The Butcher's Cuts: Pork Brisket
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. 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.
Pork Brisket Braised in Milk
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If you ask for a pork brisket at the meat department of a regular supermarket, you may get a funny look from the person working behind the counter.
"Beef brisket?" they'll ask, assuming that you want cow.
A real butcher will know exactly what you want. Though brisket is the term applied to the bottom half of the shoulder section of the cow (not including shank), the same muscular groups can be found on the pig as well as the lamb, for that matter. Scaled up or down, all the animals in the shop share the same bones and muscular structures. Stare at meat long enough and you'll start to the profound similarities rather than the differences on the surface.
Pork brisket is simply a substantial part of a boned-out picnic ham. (A picnic ham, as we discussed in a Nasty Bits post regarding the primals, is the lower half of a full shoulder on a pig.) I'm calling this cut on the pig a pork brisket to emphasize that what we value on the beef brisket—the fatty marbling and connective tissue that breaks down with cooking—can be found on the the pig as well.
Though it's sometimes dismissed as too fatty, a pork brisket is actually an ideal cut to roast or braise. Roasts, whether dry-roasted or braised, can be tricky to get just right. Unlike soup bones, which can be cooked for as long as you like, or steaks, which are generally better on the undercooked side, a roast must be perfectly tender and juicy to be good at all. A well-crafted jus can mask some of the problems with an overcooked or overly lean roast, but there's really no hiding a large hunk of meat that's too dry to be palatable.
Pork loin roasts have a tendency to dry out and legs are even more fickle to control. The bottom half of the shoulder, on the other hand, has plenty of fat to keep a roast or a braise tender throughout the lengthy cooking time. Besides which, if you ask your butcher to leave the skin-on, you'll have the additional benefit of crispy skin on your roast.
I was first turned on to the idea of a pork brisket by Hans, the retired CIA master butcher who's now a staple at Fleisher's. At the shop the general rule is that whatever Hans says is the correct thing, not only because he began as a butcher's apprentice at the tender age of eleven and knows everything there is to know about meat, but also because he's formidable in all respects.
Two weekends ago we all watched Hans slaughter a pig. As background information, you should know that there is an old video of Hans that was made decades ago, in which he is filmed walking into a pen and putting his arm around a pig. Ten minutes later in the video the pig has been fabricated into pork. Hans insists that it is his brother in the video and not him, but we all know better. The running joke at the CIA is that if Hans puts his arm around you, you'd better run in the other direction.
So it was Hans that first mentioned that the lower pork picnic, extending from the first to the fifth rib, would make for an ideal braise. Ask your butcher to bone out the lower ends of the ribs that will be in the cut, and what you'll end up with—not counting the hock at the very bottom—is the pork brisket. If you don't want to use your oven, you can slowly barbecue the meat in your grill, though playing with fire is always considerably more difficult to control than the steady heat of the oven.
Pork braised in milk is a classic—Italians lay claim to it, as do southerners in the U.S. In either case, the recipe couldn't be easier: You roll up and tie the pork brisket with salt and your choice of herbs like rosemary and thyme. You brown the meat, then immerse it halfway in milk with lemon juice and stick the pot into the oven. Two hours later, the roast will emerge nicely browned on the outside and tender within. The milk will have curdled into fluffy masses that are slightly savory and toasted, making for a unique sauce to go along with your braise.
As if all of this weren't enough to tempt the senses, you can place the roast underneath the broiler for just a minute after it's taken out of the braise. The flames will make the surface of the roast blister into crispy pustules of rich, porky skin.
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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.