Braising, roasting and smoking help chefs muscle flavor into pork's less-tender cuts.
This article first appeared in the January 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
There is something satisfying about throwing a well-marbled pork chop onto the grill, slowly rendering external fat while marking the meat with a perfectly placed crosshatch pattern. It is straightforward and familiar, delicious and dependable.
But the same technique doesn't apply to cuts of pork with more muscle, such as shoulder, leg, belly or cheek. Yet that's precisely what keeps chefs such as Suzanne Goin of Lucques and AOC restaurants in Los Angeles interested. "I love to eat grilled steak," Goin admits. But when it comes to cooking, she'd much rather braise a shoulder than grill a steak or chop. "It's more labor, but for a chef, it's more fun."
Her enthusiasm shows. Goin's menus are long on braised pork dishes, from popular cheeks at AOC to signature suckling pig at Lucques. And she's not alone in her affection. Many chefs find that their favorite slow-cooked cuts of pork also have broad consumer appeal.
For Shad Kirton, executive chef at Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, it would be nearly unforgivable to write a menu without pork. "Being in Iowa, pork is a staple." He plays it safe: At least 40% of the restaurant's menu includes pork as a main or supporting ingredient.
Perhaps the most versatile, accessible and economical cut gaining consumer favor is pork shoulder. Long a staple of barbecue pits and regional ethnic cooking, the cut is moving into casual and white-tablecloth dining.
Chef Christine Mullen was experimenting with Moroccan flavors when she created a harissa-spiked pork tagine. It's been on the menu at CAV Wine Bar and Kitchen in San Francisco since the operation opened a year ago. Executive Chef Mark Alba also uses harissa in a barbecue sauce for the smoked pork shoulder served at Atlanta's The Food Studio.
Pork shoulder is braised with cumin, garlic, oregano and lemon at all Cozymel's Mexican Grill locations. "We get a lot of compliments on it," says the Dallas-based chain's Corporate Executive Chef Tudie Frank-Johnson.
The key to cooking shoulder lies in taking it slow. At Roux in Portland, Ore., Executive Chef Josh Blythe butterflies and scores the shoulder, rubs minced garlic, thyme, and salt on the cut sides, then ties it back together. The pork is slow roasted for more than three hours with cane vinegar, cane syrup, garlic, red-pepper flakes and Dijon mustard. Blyth gets about eight generous, 11⁄2-inch slices from each shoulder.
Shoulder also goes into the crépinette, a small sausage wrapped in caul fat, served at New York City's Trestle on Tenth. Chef-owner Ralf Kuettel mixes braised, shredded pork shoulder with cabbage and caramelized onions, portions the mixture into 3-ounce balls and encases them in caul fat. The balls are browned to order and served with broccoli rabe.
There's another reason in addition to taste that pork is a kitchen favorite. "From something that tastes so good in so many different forms, it's really the best-priced ingredient out there that keeps people satisfied," says Josef Centeno of Opus Restaurant in Los Angeles.
Braising cuts, though more economical, don't always make the grade at larger foodservice operations. At Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Chef Bill Laychur largely has moved away from braising whole-muscle pork due to labor constraints. Leaner cuts also are a better fit with the university's nutritional philosophy.
"There's nothing nicer than a pork butt or a fresh ham. They're great items. But when you look at the nutritional angle, pork loin is healthier," he says. Yet Laychur does spring for the occasional rib special to satisfy some students' hankering for this comfort food.
The enthusiasm with which chefs approach pork easily captures the attention of many restaurant patrons. Paley's Place in Portland, Ore., has developed a following for Sous-chef Benjamin Bettinger's whole-roasted suckling pig.
Still, not all diners are ready to follow chefs' leads and go whole hog. Kuettel takes a cautious approach. "Not everyone wants to gnaw on pig's ear," he explains.
Pork belly, loin and shoulder, roasted or braised, make meaty middles for hot sandwiches. They sell well too, says Peter Schumacher, managing partner at Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, Calif.
Here's how pork fits sandwich menus at other operations.
- Blackbird, Chicago: Organic pork belly sandwich with cabbage slaw. Dijon mustard and mayonnaise, summer vegetable salad and garlic frites.
- Buckeye Roadhouse, Mill Valley, Calif: Slow-smoked spicy pork sandwich with chipotle chips and coleslaw.
- The Kitchen, Boulder, Colo: Organic pulled pork sandwich with salsa verde.
- Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, multiple locations: Honky Tonk BBQ Pork Burger with pulled pork, banana peppers and onions.