Monday, August 5, 2013

Eating Omily: This Post May Not Be Appropriate for All Readers: Discretion Is Advised.

WARNING: This post is about meat.  You know, flesh from animals that were purposefully raised in happy, healthy, conditions, and then killed as quickly and painlessly as possible, to enable us humans to enjoy these powerhouses of complete protein, healthy fats, and other nutrients.  If images of meat in raw and/or cooked forms disturbs you, I recommend you stay right here and enjoy this image of marinated, baked tofu.  I'll be doing a vegan post next week. :-)

Are the vegetarians gone?  Ok.  OMG, CHECK THIS OUT!!!
Isn't it beautiful?  It's a pork shank!  That's sort of the calf of the pig...but don't worry, it's still pork!   (Sorry, bad meat pun!)  That's the leg bone you can see there, full of delicious marrow, and generously surrounded by fat and connective tissue.  Tasty flesh surround that...another layer of delicious fat, and of course, the skin.
Yes, pig skin!  This is such a primal, close to the earth cut that there are still a few bristles (pig hairs) attached!  Can you see them?  Can you tell how excited I get about meat??  I just find it incredibly fascinating how much I can learn about anatomy by having meat for dinner.

So, what do you do with this guy?  This humble, inexpensive, bone-in cut of flesh is a perfect candidate for slow-cooking.  Do we know why?

Well, if I were to stick this guy in a skillet and brown him on all sides, well, first of all, it would take ages to cook it through the center, but once I did, it would be dry, tough, and rather sad.

If I take a beautiful filet mignon steak and pop it into my slow cooker with broth and herbs and veggies and leave it for six hours, interestingly enough, I get the same result.

What is this alchemy??  Connective tissue!  Connective tissue is really tough stuff.  If you've ever bitten into some gristle you know just how un-fun it is to chew on, but it's made of protein, and it is in fact edible.  It just needs time, and moisture.  Given those two things, the connective tissue will more than soften: it will melt, creating a protein and flavor-packed broth with incredible body and mouth feel.  The fat and the bone will also provide tons of flavor, given time to release their magic.

A lean steak doesn't have any of those things, so if you try to cook it slowly, there's nothing to keep the protein moist and tender, and it just dries up and gets tough.  Stick to your cast iron skillet for beautiful steaks; keep your slow cooker for cuts like your pork shank.

Even though this bad boy is going into the slow cooker, I can up the flavor ante considerably by taking the time to brown it on all sides before popping it in.  I crusted it with corn meal, since I had some sitting out, and browned it for a few minutes on all sides in coconut oil.
Mmmm...doesn't that look gorgeous?  Ok, pop quiz: what is that red stuff in the picture below?
Nope!  Blood is only in blood vessels, guys.  It is not dripping freely from our muscles.  That's just moisture that's saturated with protein that looks red when it hits oxygen.  When you see this happening on a burger or steak, you know it's getting close to time to flip: the coagulating proteins from the bottom where the meat is cooking are forcing the moisture up to the top and out onto the surface.  If this is happening, and you don't have a good sear yet, turn the heat up, and next time maybe pat your meat more dry before you begin.  In this case, I'm not trying to cook this all the way through on the stove, so it doesn't much matter.

So while my shank browned, I brought my frozen chicken stock up to a boil, and poured it into my slow cooker.  I added a big onion, sliced thin, salt, pepper, a bay leaf, and a dried lime.  SECRET INGREDIENT: buy some limes, let them sit on the counter or in the fridge till they turn brown, and are totally hard.  Throw one of them into the slow cooker with anything you want to have a subtle citrusy brightness: pork shank that will be used for tacos is a perfect  example, but anything could benefit from the flavor really, since it helps to cut through the richness of the fat and connective tissue.

I gently lowered the pork shank into the liquid, and wriggled it around till it was resting on the bottom, instead of on a bed of onions.  That way I didn't have to add as much water to bring hte level up to about half way up the shank.  In a stew, you'd cover the meat totally, but since a shank has so much fat, you don't end up having enough meat for a good stew, so a braise, where the cooking liquid because more of a sauce, is a better bet.
 Go, beautiful pork shank, go!
 Food porn...

So, six or so hours later, with our kitchen smelling ridiculously good, I opened the lid, and with the help of grill tongs, and a big fork, managed to lift the now literally falling apart pork shank onto a big plate, where the fat fell away in a blissful quivering mass, the meat shredded obligingly, and the bones fell apart, because there was no longer any connective tissue holding them together.  Yes, I really do think about meat this poetically.  You'll also notice how soft the lime has gotten from its slow-cooking adventure!
 My husband made pork tacos with  blue corn tortillas from Hot Bread Kitchen, my homemade picked red onions, and plenty of guac and salsa.
 I was way too excited about that gelatin-rich braising liquid to go that route.  I poured it into a pan, and boiled it down a bit, adding some extra salt, then I spread some shredded pork over a tortilla, added some pickled onion, and ladled some tasty, tasty pork braising sauce over it.
Don't judge me.  It was freaking delicious, especially with those ultra-slow cooked, falling apart onions adding an extra dimension of flavor and succulence.

We had enough left overs for pork for lunch for everybody the next day...but that was it for the meat, sadly.  Our braised pork shank adventures didn't end just yet though, because we still had braising liquid in the fridge, firmed up to jello consistency, and topped with creamy white, pure pork fat.
And seriously, you guys?  Dinner that night was the best, but having this stuff around is a close second!  I scoop most of the fat off with a spoon and throw it away, and then use the rich braising liquid as a soup base.  I add a little water, and and simmer some raw veggies right in the broth till tender, and there you go: delicious soup with lots of protein, and fresh veggie nutrition, with a texture and a flavor you will never ever find in a can or a box.  I'm already wondering what I'll slow cook next...but first...BURGERS!!!  Will you be doing some slow cooking? It seems counter-intuitive, but I find running the slow cooker all day keeps my apartment cooler than running the stove for half an hour!  And I don't have to tell you guys to get all your meat from small ranches and farms where the animals are allowed to live like animals, do I?  Farmers' Markets, or Whole Foods are your best bets.  Remember, better for you and your family, better for the animal, better for the planet.  Do it.

No worries, vegetarians, I'll keep my promise!  Vegan post next.  Until then...

Nom nom nom...


  1. Ah, the shank! If you can find some nice lamb shanks, do the same with them (although you won't get a lot of fat), and make sure there is some thyme in there.

    I remember my mom making bean soup, not with the shank, but the hock, a little lower on the pig. Not so much meat, but lots of that delightful connective tissue.

    Oh, and I love the lime idea. Why do you dry it out first?

  2. Hmmm...good question! Drying limes is a method of preserving them, and the best way to use a preserved lime is in a slow-cooking recipe...I haven't heard of using a fresh one, but the only potential problem I could see is if the lime fell apart too much and was hard to remove, leaving bitter pith and seeds in the final dish. Let me know how it goes if you try it!