For the next few weeks, we'll be bringing you a series called, "The Butcher's Cuts," inspired by Chichi's time and continuing efforts at Fleisher's Grass-fed & Organic Meats in Kingston, New York. Every post will highlight a part of the animal that's not typically sold at shops, for want of consumer demand. Every cut will be extremely delicious. Your butcher will cry when you request it, and then when you take the cut home, you'll know exactly what to do with it. This series will run in tandem with our regular Nasty Bits column, which will highlight some of the offal that Chichi ate at the shop and in the subsequent weeks back in her own kitchen.—The Mgmt.
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Deep Fried Chinese Ham Hock
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"You want to grip the knife like this," Josh said, holding his arm out at a right angle and gripping the handle of a 5-inch boning knife so that the tip of the instrument pointed directly down to the floor.
"This is called the pistol grip. Hold it like someone's going to take the knife from you."
The pistol grip is frightening for the beginner butcher. Holding it tightly, as if a hooligan could walk into the shop at any minute and wrestle it from your fingers, only augments the fear. With a chef's knife, you can be confident that your sharp blade meets with the cutting board. A pistol grip offers no such assurance. The tip of the knife points downward, which means that if you have your arm locked at a right angle and you're making a slashing movement, then you should be damn sure that there's no one standing behind you, and that your own side and your thigh are not in the way.
Why use such a grip? Try deboning a whole neck using anything but the tip of a knife, and you'll soon understand the importance of controlling a sharp tip that has the ability to weave in and out of sinews and joints with ease. With my fingers curved tightly around and my palm gripping the length of the handle, I felt a nervous energy coursing through my body. The nerves wore off with time, but never the sense that one careless move could be disastrous. Years ago Josh put a boning knife straight into his ribs. Now everyone at the shop is required to wear protective armor.
Joshua Applestone, Rockstar Butcher
The thrill of working with sharp knives has played no small part in transforming the butchering profession from a blue-collar job to a glamorous career. Much has been made of the rock-star status that the younger generation of butchers hold in our food culture today. Wearing a bloody apron and surrounded by carcasses, the maverick butcher wielding large knives strikes as iconic of a pose as that of the celebrity chef. Both the chef and the butcher possess impressive knife skills, yet only the latter is immersed in blood and guts. The nearness to death is more dangerous and by extension, more alluring.
Joshua Applestone is a rockstar butcher if there ever was one. When he's amused, which is quite often, his cackle reaches precipitately high octaves. One of his apprentices confirms that if Josh had it his way, everyone at the shop would cutting to the dulcet tunes of Madonna. Yet I don't really want to talk about the many tattoos on Josh's well-muscled arms, or the braided ponytail he ties carelessly at the back of his head.
There's a lot more to Josh than the brute strength he brings to his craft, though brute strength is certainly the way to describe someone who can break down a half side of pig in forty-seven seconds. When he wants to separate the hind leg of the pig from the mid-section, he does so by manually running a few back-and-forward jabs with a bandsaw along the edge of the leg. Then he drags the carcass to the edge of the table and snaps the leg right out of its joint. For the faint-hearted, the sound of bone cracking on bone is just as compelling as the visuals, which is sight to behold considering that all of it happens within seconds.
Still, what strikes me most about Josh is his kindness and empathy for others. A former vegan turned bacon lover, Josh extends his care to his employees, his customers, and of course, his animals. He oversees every carcass that arrives at the shop; to a butcher, signs of neglect or abuse on a carcass are plain to see.
When I first practiced the pistol grip, Josh and Hans set me to work breaking down legs and shoulders into sausage meat. As I ran the point of my knife down the seams connecting the muscle groups, I noticed small circles of discoloration—no bigger than the size of a quarter—in one or two of the pigs. The circles smelled slightly rank and felt mushy to the touch.
"What are those?" I asked.
Josh furrowed his brows and looked down at the meat. "Evidence that the pig was roughed up. It happens every so often and as it is there's just one or two spots. But it's definitely not okay. We'd have a problem on our hands if there were more of them."
Giving the unwanted circles a lot of leeway, I cut around the coins of decay and tossed them into the trash bin.
The Glory of Ham Hocks
I didn't feel fully comfortable with the pistol grip until the end of the week when, on a Friday evening, Josh set me to work deboning the pile of ham hocks that hadn't been sold in the case. All week I'd been slicing down scraps of meat and fat to toss in the chop bins for use in sausages and hamburger. Bits and pieces that would otherwise be unsellable, like the meat and fat between the ribs when you're cleaning up the loin, are prime candidates for the chop bin.
On the other hand, it seemed sacrilege to break down the hocks. Hocks are extraordinarily good to eat on their own: Located above the trotters but underneath the meatier sections of the pig that correspond to our own thighs and shoulders, hocks contain dark, tough flesh that breaks down into exceptionally tender meat during stewing—meat that's even more tender even than the shoulder. This tenderness is in large part due to the concentration of collagen—connective tissue that encases muscle groups in layers of white and webbed fronds—that's found in abundance in the hocks. Directly surrounding the meat is a layer of fat: not too thick and not too thin, approximately 1/4-inch in width. And then there's the skin: With the exception of the trotters and the tails, hocks possess the greatest surface area to volume ratio. In other words, pound for pound, you're getting a lot of skin relative to the amount of meat and fat.
"Why don't we just keep them whole?" I asked Josh.
"Um, does the sign on the front say 'Chichi's Butcher Shop'?" Josh teased. "Just do it. It's a shame that the hocks didn't sell, but we can use the meat for sausage and the bones for stock."
With a heavy heart and a firm grip, I set to work deboning the rest of the hocks. Of course, Josh let me keep one to bring home. My confidence in the pistol grip grew as I worked the tip of my knife in and around each section of dark flesh and watched as meat piled up in the chop bin. Somehow, knowing that I had rescued even one hock from the fate of sausages made all the difference.
How to Make Deep Fried Chinese Ham Hock
My mother used to make deep fried Chinese ham hock when I was a child, but as the years went by, she stopped deep-frying food and started working out at Curves. This recipe has been revived in my own household, where deep-fried foods are consumed as a reward for going to the gym. It's a beautiful dish, the kind that starts conversations about childhood memories and the importance that food plays in our recollections.
My mother, ever the thrifty cook, would first simmer the entire hock in wine, water, and ginger, thereby producing gelatinous stock for use in soup. The cooked hock would get a long soak in a classic red-braise marinade (soy sauce, sugar, star anise, and cinnamon), which would slowly work its way into the meat over the course of several hours. Then she gently recooked the hock to boil away the soy sauce and sugar.
The finale came when the entire hock was lowered into a giant vat of bubbling oil. I remember both shying away from the deep-fryer and being fascinated by the sounds of the skin crackling and bursting in the hot oil. Finally, the hock would emerge wholly transformed from the deep-fryer—the skin, perfectly crisp and the meat, perfectly tender and perfumed with soy and sugar. The crowning touch was a drizzle of honey on the hock at the last moment.
If you prefer, this recipe can be simplified by cooking the hock in a red-braise from the get-go rather than soaking it in the marinade after it's already been simmered. Doing so, however, poses two disadvantages: first, you lose the opportunity to produce a gelatinous, porky stock that can be used in soups and in other dishes; second,red-braising an item for two hours can be tricky. As the sugar reduces towards end of the cooking time, the sauce is more likely to burn. By marinating the hock in the soy sauce and sugar mixture and then monitoring a quick reduction in the pot, you side-step the risk of the sugar burning.
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About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.