and pitched the entire package.
I decided to research recipes someone could make with pork skin besides just deep-frying it. I came across an Italian recipe called "Cotechinata." ("Cotiche" means "pork skin.") It seemed simple enough. You make a mixture of various ingredients, spread it out on the pork skin, roll it up tightly, sear it, and then bake it in tomato sauce. So I kept my eyes peeled for the "Belly Skin" to appear again at the store. A few months later, I found a package and took it home to prepare it right away.
The skin was a piece about 8" wide by about 16" long. The fat layer was uneven. In some places it was trimmed almost to the skin, and in other places there was an inch of fat with some meat still attached. But I made up my mixture, spread it all over the skin, rolled it up, tied it with twine, seared it in a hot pan, doused it with tomato sauce and let it simmer for hours. It was gorgeous and I was excited.
I sliced it into rounds and served it with pasta. The sauce was delicious. Much of the liquid had evaporated so it had a very rich and condensed tomato flavor. It was a thick sauce, almost a spread. However, the roll itself was almost impossible to eat. The sections where the fat was thin were delicious, but the sections where the fat was thick were so unctuous and fatty that we couldn't eat more than a few bites of it. So we scraped off the stuffing and ate that with the sauce. Once again, an entire tray of pork skin was discarded.
And I would have stopped right there and never attempted the dish again; however, the tomato sauce was so delicious that I knew I wanted to try it again with skin that had most of the fat removed. But I just didn't know where to find it. I stopped into a city butcher and asked for some. They told me they could special order it, but I'd need to buy more than I really wanted, so I passed. I decided to just keep my eye out at the grocery store again for another package of fatty skin to appear and I'd then figure out how to remove all or most of the fat.
But before I could come across a package, I heard that Rob Levitt (formerly of Mado restaurant) would be opening a butcher shop. I immediately began following him on Twitter, Facebook and Levitt's blog for any updates. When I read that he might be opening this past weekend, I sent him an email telling him that I was looking for pork skin and asked if it was something he might be willing to sell me when he opened. He replied and said to come on by and he'd see what he could do.
I stopped by on Saturday hoping for an "OPEN" sign to be hanging in the window, and instead came face-to-face with a locked door. But he and his staff graciously let me come in and take photos and chat while Rob took a pork belly out of the refrigerator and cut the skin off in front of us. Levitt, a trained professional with some Popeye-like forearms, struggled for some time separating the skin from the fat. Obviously it wasn't too easy to get it removed in one piece, but he prevailed. A short time later I left the store with a small white paper package containing a piece of pork skin that was perfectly sized for my next experiment.
Once I was ready to get to cooking, I assembled my stuffing mixture and rinsed and patted dry the pork skin, then removed any remaining hairs -- an experience that made me want to buy a kitchen torch. Thankfully there weren't many spaces where the bristles remained on the skin; I knew the typical way to remove them was to just burn them off, but because I lacked a lighter, I pulled out my tweezers and took to plucking the remaining hair from the skin. It wasn't hard but it was trying enough to make me feel like I'd maybe gotten in over my head again.
However, I finished the recipe without problem, popped everything into the pan and let it cook for several hours. I boiled pasta, served up a couple of helpings and sat down to the table. Andrew took the first bite and uttered, "Oh man." I timidly took a first bite and chewed. The pork skin was butter-soft, the filling was perfectly balanced and blended fantastically with the tomato-sauce that was even better than I'd remembered it being. And then I did a little Cosby dance in my seat before taking a second bite.
It's not going to be a weekly meal -- it is pork skin and fat after all -- but it is definitely an impressive dish that is delightfully easy and so impressively flavored that I can see myself making it for friends who are adventurous eaters.
I don't want to say for sure, but I'm sure if you went to The Butcher & Larder and told them you wanted to try this dish, I bet they would do their best to slice you off some pork skin so you could. As long as you can get over the fact that you'll likely see the USDA stamp and you may even get skin that has the nipples attached, you'll be delighted by this dish.
2 square feet piece of pork skin (as long as it is at least 4" wide, you'll be fine)
1/2 cup of bread crumbs
1/2 cup of chopped Italian parsley
1/2 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese
10 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon of canola oil
1 quart of tomato sauce
salt and pepper to taste
12" lengths of kitchen twine.
Rinse the pork skin and pat it dry with paper towels. Run your hands over the surface of the skin in each direction to feel any bristle that may remain. You can singe them off, or you can follow my lead and use tweezers to remove them. Once you've got the skin cleaned, use a very sharp knife or a pair of kitchen shears to cut the skin into strips that are about 4-5" wide by about 8" long. Arrange the pieces on a flat work surface so the fat side is up.
Combine the bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic, and pepper flakes. Spread over the pork skin from edge to edge but leave about 1/2" on a short side uncovered. Begin at the short edge covered by filling and roll toward yourself tightly. Once the roll is tightly wound, roll it so the seam side is down against your counter or cutting board. Keeping the tight pressure on the skin, slide the twine under the roll and tie tightly in the middle. Trim off the loose ends.
Repeat with the remaining pieces of skin until everything is rolled and tied. Place a heavy-bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once the pan is heated, add the oil and a few of the rolls. Place the seam side toward the pan's surface and let it cook on each side for a few minutes. You'll hear a lot of popping and may even see the rolls shrink and move. This is natural. It is better to cook the rolls in batches than to cram them into the pan all at once. If they're touching it will take longer to get the crust on the outside. Once the outside of the rolls are light brown and bubbly, lower the heat to low, arrange all the rolls in the bottom of the pan, and pour the tomato sauce over the top. Place the cover on the pan and let it simmer for about 3-4 hours.
You'll know the dish is ready when your stomach growls incessantly -- and when the rolls seem tender, and like they may dissolve and fall apart if you squeezed them. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper if desired. Place your pasta on to boil, and once it is almost ready, remove the pork rolls from the pan and place on a cutting board. Gingerly cut each roll into four slices. Once the pasta is ready, drain it and dish it into bowls or plates. Toss some of the rich tomato sauce over the noodles and they layer the pork skin slices on top. Serve with a dash of fresh parsley or Parmesan cheese if desired.
The rolls will be so tender you can cut them with the edge of your fork. The creamy texture of the skin will seem soft and practically melty when compared to the al-dente texture of the pasta. The rich condensed flavor of the tomato sauce will contrast nicely with the garlicky and slightly spicy filling.
Serve this dish with a heavy, bold red wine or a brown ale. Be aware that a food coma will likely hit you. But the rich, cozy, warm feeling is perfect for the weather we're blessed with in January.