Rendering lard (or making chicharones!)

On the road to making home-made tamales, I stumbled across a very tasty little bonus. Real tamales are made with lard; but store-bought lard is hydrogenated and otherwise unappealing (the brand sold at my grocery store has “BHA, propyl gallate, and citric acid added to help protect flavor”–and still tasted rancid).  So I ended up home-rendering some. (Are you cringing? So did I, at first. But stay with me here.) Surprise: when you render lard from cut-up pork fat, you end up with mouth-watering little “left-overs”–fried bits that are called in various traditions cracklings, pork rinds, chitlins, or in Spanish-speaking regions, chicharones. (These terms can also mean fried pork skin, but I’m talking about the “fat husks” that are a by-product of making lard.)

Here’s how I made the lard, and in the process discovered these little goodies. First I went off to Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market to buy about a pound of pork back fat. (“Leaf lard,” the fat from around the pig’s kidneys, is supposed to make higher quality lard, but they didn’t have any on hand and I was ready to get going.) By the way, Rain Shadow tells you where everything they sell comes from; this hunk of frozen fat arrived in Seattle from Carlton Farms in Oregon.

The experts out in Blogville laid out the process for me: cut up the fat into small pieces (half-inch cubes), put about a half-cup of water in a heavy pot, add the fat, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. How hard could that be? So I got the pot going. (I gather that the water keeps the fat bits from sticking or burning until the fat begins to melt; it evaporates off after a while.) It took about 45 minutes for the fat to start melting, and there were some pretty impressive pops and sizzles as the water trapped in the fat cooked off.

But here came the surprise!–Fat doesn’t melt like say a pat of butter does; it leaves behind a “skeleton.” Fat has structure! Why this blew me away I don’t know; fat is a body tissue, after all, and anyway I’ve certainly fried my share of bacon. But I didn’t know that the fat would leave behind these little fried cubes. At first, they float to the surface, but when they sink to the bottom of the pan, they tell me, your lard is rendered. (I used a big stock pot for my pound of fat, so the liquid was pretty shallow!–It became a judgment call to say when they “sank.”)

After all the fat has melted and the fried bits have sunk (it took about an hour and a half), you let the pot cool slightly. Then you line a strainer with cheesecloth and pour the lard through it into a glass jar.  (A pound of fat yields about a pint of lard.) The liquid lard is straw-colored. Put it in the refrigerator; after it solidifies, it turns almost white. (They tell me that leaf lard is almost perfectly white, but mine looks pretty good to me!) The word is that lard will keep in the refrigerator for three months, or frozen for up to a year.

And now about those succulent little morsels left behind in the cheesecloth! They taste like the most delicate bacon you ever fried! So now I’ve gone from a reluctant lard-maker to an enthusiastic chicharones-maker. I’m going to eat them with anything that tastes good with bacon! In fact, last night I had them with poached eggs and chard.

Mex auténtica: it’s all about your larder

A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Oaxaca, the Mexican city famous for its mole sauces. Of course, I ate more than my share of them!–and of the seven different traditional Oaxacan moles, mole negro became my favorite. Since then, I’m occasionally tempted to order chicken mole in restaurants, but I never really believe I’m as well fed as I was there.

Enter chef and cooking instructor Suzanne Hunter! (–that’s her in the white chef’s jacket). Last week I attended her Mexican cooking class (offered through Bon Vivant School of Cooking), and unbelievably, chicken with mole negro was just one of five different traditional Mexican dishes that we made. Why “unbelievably?”–traditional mole negro is very complex, and she doesn’t stray far from that path: her version has 27 different ingredients (five different kinds of dried chile!), and just about as many steps. As if that wasn’t enough!–We also made tamales, shrimp with tomatillo sauce, and two flans. But let’s talk about the showpieces!–the mole and tamales.

Authentic Mexican food wraps you up in its fragrances and flavors like a warm serape. I grew up in South Texas eating standard Tex-Mex fare, and I still love it and cook it all the time. But “cooking Mex” with traditional techniques and ingredients takes you to an entirely different world. I can’t walk you through all the details here (it would be a chapter, not a post, and anyway the recipes are Suzanne’s, not mine!), but let’s take a quick tour just to give you a feel for the (laborious!) process.

To make the mole, first you have some prep to do. To start, make about 10 cups of homemade chicken broth. (If you go with a store-bought product here, why not just buy a mole mix and save yourself the rest of the day?) Next, you are going to split your chiles (that’s about 25 separate pieces to work with), take out the seeds, and toast the pods. Then, after soaking the toasted chiles, puree them and press them through a strainer (then repeat). Now toast the seeds and give them the same treatment. Next, you toast your spices and grind them up fine.

Moving on to your aromatics, sauté your onion and garlic. Do the same to the tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, and raisins, and puree them too. Toast the nuts (four different kinds). Then puree the nuts with the seeds you toasted earlier, and add enough broth to make a paste. Do the same to a banana and some fried bread.

Next you begin to layer your separate pastes and purees into the pot with broth, cooking each before adding the next, until you have a thick, dark sauce. Finally, you add the chocolate and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Done! We had it over poached chicken–delicious.

I’ve actually left out lots of detail! But I hope you’ve gotten a feel for the meticulous layering of flavors that goes into an authentic mole. If you want to make it, search on “authentic mole“–I found a couple of similar recipes. Or, find the best, most traditional restaurant you can and order it there!

Compared to the mole, the tamales were a slam-dunk! (And there are good recipes out there in blog-ville.) We used fresh masa and freshly rendered lard to make the dough. To assemble, you spread a small amount of the dough on a banana leaf or corn husk, add a bit of shredded pork and a dollop of mole, and fold them up! Then you steam them for say an hour and a half. You can make homemade tamales easily; invite a couple of friends over, maybe whip up a batch of margaritas, and get an assembly line going! Make sure to make enough to eat now, with more to freeze for next time.

So, finally getting back to the title for this post, I’m guessing that by now you have a pretty good idea why I say that cooking authentic Mexican cuisine is all about your larder. Let’s review. For whole chiles, we had Pasilla Negros, Guajillos, Chilhuacles, Mulattos, and Chipotles. We had Mexican cinnamon (true canela, not cassia bark), Mexican oregano, and Mexican unsweetened  chocolate (Ibarra is one brand). The broth recipe called for adding the chicken’s feet. The flan recipe asked for Mexican brown sugar, called “piloncillo” for its cone shape, but also known as panela or panocha. The tamales called for fresh masa (although masa harina works), plus banana leaves or corn husks.

And lard.

Wait!–Don’t click yet! Let’s talk. Lard is rendered pork fat. It has less cholesterol than butter (and a higher ratio of good cholesterol), and it has the same good fatty acid as olive oil. Suzanne completely convinced me that lard is a good ingredient, but don’t believe us!–Google it yourself. The tub of lard (I know, I know) that you buy at the grocery store is hydrogenated, so it is better to home-render some.  (Suzanne home-rendered the lard that we used to make the tamales.) I haven’t tried to do it yet, but I will soon and write it up for you. Unless lard is a dietary taboo for you, I hope you’ll give it a try; it also does magic things for re-fried beans and (my baker friends tell me) for pastries and pie-crusts.

Suzanne gave us some leads on Mexican grocers in this area; it may take some research, but I bet you can find at least one in your area too. If not, a quick search will turn up a range of mail-order suppliers.

And if you are really lucky, you’ll find a great cooking instructor with the same total respect for ethnic culinary traditions that we’ve got in Suzanne!