Serious Eats: Recipes
The Nasty Bits: Pig's Skin
When we think of eating organs, we imagine the red, glossy innards of various beasts and fowl. The skin, however, the largest organ of them all, is a boon for the cook and meat lover. When stewed, skin adds body and gelatin to the stock; when baked or fried, its crisp qualities are incomparable.
I'd never worked before with such a large section of pig skin; usually my forays into skin involve some kind of poultry. The swath of pig skin I purchased was at least three feet in length and a foot across. With just a thin layer of fat attached, the skin was supple and white with a pale-pink suggestion of meat on its underside. I was struck with the strangest inclination to wrap it around myself like a shawl.
Instead, I salted the skin and left it to cure in the refrigerator for five days, following directions for "Pork Scratchings" in Fergus Henderson's Beyond Nose to Tail. With his typical flair, Henderson pronounces the crisped pieces of skin to be "a most steadying nibble." Salted, soaked, and stewed in fat, the skin puffed up in the oven to a golden-brown hue. Crisper and chewier than typical pork cracklings or chicharrones, the skin was an addictive snack as well as a meaty topping for potatoes and soup--a steadying nibble, indeed.
A pithy sequel to The Whole Beast, Beyond Nose to Tail is filled with the kind of fanciful recipes that make Henderson's style so distinct. Sometimes a recipe is just a recipe; for the most memorable cooks and chefs, the recipe is a glimpse into the psyche of its author. Impenetrable at times yet assuring when you most need it, Henderson's diction often veers toward the poetic.
For anyone who has observed the workings of the kitchen with a literary eye, there's a good deal of method to Henderson's madness. Meats stewed until they are fork-tender or falling off the bone are often deemed "thoroughly giving," amounts are specified in terms of "good doses," and measurements for butter are given in "knobs." Oftentimes, cookbook authors write about their subjects with anthropomorphic intimacy: Julia Child described zucchini, eggplants, and tomatoes simmering together for ratatouille as a "brief commingling" in the pot; Henderson's direction for soup is to "cook down until they have really got to know each other."
Henderson's recipe for pork scratchings follows a method roughly akin to confiting: an initial salting, followed by a lengthy cooking in fat, ending with a crisping in the oven. The original recipe calls for the use of duck fat as the stewing medium; lacking poultry fat, I used home-rendered lard instead. If you find yourself with insufficient funds for duck fat or simply enjoy lard more, you can render your own by roughly chopping up chunks of back fat and slowly heating them up in a heavy pot. Over the course of an hour or so, you'll end up with many cups of light golden fat. Like confit, once the skin has been cooked in the fat, it may also be stored in the fat indefinitely if kept in the refrigerator. Pull out a few sections of the skin for a rainy day.
Unlike confit, there are no tender slivers of meat--just the skin, puffed up until the texture is chewy and hard, with a crisp yet sticky consistency. The gluey toughness of the skin results from its inherently gelatinous qualities. Even after the skin has been simmered and crisped in the oven, it retains some of its original gumminess, yielding a more interesting texture, not to mention a more vigorous exercise for your molars. Like potato chips or any other addictively salty snack, little cut-up pieces of the skin went quickly in the kitchen, accompanied by cool beers and good conversation.
Adapted from Beyond Nose to Tail by Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly.