Monday, May 25, 2009

Kitchen adventures: Mangalitsa three ways.

It started when K. found a giant slab of Mangalitsa pork in the chest freezer. Since I am generally acknowledged (God help me) as the expert in these matters (long story) it became my job, nay, my solemn duty to work up a dinner party featuring this fearsome slab of meat (fourteen pounds, frozen). I managed to put it off for a while, but finally a date was fixed, and there was no escape. For days I tried to bounce ideas off other people, only to be met with "You're the expert. You decide." I knew I could use a couple pounds of the meat to make rillettes, but what the hell was I going to do with the rest of it?

The rillettes took me most of Saturday afternoon. I had done this before, and it was simple work to chop up the pork and let it simmer away with herbs and onions in a mixture of lard and wine. I could leave it on low heat and walk away. When the meat was tender, beginning to fall apart, I drained it and gently pulsed it in the food processor until it came together like a rough pâté, but stopped before it turned into mush. I seasoned it generously - a little too generously, it turned out - with salt and pepper and packed into a long terrine, scooping leftovers into small tubs and jars, covering each container with a thin layer of melted fat.

Sunday was occupied with lasagne, but after I came home from a dinner of fried chicken I carved up the remainder of the pork, seasoning thick slabs of meat with kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper and torn sprigs of thyme. It rested overnight, and the next morning I put the pork into a pot that was just big enough to fit the pieces in one layer, then poured in apple cider. I brought it all to a boil, then turned it down low, and then thought about what to do with the last few pounds of meat. I know! I thought. I'll make potstickers! At this point I completely lost my mind (I was probably delirious from all the cooking I had been doing), and thought it was perfectly reasonable to grind my own meat and roll out my own potsticker dough.

Not having a meat grinder, I momentarily contemplated chopping the meat by hand. A few feeble attempts convinced me to reach for the food processor. The main concern with chopping meat in the food processor, as with many things, seems to be chopping it without turning it all into mush. But by now I had become one with the "pulse" button, and by dividing the pork into a few smaller batches I had enough control over the process to make it come out, if not perfect, at least acceptable. It was a bit more irregular than meat put through the grinder, but it was good enough for me. I threw a few scallions and a bunch of bok choy that had been wilting in my fridge and chopped those up, too, and grated a fat knob of ginger. The vegetables and grated ginger went into the bowl of ground pork with a sprinkle of salt, a few sloshes of soy sauce, a few grinds of black pepper. I should have used white, but never mind. Then in with the hands, thoroughly blending all the ingredients together.

The hardest part was making the potsticker wrappers. The dough was soft and sticky and seemed to attach itself to everything - my hands, the wooden board I was using as a work surface, the filling, the plate I used to arrange the finished dumplings - and by the time I made it to A. and B.'s house I had about two dozen recognizable dumpling (ugly, but recognizable) and a lumpy, amorphous mass of filling and dough. The latter I sliced into roughly dumpling-sized blobs and fried in a thin film of lard (achieved by searing the rim of fat running down each hunk of braised pork until some of the fat melted away), and amazingly enough, they held together. The pork was incredibly good, the strong flavor of Mangalitsa pork balanced by the soy sauce and ginger, a touch of scallion, the slight crunch of fresh bok choy. I have to work on my wrapping skills, but the filling was perfect.

While all that messing around with sticky dumpling dough was happening the rest of the pork had been braising away quietly in thyme-scented apple cider. I took it out when I thought it was tender enough and reduced the braising liquid into a brothy sauce, then packed everything in a wide assortment of jars and boxes. Later, just before dinner, I held the fat side of the meat against a hot pan until the surface browned and some of the fat melted into the pan (which I used to fry the potstickers - no waste here). R. sliced it all, arranged it in a deep dish, and let it sit in the warming oven. Before serving, we poured the warmed sauce over the meat, and everyone dug in. It was good, the meat rich and intense, sweet with apples, scented with thyme, the fat surprisingly light to taste.

I am still not sure what part of the pig I was working with - I suspect it came from the shoulder, but honestly, I have no idea. In any case, it was delicious.

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