The Nasty Bits: Chicharrones Guisados (Stewed Fried Pork Rinds)
Pork cracklings are one of those foods I can't keep in the house, along with potato chips and cereal. All three of course belong in the crispy-crunchy family, for which I have a deep fondness. (Will it break into little shards in my mouth? Then yes, please!)
I simply lose control over and cannot be trusted when snacking on cracklings. But what if you used cracklings as an ingredient in a dish? That way you eat only a portioned amount (that is, in principle.) I got the idea in San Antonio, while dining at La Gloria, a restaurant devoted to Mexican street food and run by chef Johnny Hernandez.
Midway into the meal, the chef sent out small plates on which even smaller plates seemed to nest. The smaller "plates" were actually rounds of fried masa (corn dough) called sopes. What a genius idea, to make an edible plate on top of which more items can be piled.
The sopes contained chicharrones simmered until very tender and sopping with the juices of tomatoes and tomatillos and chilies. You get the crunch of the corn patty, the softness of the chicharrones, the sauce that pools and spreads to the rims of the sopes. Also, queso fresco. And crema. So many delicious things piled into one little corn vehicle.
Naturally when I got home I set out to replicate the feel of the dish. The kind of rinds at La Gloria are an involved affair, and I couldn't wait that long to eat more cracklings. It was the perfect excuse to buy my beloved deep-fried pork rinds, the sort you can get at Mexican grocery stores (or, yes, I have even succumbed to their siren call at Walmart and gas stations all over the country.)
I recreated chef Hernandez's sauce, smoky and spicy with these canned chili in adobo (one of my favorite last-minute additions to a stew). Then I added the cracklings. Over multiple batches, I've found that my preferred cooking time is about three minutes, from when the chicharrones hit the sauce until you serve them. Cooked for such a short period, the cracklings retain a bit of their crispy deep-fried goodness.
Now, if you live somewhere where these cracklings are not available, you can also use fresh pork belly, using this method I wrote about a few years ago, courtesy of Kenji. (It will not be the same, but you will still get the general feel of crispy pork softened by delicious sauce.)
Sopes, by the way, are really fun to make. Using the same masa mixture you'd use to fashion homemade tortillas, you can instead make these disc-like things by molding the rims once they are halfway cooked. To do so, grab the browning rounds of dough off the griddle, form the rim with your fingertips, and put them back on the griddle to finish cooking. Ouch. But worth it.
Of course, if you're not inclined to burn your digits, you can serve stewed rinds any which way: in tortillas, atop rice and beans, or scrambled with eggs. Possibilities abound.
Finally, a note on sopes: The street snack can be found in innumerable incarnations in Mexico but always begin with a pan-fried corn base of some kind, which holds beans, cheese, red or green salsa, and often meat or some other featured filling. They go by various other names (pelliscada, memela) and appear in various other forms and shapes.
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About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.