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.
- 1 pork stomach
- 1 onion, peeled and washed
- a bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, marjoram, etc)
- 1 jalapeño pepper, washed and halved
- ½ teaspoon peppercorns
- salt to taste, approximately 1 teaspoon
- vegetable oil for charring
- equal parts water and Harina P.A.N (scale according to your needs; the ratio is always 1:1)
- a pinch of salt
- butter and oil for pan-frying
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the stomach and let boil for 2 or 3 minutes to get rid of some of the impurities. Remove the stomach from the pot and set aside to cool. When sufficiently cool, cut into 3 or 4 smaller segments for ease of stewing.
In a medium-sized pot, arrange the stomach along with the rest of the ingredients (except the oil, for frying). Add enough water to cover the stomach. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, uncovered, for 2 to 3 hours.
Remove the stomach from the broth and let cool. Reserve the stock for another use.
When cooled, cut the stomach into slivers.
In the meantime, heat a cast iron until extremely hot.
Brown the slivers until the edges are golden brown and crispy. Once in a while, stir the slivers around in the pot to prevent sticking. Serve immediately.
Bring your quantity of water to a boil. Place the Harina P.A.N. in a mixing bowl and carefully add the boiling water and pinch of salt.
Quickly stir the water around with the Harina P.A.N. to distribute the liquid evenly. Knead with your hands until the mixture comes together in a cohesive ball, with very little cracking. Like Play-Doh, the dough should be moist, but not wet and sticky.
Break off a lump of the dough the size of a small plum, and roll it into a ball using your palms. Gently flatten and pat it down in your hands until the dough is about half an inch thick and 3-4 inches in diameter, tapering the edges to be slightly thinner than the center.
Shape the rest of the arepas, covering the rounds of dough with saran wrap to prevent drying out. Leftover dough may be wrapped and kept in the refrigerator for several days.
Preheat a cast iron skillet or oven-proof pan over low heat. Add the butter and oil. Very slowly pan-fry the rounds of dough, flipping only once per arepa. When done, the surface will be lightly golden-brown. The process should take 10 to 15 minutes minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
When arepas are lightly been browned, place your pans into the oven and bake the rounds for 20 minutes or more, until the dough is golden brown and very crisp on both faces. Slice in half with a bread knife to make a pocket for your stuffing. The arepas may be kept warm, in a bowl covered with a towel.