For some reason I felt a weird compulsion to attempt to make my own chicharrones this weekend. Chicharrones are pork rinds, but not at all like the kind I grew up with (and never really liked). Those are the the sad, distant cousins of the type of pork rind I discovered a couple of years ago at a local Mexican bakery and sandwich shop. These still have meat attached and are chewy and decadent (or disgusting, depending on where you stand on the whole skin-eating thing). Over the past two or three years, I’ve gotten chicharrones maybe 8 or 10 times. Of those, maybe only half of the times were they really, really good. They don’t do well under heat lamps, and unless you get there early (and I never get anywhere early), you’ll be stuck with dried-out, hard bits of pig. I decided to try to make my own so that I would be assured of getting some that were fresh and delectable (or fresh and disgusting depending on that skin-eating thing).
I turned to the internet to see what I’d need. The main ingredient here is pork belly. And it is, apparently, all but impossible to find at any of the white-bread grocery stores I frequent. I figured I would have to go to a Mexican meat market, but I decided to try a couple of my usual grocery stores first. First I tried Central Market — the upscale Texas grocery store chain that is every bit as good as its P.R. claims it is. Mostly. This place has an incredible meat department — the sprawling display case of meat is bigger than the house I grew up in. When I asked the butcher behind the counter if they had any pork belly, he seemed surprised. I’m guessing it’s not a common question. He told me I could call and place a special order sometime, but it just wasn’t something they carried. This is the store that carries 8-foot stalks of sugar cane and 57 varieties of apples. If octopus-and-rhubarb sausage exists … they’ve got it. They’ve got EVERYTHING! But pork belly? No way. Don’t they do their own butchering? Isn’t that part of a pig? Along with cheeks and jowls and bacon and pork chops? Shouldn’t it be on the premises — maybe not wrapped up all pretty but available? When I asked about fresh lard, the guy’s eyes got really big, but he managed a polite, “No ma’am, we sure don’t.” I also asked at my neighborhood grocery store — part of a large local chain. The butcher was Hispanic, and when I asked about pork belly and fresh lard he started laughing. “I’m going to have to go to a Mexican meat market, right?” And he said, “Yes you are, miss — this is a white people’s market.” I laughed with him, and felt really … white.
So I went to La Michoacana on Greenville Avenue yesterday. I’d never been there before and had expected it to be much larger inside. I walked around a bit looking at the produce and bakery items. I eventually made my way to the back of the store to the meat department. I had practiced a few phrases in Spanish just in case the butcher didn’t speak English, and, in fact, I don’t think he did speak much English, but we managed to understand each other after a tortured few minutes where I was trying to convince him that I wanted to make my OWN chicharrones — “No, really!” — and not buy the ones under the heat lamp on the counter. As I waited for him to go fetch my pork belly, I suddenly noticed a guy four feet away from me hacking away at a giant piece of bloody meat. There didn’t appear to be any skill in what he was doing. He was a teenager — maybe he was in training. Or maybe he’d lost a bet. I averted my eyes from the bloody mess only to see a whole row of containers of manteca fresca — fresh lard. Yay! I was expecting it to be refrigerated, and I was expecting it to be white … but inside the hot store it was liquid and looked like chicken soup. I picked up a container thinking “This is sure gonna make a mess if it spills in my car on the way home.” The butcher came back with two strips of pork belly. It was more than I wanted, but he seemed insistent on selling me a pound’s worth. Why not? He kept looking at me very suspiciously as he wrapped it up for me. He handed it to me, and as I started to walk away, I heard him tell another customer in Spanish that “la rubia” was going to make her own chicharrones. I turned around to look at them and they were chuckling. Again, I felt VERY white but smiled weakly and headed to the register.
The manteca fresca.
So anyway, I made my chicharrones today, and it was really easy. And they were great! Although, after about three you start feeling a little queasy. I made only a half-pound’s worth, but I still have a LOT left over. I hate to waste food, but I don’t know anyone who would even want to contemplate sharing. And I’m not sure these are going to keep. (I’ve been told that fat freezes well, so I should have just popped the unused pork belly into the freezer.) I think you can chop them up with chiles and make a kind of stew or something.
A pleasant, if fat-filled, weekend.
The “recipe” (which I originally found here):
The pork belly, cut into large chunks.
Half a pound of pork belly, simmering in water infused with about a tablespoon of baking soda (this seems to be a necessary step in making the pork belly pliable enough to cut and to chew). Remove the chunks from the water after 10 or 15 minutes; rinse off, and pat dry. Cut into small pieces.
I put a little lard into a skillet, but you probably don’t really need any oil or fat in the pan, other than the pork belly. Start frying skin-side down for 10 minutes or so, then flip over and fry the other side until crisp.
And … tada! Chicharrones! Add a little salt, and enjoy!
UPDATE (Dec. 15, 2012): This page gets an incredible number of hits, and I thought I would update very quickly on the current availability of pork belly. I recently purchased a pound at Whole Foods in Dallas and was told that they now carry it regularly. This must be a fairly new addition, because when I asked a few months ago, I was told that they did not carry it. It comes in wrapped, coiled one-pound pieces. I forget what the price was, but it was inexpensive (I think it was under $5.00). Here is what it looks like in the butcher’s case wrapped and, below, unwrapped. Go find some!