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.