Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Straight from the Backyard: Cooking the Whole Hog

Pernil Style Pork Shoulder

Back in my cooking school days, I never shied away from breaking down large pieces of meat.  Today, as I do not work in a restaurant kitchen, I make do like most people and have the butcher do the hard work for me.

But I miss it.  I dare say that working with the whole animal, whether its pig, cow, or chicken, gives me more respect for the food I eat.  It is not just filet medallions from the meat case- it is a cut from a tubular piece of beef, part of the tenderloin that runs along both sides of the cow’s spine.  Understanding where the filet comes from on the cow it is easy for me to see how the meat is so tender and so valuable- it is the part of the cow does not get much of a workout.

Lard rendering in crockpot
It was great fun for me last week then to work with some parts of a pig I don’t get much time with- like pig skin and back fat. About 18 months ago, some friends in rural Massachusetts bought two piglets to raise on their mini farm- Sir Hamsalot and YouBaconMeCrazy.  Over the next few months those piglets became full grown swine, and those swine became a freezer full of pig parts the couple has been slowly making their way through ever since.

Good lard is a treat.  Sir Hamsalot, raised on a diet of pumpkins and corn, has some really tasty fat.  To render the lard I removed the skin, cut the fat into chunks and then added them a few at a time to a hot crockpot.  Over the next couple of hours, the pile dissolved into a luscious amber liquid.  Strained and poured off into glass jars, my friends and I will have lard to work with for months to come.

Still warm rendered lard
Working the pig skin was more difficult than I imagined, but as long as it was there, I had to give pork rinds a try.  Using a few recipes as reference, I tried to cut down the three-day process recommended by the blogs into a one-day marathon.  The skin was boiled in a pot, cooled in a freezer, and scraped clean off the remaining fat.  After letting it dry out for a couple hours I cut the skin into squares and heated up some oil for frying.  The result? Crunchy, slightly chewy pig snack.  Not really my cup of tea but hey, not everyday uncooked pig skin comes my way.

A partial rack of spareribs got the appetizer treatment one night.  Slipped into a shallow pan with a spicy-sweet Asian inspired sauce and some water, they came out tender and intensely flavorful.

Pig Skin getting ready to fry
The highlight of the great pig experiment was roasting the pork shoulder on my last night with the friends at their home.  Twenty-four hours before cooking time, I covered the shoulder with a marinade comprised of things I scavenged from their refrigerator: onion, garlic, orange juice, lime juice, honey, and pickled jalapenos.  About four and a half hours before dinnertime, I transferred the shoulder to a roasting pan fat side up along with the marinade and enough water to come about an inch up the side of the meat.  A sort of cheaters pernil, the Puerto Rican classic pork dish, the beast emerged from the oven dark, pink, fat oozing, and so tender it could be eaten with a fork.

Sir Hamsalot’s shoulder was the best pork I’ve ever had.  From where he lived happy days eating pumpkins and playing in the mud to the table on which he was eventually served, there lies a distance of no more than 100 feet. A happy ending to a very piggy tale. 

Pernil-Style Pork Shoulder
Time: 24 hours
Yield: 6 servings

5 lb pork shoulder
1 ½ cup orange juice
½ cup lime juice
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
¼ cup honey
3 T. chopped pickled jalapenos
1 tsp. ground black pepper


Place pork shoulder in a dish or bowl that is a snug fit with just a bit of space on all sides for the marinade.  In a separate bowl, mix orange and lime juice with the honey.  Thinly slice onion and chop garlic.  Mix in with juice mixture, jalapenos, and black pepper.  Pour the marinade over the pork.  Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.  About 4.5 hours before dinnertime, remove the pork from the refrigerator and let it rest at room temperature for half an hour.  Preheat oven to 400°F. Transfer pork to a slightly larger roasting pan, preferably one where it will fit with a lid on (like a Dutch oven).  Season the pork with salt and pepper on all sides.  Add the marinade to the roasting dish along with enough water to so the liquid comes about 1 inch up the side.  Place pork in the hot oven uncovered for 20 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350°F, place a lid (or foil) on the roasting pan and cook for about 3 hours.  After 3 hours, remove the lid or foil.  Increase heat to 400°F and cook for another 20 minutes.  Top of the pork should have a nice dark crust and the fat should be unctuous at this point.  Remove pork to a cutting board and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell


  1. Having a child with milk a allergy, I have had to use lard for a lot of cooking/ baking. And nothing is easier than throwing some fatback or leaf lard in a crockpot. I am surprised it isn't more commonly done. Everytime I mention it, I get the "how and why" questions. But I much prefer natural, homemade lard to either hydrogenated oils or the preservative laced stuff you can get at the grocery store. I wish we could have joined you for that dinner, it looked fabulous! We were fortunate to enjoy some of the other pig! And it was by far the best pork we've ever had- that says a lot considering we live in Germany now and I get my pork from a butcher (which is very good quality). I should also add that it doesn't surprised me that you found pickled jalapenos in that refrigerator... ;)

  2. Further proof that those neglected, half-used containers of random condiments can be an integral part of a gourmet meal.

    The pigs played their role but Amy's expert culinary skill was the most important ingredient.