Serious Eats: Recipes
The Nasty Bits: Stomach-Stuffed Arepas
To those who claim there's nothing better than a juicy steak, I offer the stomach as this week's counter-argument. Nose-to-tail eating affords a whole range of enticing textures. We often judge food by its taste, but texture is equally significant.
Chewy, stringy, mushy, spongy: though nothing one would want in a steak, these adjectives take on positive connotations for offal. Consider tripe, which is meant to be chewy and spongy in a tender, slowly-stewed kind of way. Tendon, another underappreciated part, turns soft and mushy after many hours of cooking.
Charred on a cast iron or hot griddle, the different layers of pork stomach become soft, chewy, and crisp all at once. It's the most powerful argument we have for offal: to seek a novel culinary experience, we can turn towards the non-fleshy parts of the animal.
The layers of a pig's stomach afford discrete textures. The exterior layer is the thinnest and most wrinkled, with very little elasticity. The substratum reveals more tender sheets of fatty tissue. These softer, interior layers are porky with a rubbery mouthfeel, pleasantly chewy—like a basket of fried clam strips. There's also a spongy element to the interior, the result of the fatty tissue that's broken down in the simmering process.
Pork stomach happens to be one of my favorite digestive-related parts—much more manageable to cook and eat than the kidneys. The latter organ filters the toxins by way of urine and its taste reflects its function, for better or worse. On the other hand, stomach possesses a muted sense of that feral flavor. Like tripe, its bovine counterpart, pork stomach requires a lengthy stewing period before it can be crisped.
Depending on your senses, the stomach of the pig prior to cooking emits a feral, fetid, or foul odor. As pink and wrinkled as a newborn rat, raw stomach is pungent with scents akin to fecal matter. Taking a whiff suggests the magnitude of stench in a pig farm. Even if the animals are humanely raised, there's no hiding the arresting odors of digestion. As I lowered my nose into the folds of the sac, I sensed the musk of dirt and pig slops.
But those thoughts gave way to appetite as the stomach cooked, bobbing along in an enameled cast-iron pot filled with spices and aromatics. Over the course of two hours, the offal-intensive smells in the pot subsided and a porky aroma like that of the trotters emerged. (Prior to stewing, the stomach is best cleansed with a short period of parboiling to remove the frothy, grey scum and the offending odors.)
My favorite taco of all time, tacos buche, employs the stomach in a quick sauté. (Depending on the cook, "buche" can also refer to the lower intestine of the pig.) Drawing inspiration from this Mexican application of pork stomach, I used my own charred stomach bits as the main filling for arepas. The arepa is a Venezuelan bread fashioned from corn. It's the South-American version of the English muffin, with a crisp exterior and a spongy, soft crumb inside.
Having never made arepas before, I spent a few days fiddling with the consistency, thickness, and cooking methods for the dough. Barring the labor-intensive procedure for transforming corn kernels into finely ground corn flour, the second-best option for arepa dough is the brand "Harina P.A.N." White and only slightly grainy, it a crispy and tender arepa that crackles with each bite, with just the right tug on your teeth. (Having tried both the "Masarepas" brand as well as "Harina P.A.N.," only the latter produced arepas with a hard shell.)
Timing is key to making a great arepa. Crisped in butter, the arepas are then baked in the oven for at least twenty minutes to sufficiently cook the interior. After frustrating trials yielding undercooked arepas, I reconciled myself to a more hands-off approach. Low and slow heat on the cast iron, with no more than one flip per arepa, sets the stage for proper browning in the oven. Like tortillas, frequent flipping discourages the arepas from ballooning in the middle with hot air. Cooked all the way through, the arepas will emit a hollow sound when tapped.
That evening we stuffed our arepas with freshly made salsa, cheese, and black beans. The spongy interior of the bread readily sopped up the porky juices from the stomach. Subsequent nights were filled with stomach as well: crisped and tossed with rice, or roasted with vegetables, each application displayed the textural uniqueness of the organ.