Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eating (Really) High on the Hog

The expression “high on the hog” is said to originate from the general belief that the choicest cuts of pork came from high on the animal’s anatomy – the back and upper legs. Thus, these cuts were more expensive, and those lucky enough afford them were said to be living (or eating) “high on the hog.”

Ironically, the highest topological point on the hog, the pinnacle of piggy anatomy, is one of the cheapest and least prestigious cuts. It has been quietly prepared and relished for centuries by African-Americans, Chinese, and others whose cultural mores or pocketbooks eschewed waste of any kind. For these reasons, it has also been embraced by ethics-driven omnivores and recession-strapped foodies.

And for good reason: done right, it can be downright decadent.

Yup – pigs’ ears can be awesome.

I used to be a skeptic, too. While I grew up seeing pigs’ ears in Chinese butcher shops (they look exactly the way you think they would, only bigger), I never had much desire to try them – they were always pink, pointy, and floppy, and it was impossible to look at them and not imagine poor Porky Pig going “Ow! M-m-m-my ear!” In an Asian deli several years ago, I saw small packages of Taiwanese-style stewed, sliced pigs’ ears – meant to be served as appetizers or bar snacks – and I made a mental note to try them sometime. But that sometime never came.

Then I saw them on a non-Chinese menu for the first time, at the unapologetically carnivore-centric Los Angeles restaurant Animal: “crispy pigs’ ears, lime, chile, fried egg.”

“How weird,” my sister said. “I wonder what THAT’S like?”

Our server must have overheard her question, because when he passed our table a short time later he stopped to show us a plate he was delivering to another table: a pretty pile of crunchy browned shreds, smelling vaguely of fresh cracklings, topped with a sunny-side up fried egg. It reminded me of bacon and eggs, but with an obscenely generous proportion of bacon.

“By the way, these are the pigs’ ears,” our server said. Then, leaning closer: “Trust me—they’re very good.”

They were.

Flash forward about two years, to the present day: I had moved from the Los Angeles area to Middle Of Nowhere, Florida – a sleepy rural college town distinguished from the surrounding sleepy rural towns by the presence of a humongous research hospital and an equally humongous football stadium. But one nice thing about being in the middle of nowhere is that old rural folkways are still observed – it’s easier to find old-school cooking paraphernalia such as canning jars here than in Los Angeles, for instance.

The same goes for food. Unfashionable cuts of meat that would never grace the shelves of Whole Foods – turkey necks, pigs’ feet, chitlins – are easy to find, and dirt cheap to boot. Last week at my favorite grocery store, I saw that they had pigs’ ears – good-sized trays of them – for about two bucks each.

It was time for an experiment.

After a quick bit of internet research, I had a plan. The pigs’ ears, as I suspected, wouldn’t be difficult to prepare, but they’d require a bit of cooking – cartilage-filled cuts of meat always do. Following the basic guidelines of a recipe (and entertaining related essay) by Chichi Wang, I simmered the ears in water and aromatics until they were soft. Then I drained and cooled them, sliced them into thin strips, and dredged them in flour and cornstarch before deep-frying them until they were browned and crispy.

To finish them off, I shamelessly plagiarized Animal’s preparation by tossing the crispy strips with salt, cayenne, and a squirt of lime, then topping the whole thing with fried eggs, one per diner. My only original contribution to the recipe was inspired by the presence of that big pot of hot oil left after the ears were fried: not wanting it to go to waste, I threw in a handful of cilantro leaves, which brightened and crisped to make a pretty garnish.

For those still grossed out by the whole notion of eating pigs’ ears (vegetarians are excused from the sermon), please consider this wise observation from M.F.K. Fisher:

“Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If was are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed.”

Amen. Now let’s pig out.


Adapted from Chichi Wang, with additional inspiration from Animal restaurant, Los Angeles

1 pound pigs’ ears
1 carrot, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 stick celery, chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
¼ cup cornstarch
¼ cup flour
12 cilantro leaves, washed and dried
½ lime
½ teaspoon cayenne powder (more if desired)
salt as needed
canola (or other neutral cooking oil) for deep-frying
4 fresh eggs, fried to your taste.

1. Place the pigs’ ears in a pot of boiling water. Boil for three minutes to remove any impurities, then drain and set aside.

2. Arrange the carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns, and pigs’ ears in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Add about a tablespoon of salt. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and allow the ears to cook, uncovered, until tender enough to pierce easily with a fork, about 2 hours.

3. Remove the pigs’ ears from the water, drain them, and allow them to cool. (Save the broth—it’ll make a great soup base.)

4. When the pigs’ ears are cool and dry, cut them into ¼ inch strips.

5. In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine the cornstarch and flour. Meanwhile, put about 2 inches of canola oil into a deep pot and heat to 350 degrees.

6. Toss the sliced pigs’ ears in the flour-cornstarch mixture. When the oil is hot, add the floured slices to the hot oil in batches, shaking off extra flour first.

7. Cook the strips until they are crisp and browned. Remove and drain on paper towels. Keep finished strips in a warm oven until all are done.

8. When all the strips are cooked, toss the cilantro leaves into the hot oil. They will sizzle and crisp up within 15 seconds or so. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on a plate lined with paper towels.

9. To complete the dish, toss the pigs’ ear strips with cayenne and add salt to taste. Squirt with lime juice (exact amount is up to you) and toss again. Divide the mixture among four plates, and top each with a fried egg and some of the cilantro leaves.