Sunday, January 13, 2008
Salt Pork: Local Fat of Choice
Every region has its traditional cooking fat. In France, it’s butter. In Italy, olive oil, and in Mexico, lard. Here in New England, it’s salt pork.
In colonial New England, salt pork was made from the odds and ends of the pig, tossed together in a pork barrel or crock with a salt cure or brine, and drawn on and replenished on a regular basis. It kept well, making it an ideal ration for sailors and other travelers, and lent richness and flavor to all kinds of dishes, particularly during the winter when butter was scarce. Today, salt pork is generally made from a particular cut, the meat from the tummy and lower sides of the pig, called pork belly or “side pork.” This is a multilayered section of lean and fat, the same that is used to produce bacon, the key difference being that bacon is smoked and salt pork is not. Salt pork is available as “lean” or “fat,” the latter being all white fat from the same side belly area, and increasingly hard to find. It should not be confused with fat back, which is neither salted nor from the belly.
While today’s salt pork is a more standardized product than it was 200 years ago, it is still used in traditional ways. The most common, and emblematic, uses are in clam chowder and baked beans, often called pork and beans. Baked beans and brown bread for Saturday night supper are still a tradition in some parts of New England. Another supper (and sometimes breakfast) dish that still has many fans is fried salt pork with milk or cream gravy; you must try this to believe how wonderful it is. Salt pork is also an ideal fat for sautéing with greens and vegetables; a simple dish of potatoes and onions fried in salt pork, sometimes called “Scootin’ ‘long the shore” in the Cape and Islands area to reflect its popularity as a dish prepared by fishermen on the beach, is a satisfying treat. Salt pork makes a good pie crust, and salt pork cake, a moist, rich spice cake, is a very old recipe that retains a loyal, if small, following. I’ll provide my version soon.
Culinary uses, then, are alive and well for salt pork. What has largely, and thankfully, disappeared—although surprisingly recently—are medicinal uses. Salt pork was once widely used by physicians as an effective “pack” for nosebleeds, reportedly into the 1970s in some parts of the country (one can only wonder where that might have been); apparently, the salt caused swelling and pressure on the blood vessels as the nasal lining came into contact with the pork, thereby stanching the flow. I’m not sure whether this is welcome information or not, but it could come in handy someday. Salt pork was also used as a poultice for sore throats. In the political arena, salt pork was literally used to “grease the palms,” or bribe, officials in Stalinist Russia during the days of deep privation, leaving a lasting legacy to the language of corruption.
Today’s salt pork is sold by a few major packers of pork products, generally in 12-16 ounce blocks; in some parts of the country, you may still be able to find a locally cured product from a pork butcher, and in the South, you can find a similar product, pork side meat, but it is cured with sugar and pepper as well as salt. You might also try making your own, either dry- or brine-cured, from pork bellies, which are increasingly available through Asian markets and online. Commercially available salt pork will keep well, unopened, in the refrigerator for a few months, and may be frozen; I recommend freezing leftover pieces, although they will keep well-wrapped in the refrigerator for several weeks. When buying, go through all the available packages to look for one that has more or less lean, depending on what you are making; if you want more fat than lean, you can often find a piece with a single layer of lean along the edge that can be cut off and saved for another use; just be sure to buy enough to compensate for the loss in weight. Some recipes call for blanching salt pork, but I do not except when making fried salt pork with gravy. Just rinse it well under cold water and pat it dry. Salt pork has a skin that, depending on your recipe, will either be scored or cut off and discarded. Generally, I cut it off when slicing, chopping or grinding the pork, and leave it on when I want large chunks or am using it primarily for flavoring, such as for baked beans or sautéing vegetables. Either way, you will find that salt pork has a silky, melting quality and adds rich, deep flavor.
Scootin’ ‘Long the Shore
Using salt pork as your cooking fat adds a new dimension to the simplest dish, like beans or these fried potatoes. Serves 2.
½ large sweet onion, thinly sliced
4 slices lean salt pork, about ¼” thick, diced
2 medium-large red-skinned or Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large heavy skillet, fry the salt pork over medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes, or until it is turning golden. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until soft and translucent. Distribute the potatoes in the pan, pushing the onion and salt pork aside to make as much contact as possible with the pan bottom. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover. Cook slowly over your medium-low heat, stirring and turning the potatoes occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a knife and some have begun to brown. Remove the lid and cook uncovered, turning, for another 5 minutes or so. They should be partially brown but not crispy, with brown bits of pork and caramelized onions.