Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Wooly Pig Belly Confit

Looking out the window there is every appearance that it’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, there is not a cloud in the endless bright blue sky. The Olympics are white-capped in the far distance. It’s one of those rare Winter days in the Northwest where it’s not raining. Heresy, I know! You feel like you really, really need to be outside. And then you look at the thermometer and see that no, it still hasn’t risen above freezing. Winter in Seattle. If it's not raining, it's ass cold.

So instead I’m in a nice warm coffee shop. You really forget how much better things like coffee and dark beers are when it’s cold outside. Which is why we spend so much time in coffee shops and pubs I suppose.

This post was several months in the making, and I decide to wait until I could tell it start to finish, rather than limp along in installments. It begins with my September attempt at Confit of Wooly Pig. If you will remember, I was fresh out of decent quality fat to confit it in, and rather than use sketchy factory hydrogenated lard I opted to use olive oil. And it worked fairly well, and the pork was quite tasty although the olive oil was a bit overly flavorful. Well, Mr. Wooly Pigs himself, Heath, read the post, and was slightly aghast at the olive oil solution. Credit where credit is due, the man is an absolute evangelist for his pigs and offered to give me some real proper pig fat to try. So I happily took him up on his kind offer, and also purchased a hefty chunk of Wooly Pig Belly from him.

The idea was to recreate the smash hit of last FryDay 2008: Pork Belly Confit, but using Wooly Pig belly this year and confiting it in Wooly Pig lard.

Step One: “To Make Soap, First We Render Fat”

Or, to make confit I guess. The first rule of Confit Club is you do not talk about Confit Club. But I digress. Early in October Heath gave me about 2lbs of Wooly Pig fat. As mentioned in the last Wooly Pig post, these guys are bred to be serious lard hogs and do not disappoint. I took my cleaver and hacked up the fat into roughly 1/2” chunks. My grinder is out of action right now, I would have preferred to have chilled these to just above freezing and run them through the large die. Oh well.

The fat went in a pot with a couple tablespoons of water. The idea is to get the fat to slowly render out without browning or burning anything. The water helps get the initial amount of fat rendered before evaporating off. Onto the stove until just simmering. Then the pot went into the oven, without a lid, for four hours at 250. Every hour or so I gave it a stir. Then ran everything through a strainer. Voila. Chilled, solidified and ready to go: some of the best lard in the world.

For some reason I think this picture is beautiful. It's kind of mesmerizing. Mmmm lard.

Step Two: Prepping the Belly

Step Two: Prepping the Belly

Wooly Pig belly is unlike any other pork belly I’ve used. It was thick, and almost entirely fat. I actually laughed a bit when I got it on the cutting board, I had no idea how it would hold up in the confit.

I carefully trimmed out the few rib bones, and then sliced it into sticks slightly larger than lardons. Maybe 2-3” by ½” by ½”.

The base recipe is Jim Drohman's Pork Belly Confit from Charcuterie. Drohman runs Le Pichet right here in Seattle but I've never been. Need to get out there!

Anyhow the belly strips went into a dish and were left to marinate overnight in:
  • 1 t black pepper
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • pinch of cloves
  • pinch of allspice
  • 1 small bay leaf, crumbled
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 T kosher salt
  • pinch of pink salt (sodium nitrite)
  • Dry White Wine to cover (I used Pinot Gris)

Step Three: Confit

After two days I carefully dried and layered the belly pieces in the bottom of a pan. I heated the lard just until it melted, then poured it over making sure that all the pieces were covered. Heated on the stove till simmering, then it went in the oven at 250 for about two hours. I let it cool in the fat on the stove, then layered the pieces in a Tupperware container and poured the fat over the top, again making sure everything was covered. Lid on, into the fridge. See you in two months.

Seriously, it will be fine. Confiting was how many people preserved food before refrigeration.

Step Four: Fry Day

Every year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we celebrate (and then bemoan) Fry Day. It developed as a way to reuse the oil leftover from frying the Thanksgiving turkey and has since turned into a gut-stomping festival of oddly inspired fried things.

For example, on a belly-related note, my mother made Chicken Fried Bacon this year.

It was sick and wrong. It was crunchy and maple-y. It was salty and delicious. Somewhere some poor bastard eats this with horrifying regularity. And probably protests against Healthcare Reform too.

So on Fry Day the belly confit went into the oven at 150 until the fat had melted again. This makes it much easier to remove from its protective fat, a lesson learned hard after the prior year’s confit. Carefully arranged on a spider, then lowered into 350 degree oil. Deep fry until crispy and puffy and golden brown and delicious. Goes well with a good mustard.

And of course, since I was frying, I don't have any photos. After all this work. D'oh!

How was it?

I’ve got to say, overall, a bit of a disappointment. The problem was not the quality of the ingredients, but rather their use in this application. The Wooly Pig Belly was simply too fatty for this. Think about it this way. Really good bacon is all about the balance of fatty and porky, salty and smoky, crunchy and chewy. There just wasn’t enough meat in the belly to get much pork flavor. It was crispy and delicious, and exploded in piggy fatty unctuousness, but ultimately was just too much. I think there has got to be a better preparation out there. Maybe trim an inch or so of the fat off, (and for godsakes save it and use it somewhere delicious!), and then roast the belly? Or maybe salt cure it and dry it? I’m guessing it would make outstanding lardo.

Of course the leftover lard is, if anything, more flavorful and interesting now that it has a hint of the confit spices. Even though the belly didn't work out as well as I'd hoped, the fat from these pigs is simply outstanding. So I’ve been using it to cook with. I’m thinking about doing some tamales with it soon, use up the leftover turkey…


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