It took me a long time to appreciate pork. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the juicy roasts with the crispy skin that kept being consumed in English literature were such a far cry from the thin, dry, stringy pork shops that appeared on the school cafeteria's steam table.
Bacon and sausage were alright, and at a fairly early age I knew I was destined to spend the rest of my life searching for the best of all barbecued pork ribs. But in our home, as in most American homes (if consumption statistics can be believed), the choice between roast beef and roast pork was no choice at all. When a special occasion came along we ate roast beef.
So I backed into liking pork through several ethnic doors. There was some memorable meat hacked from a spitroasted pig at a roadside stand in Puerto Rico. The flavor of Shanghai-style pork ribs (which appear to be miniature pork chops) made a lasting impresion, as did the aroma of twicefried pork wafting off a platter in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was a leg of pork, well spiced and basted with cider, accompanied by a sauce of cream and apple brandy. The clincher was a cold pork sandwich, thin slices lightly coated with green peppercornflavored mustard on well-buttered homemade bread.
Pork, I discovered, is nearly as versatile as chicken and, at the supermarket level at least, can be more tasty. Even if the original dish isn't a great success, it is better than even money that something delicious will emerge from what's left over and clever use of leftovers will mitigate the cost.
But wheeling the shopping cart along the meat counter it gradually becomes apparent that in the public consciousness pork has been separated from its origins. Those chops and roasts, so neatly wrapped and stacked in supermarket display counters, don't cause shoppers to make even the vaguest association with Jamie Wyeth's heroic pig, pigs wallowing in the barnyard or even Porky Pig of cartoon fame. Eat rabbit or horse? Never. But pork isn't pig. It's a triumph of porcine propaganda, so to speak, although it has led to a strange semantic inversion. Leg of pork has to be advertised as "fresh ham" to attract purchasers.
All this may be due, in part, to our finicky and wasteful approach to consuming pig. We eat ribs, chops, "bacon" and parts of the leg as "shoulder" or "Boston butt," or cured into "ham." Most of the rest of the animal we ignore, despite widespread use of innards, noses and tails in other cultures. The different properties and uses of bacon, salt pork and fatback are not the everyday conversation of American cooks. We've even abandoned lard -- a magnificent flavoring agent -- out of health concerns.
It is ture that the pigs themselves have changed. They have more meat and less fat and are younger when slaughtered, says the industry. "Less flavor and texture," grumbles a cook with a fine taste memory such as James Beard. Both sides would agree, however, that the pig is an underutilized species.
Here is what Jane Grigson, in her excellent book "The Art of Charcuterie," claims a "skillful and economical housewife" can make from a single pig's head: pig's ears with piquant sauce, brains in pastry, 1 1/2 pounds of sausage meat for pate or crepinettes , rillons. She leaves out souse and headcheese. "There is on average 4 1/2 pounds of boneless meat on a pig's head," she writes. "And an excellent clear soup or aspic jelly is to be made from the bones."
One could move around the pig, pointing out hocks, feet, kidneys and other parts with which most Americans are totally unfamiliar. We won't go so far afield here. The meat of the pig that we do eat is so extraordinarily versatile that there is a large repertory of recipes and variations to go through before lobbying for foot, tail and ear nibbling -- all of which can be very rewarding.
Once the butcher has cut the chine bone, the loin not only roasts beautifully with bones attached, it is easy to cut. Why all the fuss about rack of lamb and no applause for rack of pig? Cut thick, a rib pork chop can be grilled or stuffed, while loin chops are fine to saute and serve with pan gravy or a sauce. The center cuts have the best meat to bone ratio, but they cost more. Shoulder cuts can be difficult to cut due to the irregular bone and gristle configurations, but may add extra flavor to slow-cooked dishes.
For stir-fried dishes, it is less expensive to buy a few chops and cut the meat into strips or cubes yourself. It isn't difficult. The Chinese, who developed a pudgy pig -- in contrast to the rangy, strong pig of Northern Europe -- learned long ago that pork bones give a special, delicate flavor to stocks and soups. Once the meat is off, use them that way.
Here are an overstuffed handful of recipes, some of which utilize pork leftovers.
PORK CHOPS WITH ORANGE SAUCE
(2 or 4 servings) 4 pork chops 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons wine vinegar 3/4 cup warm chicken broth 1/4 cup orange juice 1 heaping tablespoon chopped shallots or scallions 1 naval orange, peeled and divided into sections 1 tablespoon orange liqueur 1 tablespoon cornstarch Salt and pepper to taste
Place sugar and vinegar in a heavybottomed pan. Bring to boil over high heat until liquid reduces and begins to caramelize.Remove from heat and immediately add warm broth. Stir to dissolve any sugar particles, add orange juice and shallots and simmer, covered, over low heat for 15 to 30 minutes.
Cook pork chops in a frying pan lightly coated with oil or rendered pork fat until done, 12 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
After chops have been turned, add orange sections to broth. When chops are nearly cooked, mix cornstarch with liqueur and 1 tablespoon cool water or broth and pour mixture into broth. Stir until sauce thickens. Taste and adjust seasoning or add more liqueur to taste.
Spoon sauce and orange sections over chops. Serve with mashed potatoes or rice and a green vegetable.
PORK SPARE RIBS ORIENTAL
(3 or 4 servings) 3 pounds pork ribs, cut in 5-or 6-rib sections 1/3 cup dark soy sauce 1/3 cup salad oil 1/4 cup honey 1/4 cup apple cider or white vinegar 2 or 3 drops chili oil or hot pepper sauce 5 or 6 drops sesame oil
Bake ribs in a shallow pan at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 45 minutes longer. (Or parboil them at a simmer for 10 minutes, pat dry and bake for 50 minutes.) Mix soy, oil, honey, vinegar, chili and sesame oils.Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Remove ribs from oven, brush on sauce liberally, and cook another 15 to 30 minutes, brushing on more sauce every 5 to 10 minutes.
PORK WITH PASTA AND VEGETABLES
(6 servings) 1 pound spaghetti 1 1/2 to 2 pounds pork, trimmed of all fat and cut into 1-inch cubes 1 medium onion, diced 1 head broccoli, separated with stems peeled and cubed 1 cup chicken bouilon 2 tablespoons brandy 1 teaspoon dried thyme or rosemary, crushed 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 clove garlic, minced 2/3 cup whipping cream 1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice Salt and pepper 1 tablespoon butter 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or French gruyere cheese
Prepare pork and vegetables while putting a large kettle of water on to heat.
Measure 1 cup of broccoli stem cubes. (The flowerettes may be used instead or reserve them for a separate vegetable at this or another meal.) Heat bouillon and simmer broccoli in it until just tender. Drain, reserving bouillon. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skilet, add pork and onion cubes and saute until pork is browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Flame with brandy, then season with salt, pepper. Scrape brown bits from bottom of the pan and add thyme, cayenne and reserved bouillon. Cover pan and cook at a low simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, turning meat from time to time. (This may be done in advance.)
Remove cover and meat (with a slotted spoon). Reduce liquid over high heat to about 2 tablespoons. Return meat. Add garlic, cream, broccoli cubes and lemon juice and cook to heat broccoli. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, cayenne and lemon juice as desired.
Meanwhile, add salt and 2 tablespoons oil to boiling water and cook spaghetti until al dente. Drain, mix with sauce and 1 tablespoon butter. Top with grated cheese and serve at once.
STUFFED SHOULDER OF PORK
(Serves 6 to 8) 1 boned pork shoulder, about 2 1/2 pounds 1 bag (10 ounces) fresh spinach, washed, or 1 package frozen chopped spinach 1/4 cup vegetable oil 2 large cloves garlic, minced 1 medium onion, diced 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 15 leaves fresh basil, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried 1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth 1 tablespoon butter or margarine 1/4 to 1/2 cup bread crumbs Salt and pepper to taste
Steam spinach until cooked, turn onto a cutting board and chop it. Meanwhile, heat oil in a frying pan and cook garlic and onion until onion is transparent. Scrape into a mixing bowl. Add spinach, nutmeg, basil, wine, butter and enough bread crumbs to make a firm mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
Salt and pepper inside of pork shoulder, spread spinach filling on it. Roll and tie shoulder. Dust outside with seasoned flour if you wish.
Bake the roast on a rack in a 350-degree oven for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 170 degrees, basting from time to time. Let sit in a warm place 15 minutes before carving, or let cool entirely and serve cold with applesauce and a basilflavored tomato salad.
PORK FILET IN MUST ARD SAUCE
(4 servings) 1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless pork tenderloin 2 tablespoons vegetable oil Salt and pepper 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 8 to 10 ribs of celery, cut in 2-inch pieces 2 bunches scallions or leeks, tips trimmed 1 cup chicken stock 1/2 cup dry vermouth 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed 2 tablespoons finely chopped cornichons or gerkins 1/2 tablespoon capers 1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard 2 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream
Heat oil with garlic cloves in a Dutch oven or casserole, Sear meat, season with salt and pepper, add vegetables and turn them briefly in the oil. Pour in stock and vermouth, add rosemary and cover pan. Cook meat at a simmer, turning it once, until it reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees, about an hour. Remove celery and scallions when tender. Remove meat when cooked.
Cook down pan liquid to 3/4 cup. Add pickle, capers and mustard. Stir to even consistency and add cream, tablespoon by tablespoon, until taste and consistency are perfection. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary.
Slice meat and return it to pan. Reheat celery and scallions with another vegetable, green beans are a likely choice, and serve.
Note: Leftovers of pork prepared in this fashion are a delicious addition to a salad of lettuce, chopped uncooked celery, tomato, cooked green beans or any other vegetable that comes to hand, plus a vinaigrette dressing.
SAUSAGE WITH CHAMPAGNE AND TRUFFLES
(About 3 1/2 pounds, before cooking) 1 1/2 pounds lean pork shoulder or leg 1 1/2 pounds hard fat back 2 heaped tablespoons salt 1 level teaspoon quartre-espices* 4 ounces truffle peelings 1 1/2 cups (1/2 bottle) champagne 3 eggs 1 level teaspoon white pepper Butter (FOOTNOTE)
* Available at spice counters in specialty food stores(END FOOT)
Grind the meat finely, two or three times. Mix in all th0 seasonings, then stir in the champagne gradually.Finally add the truffles. Stuff into casings, or place in a stainless steel or glass bowl and cover. Refrigerate for two days to allow flavors to meld.
Cook cased sausages in butter in a frying pan, or place sausage mixture in two 9-by-5-by-3 bread tins and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Drain fat, cut into slices and serve with home-fried potatoes and a green salad.
PORK FRIED RICE
(2 servings) 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 scallions, minced 1 rib celery, minced 1/2 green pepper, minced 1/2 cup diced, cooked pork, or more as available 2 tablespoon soy sauce 2 cups cooked rice Salt, pepper and chopped parsley or scallion greens to taste 1 egg
Heat oil in a frying pan or wok. Add scallions, celery and green pepper and stir until they soften. Add pork and soy sauce and stir briefly. Add rice and continue to stir until ingredients are well mixed and rice is hot. Break egg over rice and stir until it has cooked. Season to tast with salt and pepper and serve garnished with parsley or scallion green.