Shy Magazine


For the Big Game? Why, Pigskins

Photo: Theresa Cassagne |
BEFORE we return to the regularly scheduled cooking portion of our program, it is important to note that pigskins were never used to make American footballs.
| by KIM SEVERSON | Feb. 10 |

The term comes from an archaic English sport called mob football or, among the more academically minded, medieval football. The basic idea was to move an inflated pig’s bladder between neighboring villages, sometimes kicking it onto the balcony of an opponent’s church. The rest, with some help from enterprising people like Charles Goodyear, who developed vulcanized rubber, is history.

But sportswriters and fantasy football fans still like to call the ball a pigskin. And in the age of nose-to-tail eating, cooking pigskin for the Super Bowl party — in the form of crisp fennel-scented porchetta or the pork fat explosion of a Cajun crackling — makes at least as much sense as another bowl of guacamole.

“It’s just fat and salt and crunch,” said Lester Ayala, a cook from Connecticut who had dropped into Porchetta in the East Village for the first time last month to try a sandwich with a good ratio of soft, lean pork to fatty, crispy skin. “What’s better than that?”

To be sure, fat, salt and crunch should always be invited to a Super Bowl gathering. Adding a porky layer of fried skin not only gives heft and flavor to the snack menu, pigskin is just sort of fun to serve at football games.

Pigskin is no longer a food best left to Southerners and late-night partiers. It had a good run during the last decade. As a stand-in for potato chips, croutons and bread-crumb coatings, pork rinds enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity, peaking in 2003.

Like all fads, the trend faded. Sales of pork rinds (call them meat skins or pork skins, if you must) have dropped by $31 million since 2004, when they reached $134 million, and now make up barely more than 1 percent of the salty snack market, according to Packaged Facts, a market research company.

But the resilient pigskin was not out of the game. With a good slice of the country still deep in its pork worship period, pork rinds have been revived as a snack for people with food tattoos and absinthe budgets.

Ryan Farr, a self-taught butcher in San Francisco, is making good money selling pork skins fried in rice oil to the food elite at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market. April Bloomfield, the chef at the Breslin in New York, fries up skins she calls, in the British manner, scratchings, and sells them as little snacks for $5 a bag.

This is not to say the particular joy of eating pork rinds is a recent discovery. It’s hard to find a pork-eating nation that doesn’t have its share of crispy-skin worshipers. The crunchy, salted skin from a pig cooked Cuban style; chunks of the Chinese pork belly called siu yuk; vinegar-dipped lechón at countless Filipino weddings; chicharrón folded into tortillas; and perfect squares of suckling pig capped with crackling skin at the best Manhattan restaurants all rest on the same basic truth: crisp pork skin is delicious.

In the kitchen, though, it can be an ornery ingredient. Many recipes call for days of salting or elaborate rituals involving trimming, rolling, freezing and then thinly slicing the proper ratio of skin and fat. It’s no picnic to slice, even with impeccably sharp cutlery. In fact, a utility knife with a fresh blade works best.

Sometimes, the skin can turn out more chewy than crisp, with natural gelatin lending a disappointing gummy finish. The crisp crackle that comes from the heat of a professional-grade oven or the steady temperature of a commercial deep-fat fryer can be elusive for the home cook.

People come to Porchetta, the slip of a sandwich shop run by the chef Sara Jenkins, just for the skin, which she sells for $25 a pound. The trick, she said, is a special oven and good pork. She uses the middle sections of Niman Ranch pigs at a rate of about 20 a week, making sure the skin looks clean, healthy and fresh. (Cooks who use a lot of pork skin say the fresher the skin, the better the crackle.)

She roasts the pork in a combi oven, which blasts waves of heat, first moist then dry. The powerful combination produces spoon-soft meat and crisp skin faster than a home oven.

“Nobody but Kelly Ripa has a combi oven at home,” Ms. Jenkins conceded. So, for home cooks, she developed a kind of cheaters’ porchetta.

Once you find a boneless pork shoulder with the skin (Whole Foods, the Greenmarkets, neighborhood Italian butchers and some Mexican meat markets are good sources), you score, season and tie the meat. It then roasts in a very slow oven for almost five hours. That gives you lots of time to prepare the rest of the game-day snacks.

Among those snacks should be cracklings, which are a fun pigskin party trick. Cracklings are the American cousins of the French grattons and the chicharrón common to Latin America. In its perfect form, a crackling offers a square of skin that cracks when you bite into it, giving way to a little pocket of hot fat and a salty layer of pork meat.

Donald Link, a chef and an owner of two restaurants and a butcher shop in New Orleans, loves cracklings almost as much as he loves the New Orleans Saints. He was on the 40-yard line during the National Football Conference championship game against the Minnesota Vikings.

He thinks seafood gumbo is the perfect Super Bowl food, although he advises frying a few batches of cracklings, too. That’s because around the bayous of Acadiana where he was raised, cracklings are always appropriate.

“Some people bring wine to dinner,” he said. “In Cajun country you bring boudin and cracklings.”

With his recipe, a few pints of peanut oil, a deep pot and some pork belly can produce results that will make your friends think you a minor god. Mr. Link recommends deep-frying the cracklings in a two-step method like French fries and then coating them in a peppery Cajun spice mixture.

They are so good you might want to make that guacamole after all.

“Half of them aren’t going to make it out of the kitchen to your guests,” he said. “Probably none of them are.”

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