On a recent trip to New Mexico I came down with a fever-turned-stomach flu so debilitating that it left me all but incapacitated. I hate to say that it all began with a burrito, but I'm fairly certain it did. The offending burrito contained chicharrones as well the green chile for which New Mexico is justly famous, and it was in part due to my affection for green chile and fatty pork that I ignored the telltale ticklish feeling in the back of my throat, the harbinger of what was soon to come.
The burrito was exceptionally crafted: Among fluffy potatoes, each bite of chicharrones released spigots of porky juice; the green chile, sweet and roasted, nestled alongside eggs and cheese. I polished off the burrito and ordered another one to go.
A few hours later, I was bedridden and remained so for two weeks, which left me a lot of time to think about things as I lay writhing in bed, half-delusional and very hungry.
I was always hungry. Nothing I ate agreed with my system or stayed in there for very long, though I was always attempting to eat things. One day I consumed an entire large watermelon and three whole blocks of tofu. I tried all kinds of things that people who are sick are supposed to eat—plain cereal, plain crackers and ginger ale, soups and noodles, and oatmeal. The only thing that sat well inside my stomach was, much to my chagrin, pork rinds.
These were not the newly fried bits of skin and fatty pork that had made me so ill, but rather, skin that has been fried and dehydrated for preservation. Like dried porcini or dried red chilies, the pork skin must be reconstituted in water before use.
Off-white in color and extremely puffy with just the slightest sheen of oil upon touch, the sheets of skin can be found at most Asian markets. The skin, soaked overnight, is ready to use when it feels like pliable foam. Texturally, they are unlike any other pork skin product I've eaten, most of which have tasted like pork and possessed some degree of crispy texture. These dried pork rinds are only vaguely meaty, with a soft and moderately chew that subtly squeaks, like cheese curds.
If the skin is simmered in a good-quality broth, then each bite of it gushes with flavorful liquid. It fact its spongelike ability to sop up liquid that makes this type of pork skin so unique and worth seeking out, among all the other delicious pork rind products you could be eating. Once reconstituted in water, the pork skin may be used in a variety of ways: simmered in delicate broth, added to heartier stews and braises, or stir-fried with vegetables and tofu.
I ate pork rinds simmered in soup every day for two weeks. They were usually cooked in a pork bone broth, but the other ingredients varied from day to day. Sometimes I'd add napa cabbage, bok choy, or tofu; other times, I'd forgo anything fresh and add mung bean noodles (also called cellophane noddles) in the broth. I still have no idea why, among all the other soothing items I tried to eat, it was pork skin that proved so useful in my convalescence.
Bed rest is no rest at all. If you are sick enough to be permanently installed in your bed, then you are most likely suffering from an ailment that keeps you from dozing off peacefully. I did not sleep, but instead lay there thinking unproductive thoughts. Not altogether possessed of my rational faculties, I became convinced that since chicharrones had made me so sick, my only hope of getting better was to find salvation from another kind of pork skin product. I insisted on this belief, sometimes wistfully, sometimes vehemently, to anyone who came to call on me and watched as my pool of visitors dwindled. Finally, on a bright day with the kind of stunningly azure, American Southwestern sky, I crawled out from my bed and stopped eating pork rinds simmered in soup. It had rained the night before and the air was heavy with the scent of fallen wild apricots. Slowly but steadily, I walked over the local burrito joint and got another chicharrones burrito to go.
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.