The cure for what ails you

It’s no secret, my love affair with pork products. It’s an underappreciated meat that spent years with a bad reputation garnered from night after night of dry, leathery pork chops for dinner – or worse, trichinosis. (For the record, Mom rarely cooked pork chops. And when she did, they were great.) Recently, it’s started to come back in vogue, particularly as sausages or even better as bacon.

For me, once I got past some really great mustard-covered thick pork chops on the grill at home, my thoughts turned to pork belly. Not as bacon, actually, but as pancetta. Truth is, I’ve never had pancetta, nor have I really been able to find it in stores except in small slices for way too much money. Pancetta is, in essence, unsmoked bacon – they’re both cured pork belly, with slightly different seasonings. Where bacon is smoked after the cure, pancetta is rolled and hung to dry.

I got quite interested in this a few years ago when this book was hitting the shelves (which, sadly, I still don’t yet own). Curing meat at home is a great way to learn what’s behind the packaged bacon, salami, and other preserved meats at the grocery store, and to put your own finesse on it. However, two concerns stopped me from going gung-ho:

  1. Houston is humid. I don’t have anyplace in the house that is cool, relatively low humidity, and likely to stay that way – cellars, for a variety of reasons, just aren’t a possibility here.
  2. I don’t have anyplace to hang the meat to dry. And while the food guy in me loves the idea of going in to the study every morning to work among parts of pig and cow hanging in the middle of the room, that would almost certainly cause a divorce. And that would be bad. (Love you, honey! Mwah!)

So, I basically shelved the idea in the back of my mind, where it reared up every now and again. Plus, I couldn’t find pork belly anywhere. Not at the Asian or Mexican markets down the road here. Not at the new higher-end grocery store that opened nearby (and that was the first question I asked the meat department manager on opening day, too). Not anyplace, at least not without driving to the far other end of town in the heart of Chinatown.

My principle here is that, unless I’m after a very VERY specific ingredient that just makes or breaks a meal – and there are extremely few of those – I want to build my everyday cooking skills and foundation, not chase down an ideal dish. The magic of being a skilled cook is being able to take what is available around you and turn it into something extraordinary. Good cooking – not the haute cuisine of the restaurants, but the rich and fulfilling cuisine bonne femme, the housewife’s cooking that your grandmother and her grandmother and so on knew – rose out of necessity, scarcity, and fundamental skills. It’s not what you spend on the food, it’s what you can do with it that counts.

Back to the pig. Since then, I’ve had pork belly in a few restaurants on business trips, and wanted to get a sense of what it was like to work with the raw cut of meat itself, with the thick layers of fat and potentially tough meat. No luck finding it still.

Then, a few weeks ago, I read this article, and that’s when the light from Heaven came down and angels sang. Bacon doesn’t need to hang dry! Hell, you can skip the smoking part if you want! Suddenly, I was a man on a mission – but without James Brown doing backflips down an Illinois church aisle, sadly.

B&W Meat CompanyThen, I found the holy grail. My Camelot, in this case, is B&W Meat Company, partway between our house and Christine’s studio. They are a full service butcher, the kind of place I’ve only read about in books. If they don’t have it in the case, they’ll cut it to order for you with a smile. Places like this are definitely a dying breed; major markets now get their meat in either totally prepackaged or partly processed and portioned behind the counter. Here, I can walk in and ask for exotic cuts or rare parts of beef, pork, or poultry, and they’ll fill the order without batting an eyelash. Heaven.

(Also, a quick shout out to the folks at Allied Kenco, who’ll supply you with everything you need or didn’t know you needed for curing meats, making sausage, smoking foods, and so forth. If I’d had more than ten minutes to shop, I probably could’ve lost an afternoon in their store.)

The one thing about the pork belly at B&W? I brought it home frozen. I also underestimated how long a four pound slab of pork would take to defrost in the refrigerator (two full days, for the record). Once that was done, I got a good long look at the beast (below left). I couldn’t tell if it had folded when it froze, but instead what I found was that the meat naturally had a buckle in it. I trimmed it to square and prepare for the cure (below right):

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I mixed the cure to the right proportions, and used a generous 1/4 C of cure on the slab – a little bit excessive, I think, but not all of it stuck. Rub the cure in on all sides of the meat, then the pork belly is ready for curing!

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Then pop it into a ziploc bag and into the fridge it goes, flipped over every other day, for 7 days (or longer, if needed) to cure. The result?

Well, that’s a story for another time.