Find ways to use versatile pork
The pandemic has forced so many of us to alter our habits. It has caused people to become wary of others. It has sparked some into action to help those in need and others to withdraw into themselves. But mostly, it has turned Americans into hoarders. Yes, you heard right, people are hoarding. It started with people buying massive amounts of food they will never be able to consume and towers of toilet paper. Then it was sanitizer and Clorox wipes. And of course, alcohol. I wanted to think that I was above the hoarding, but then I looked at the former dining room of my pizzeria. Let me tell you, I have joined the hoarders. I will say it was out of necessity, as we were unable to get some of our staple ingredients at the beginning of the shutdown. Now, you will find a pallet of tomatoes and another of flour laying in the spot that used to be crowded with diners. The latest item of my hoarding is pork. I have an extra leg of prosciutto and six extra cases of pepperoni at all times. We are beginning to see the effects of so many slaughter houses shutting down. The supply is low and the demand higher than ever. While you can definitely argue that the dough, sauce and cheese are the most important components of a pizza, pork is a very, very close fourth.
Pork is actually a major ingredient to any pizzeria. At least in my shop, pork accounts for almost 80 percent of my meat products. There is, of course, pepperoni, prosciutto, salumi, sausage, meatballs, pancetta, bacon and porchetta. The list can go on and on. Truly the beauty of pork is that it can be transformed not only by the spices you add to it, but by the method in which you prepare it. It is a protein that lends itself well to almost all forms of curing, smoking, slow-roasting, dry-aging, grilled and cooking. Pork and pizza are one of the great duos.
In my mind, pork is the far superior version of chicken. It is still a white meat, making it a blank canvas to paint as you want, but with so much more flavor. And fat — don’t forget the fat. How you cook and process your pork all depends on the cut of meat you get. Let’s explore the different parts of the animal a little more to gain a better understanding of when to use what.
The pork shoulder, also called a pork butt, is great for slow roasting as well as grinding for sausage. The pork loin encompasses the tenderloin, fatback and baby back ribs. You can choose to roast the entire loin or you can cut it into pork chops or cutlets. These cuts are meant for pan searing or grilling. The leg is where the ham cuts are, which is then turned into prosciutto when cured. On the side of the pig you’ll find the spare ribs, bacon and pork belly. Then there is the picnic shoulder or picnic roast. This cut is great smoked, cured or ground up.
One of the most versatile parts of the pig, in my mind, is the pork shoulder. A lot of pizzerias automatically revert to grinding the meat for sausage or meatballs, but it shouldn’t be overlooked to braise, stew, or slow roast. It is a cut that is loaded with flavor but needs a long, slow roast to tenderize. The whole beauty of this cut is that the tough shoulder meat also contains gelatin which melts and bastes the meat as it cooks. You don’t want to rush it otherwise you will end up with a tough piece of meat. It is the perfect base for whatever flavors you want to add. To end up with falling off the bone, succulent roasted pork butt, there are a few things to keep in mind.
You always want a base liquid. Depending on the flavor profile you are trying to achieve you can use anything from cream, stock and Coca-Cola. Whatever you use can also double as a reduction sauce.
Once you pick your base and spices, I like to marinate the shoulder overnight. When you are ready to cook it, bring it up to room temperature and then sear it on all sides before roasting. This will seal in the flavor. Add any other vegetables, spices and liquid of choice and cook for six to eight hours. The meat should fall off of the bone and shed easily. Yes, it is great on its own and in sandwiches, but have you ever had a pulled pork pizza? Game changing. You can taste the hours of labor and love the have gone into it from the layers of flavor.
The beauty of pork is that you can make it as labor intensive and artisan as you want. If you’re going for simplicity, yet still want top quality ingredients, there are plenty of amazing companies producing raw, cured and cooked products. You can order mass produced sausage, locally made or made in house. There are legs of prosciutto that are shipped in from Italy, made in California or cured in the proprietor’s basement of the pizzeria. Then there are the sleeper items.
Mortadella has recently had a reawakening. A meat that, as my brother puts it is pretty much just fancy Bologna, is popping up on the menus of high-end restaurants. People are shaping it into delicate flowers accompanied by vibrant pesto and nutty pistachios.
Short ribs are often seen as a main dish, but they can also work beautifully on a pie. They can be kissed with barbecue, paired with some caramelized onions and a smoky soft cheese.
Almost all pork products can also cross over on your menu. Cured meats can be repurposed into a sandwich or be the star of a charcuterie board. Sausage can double on a pie as well as a main dish. Pancetta works brilliantly with roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet onions on a white pie and can be utilized to make an Amatriciana sauce for pasta.
A lot of people get stuck on the cured, ground or smoked forms of pork. I admit that I am one of them. I love how a beautiful piece of paper-thin prosciutto can transform a slice of cheese and make you feel as if you are sitting on the streets of Rome. Or Calabrese salumi adds an entirely new dimension to a pie. I mean, really, does anything beat a hot slice of pepperoni pizza? That being said, don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try some of the more obscure cuts.
Prepared correctly, pork can yield fantastic results. Just make sure to season properly as it is a white meat and needs a little extra. Always brown before roasting. This ensures the juices are sealed in and the crust is crispy. Don’t overcook or you’ll be left with a very dry piece of meat. If you are grinding for sausage, don’t forget the fat. And of course, pick the right cut.
Audrey Kelly is the owner and pizzaiola at Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, CO.