June 7, 2013

In Praise of Pork Fatback

Yep, you read the title right. The sole purpose of this post is to appreciate pork fatback.

Despite living in the Midwest for 40 years, where a great quantity of pork is produced, I never saw/noticed pork fatback in the meat department until I was living out here in Nevada and living on whole foods.

What I noticed first was that they basically give it away. The prices must barely cover the labor and packaging costs, but I guess they'd be trimming the pricier meat cuts anyhow. After I became enchanted with it and learned how it works best for me I chatted with a few ladies and found it's popular in Hispanic cuisine so they're probably offering it due to local demand.

I just realized this instant that I forgot to take a picture of some I bought yesterday. The next time I buy it I'll take a pic and insert it into this post. It's not a uniform, cookie-cutter item, but the best general description is small irregular strips/pieces of pork fat with variable amounts of meat scraps.

Sometimes there's a surprising amount of meat in there too--yesterday I bought 2 small packages for a total of 27 cents which was more than enough for 6 nice portions that I'll describe in more detail later. Like I said, nearly free. One of the packages had a surprise in the middle--a small pork cutlet that would have cost a couple dollars in another package but was probably judged too small.

As a single, I typically break packages of meat up into individual portions and freeze them. If I buy fatback at the same time I add some pieces to each meat portion. I've also frozen separate portions of meat and fatback and just defrosted both so I do whatever's more convenient at the time.

I use the fatback almost exactly the way I used to use bacon and/or butter, but the win-win is that I actually like the flavor of fatback better and it also allows me to buy more produce with the savings over bacon. I've gradually shifted my daily cooking routine to make more and more use of the fatback. If I'm having meat, particularly with vegetables, I usually season the pan with a portion of fatback. What I call a portion would probably be the equivalent of 3 strips of bacon in volume. If I'm not having meat and the main dish is eggs and/or vegetables, I season the pan with lard from the fridge.

Anyhow, some pieces are quite flat and "thick bacon" thin, and others are twice that thick and look like trimmings from the outside of a roast. The pieces have a wide range of sizes too, with some taking half a medium skillet but most fairly small and some tiny. When I cook the fatback, I do my best to equalize the thickness of the pieces by slicing the thicker ones.

I render the lard out of the fatback, pouring it out a couple times as I fry the fat/meat pieces to a wonderful golden brown crisp. It's more tender than bacon as it's thicker, and I've found I like the flavor much better because it's uncured and has only the salt I sprinkle on it once cooked. The lard is refrigerated. In the Midwest I think they'd call what I make cracklings, which I remember my elderly mother in law making in Wisconsin.

The cracklings are fabulous as an appetizer while you're cooking your main dish or munching your salad. I use some or all of the rendered lard to cook the main dish, which for me is usually a mixture of meat and vegetables. If not used as an appetizer, meaning you have more patience than I, the cracklings are also very tasty crumbled over stir-fried veggies or meat/eggs.

Just as I've found that the vinegar and EVOO left over from my salad is a great sauce on my main dish, I've also found that the home-rendered lard is a tasty substitute for butter or mayo. I haven't yet mastered home-made mayo and don't want to use store bought, so the last time I had tuna I used some of my home-rendered lard to hold the tuna together in a salad with celery, cheese, tomato and green olives and I was delighted with the flavor.

In addition to no longer buying expensive bacon, my Kerrygold butter costs are way down as well and it's a preference decision rather than just money driven. The only caution I'd throw out is that I've always had low cholesterol. I assume anyone with a pattern of high cholesterol might want to do some experimenting and test the results before using it as a frequent menu item. My body's reaction has been very positive, better I believe with the fatback than the bacon and butter it replaced.

P.S. Did you notice my new mugshot at left? I didn't notice at first that my face looked shiny, but you know it's usually shiny now because it's over 100 outside and at least 80 inside because I don't like cool drafts. If you saw me in person, odds are my face would be moist. :-)

Anyhow, what struck me about the new pic is that I'm not the thinnest I've been since 2011--I'm not that far from it, though--but I believe I'm the healthiest I've been in 30 years despite the "avoid processed food" ups and downs I've had to describe here. It's been a struggle due to my binge eating history, but it's definitely been worth it.

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