The Chinese zodiac has 2023 down as the Year of the Rabbit. Here at Danny’s Table, however, it’s the YEAR OF THE PIG!
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In the recent essay PRIME RIB DEMYSTIFIED, we examined the high rent district of the beef market– Wagyu, prime, dry-aged, et. al. But fabulous beef is also fabulously expensive. The good news is that three breeds of wonderful pork are now available. And interestingly, the purveyors of all three of these breeds sometimes refer to them as “the Wagyu (or Kobe) of pork.”
Remember when pork was suddenly “the OTHER white meat?” That was an ad campaign begun in 1987 to persuade people to consider pork as an alternative to poultry rather than in the same category as beef. By then, coincidentally or not, the American pork industry had settled on a breed of pig– the Yorkshire– that lent itself nicely to large-scale farming. While they were at it, they were also striving to produce ever-leaner and paler (and accordingly flavorless) meat, perhaps in response to Big Food’s efforts to blame heart disease and all manner of other ills on fat rather than sugar and other carbs.
The result of all this is supermarket pork flesh that is pale pink and practically flavorless without added seasonings. And because it is so lean, it easily dries out when roasted. Fortunately for those of us who appreciate great flavor and aren’t afraid of a little fat in our diets, there are several lesser-known breeds of pork coming to market, including Kurobuta/Berkshire, Iberico, and Mangalitsa. The meat of all three is redder and deliciously fattier than supermarket Yorkshire. All three cook up easily– long and slow for thick pieces, hot and fast for small pieces. Either way, just get them to 145ºF in the middle and stop right there.
Kurobuta is the most widely available of the fancy breeds of pork. You won’t see it in many stores, but you can order it from many of our online usual suspects– D’Artagnan, Holy Grail, and Snake River Farms have you well covered. Be mindful of minimum orders and shipping rates, and keep a sharp eye out for sales and discounts.
Just as goose legs and breasts are sometimes a by-product of foie gras production, Iberico pork loin comes from pigs primarily farmed for their wonderful and expensive hams. As the name implies, Iberico comes from the Iberian peninsula, i.e., Spain and Portugal. Compared to Kurobuta, availability is quite slim for Iberico pork; I recently scored a pair of racks from Meat N’ Bone, a Miami company that seems to have made a commitment to carrying Iberico. (It is hard to find elsewhere.) My first test piece– the smaller of the two racks– was so juicy and flavorful that I ate the whole thing myself. (There wasn't a whole lot of meat on it, but still…)
Another pig raised for ham, the Mangalitsa pork breed comes from Hungary. Its flesh is as red as some beef I’ve seen. So far, this is at least as hard to find as Iberico, and most of my google search hits were either small farms that don’t ship very far, or small farms that sell live Iberico piglets to other farmers. Holy Grail has occasional availability of loin roasts, and they recently came through for me with a pair. Of the three breeds discussed here, Mangalitsa might be the one most worth watching. If you don’t find it right away, keep checking from time to time.
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Just a final note– the roast-able loin pieces (bone-in or boneless) from these three breeds are expensive, and justifiably so. However, if you are making what I would call a “value-added” pork dish like BBQ spare ribs or a smoked shoulder for pulling, you might want to save your money and seek high-quality standard-issue (i.e., Yorkshire) pork from high-quality farms. The same reasoning applies, I think, to bacon. Our friends at Porter Road pride themselves on high-quality and ethical sourcing of their pork as well as their beef, and this is where I buy most of the pork that is destined for my smoker.