Hot-out-of-the-grease porky deliciousness: chicharrón (chee-chah-ROHN, fried pork skin), as made at the Morelia tianguis (street market) where Mexico Cooks! shops every Wednesday. The piece of just-made chicharrón in the photo above is about 60cm high by 45cm wide (two feet by one and a half feet). The cazo (cooking vessel) in the photo is about three feet in diameter at the top.
Mexico is a huge producer of pork, and not just any pork: the little piggy that goes to market here is usually finely grained, tender, and flavorful. The meat has just enough fat-to-lean ratio for a wonderful feel in the mouth. Every part of the pig is consumed, from the head (pozole) to the curlicue tail (cooked in a pot of beans). Even the skin is eaten, in at least two forms: fried as chicharrón or sliced into thin strips and pickled as cueritos.
In the United States, pork rinds destined for the snack food aisle begin as hard, dry pellets made in a factory. Meat processing plants sell these pellets in bulk to snack food producers and individual pork rind vendors. The dehydrated pellets are placed in vats of hot cooking oil, maintained at a temperature around 400 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 204 degrees Celsius). A consistent cooking temperature is crucial, since colder oil may not cause the pellets to puff out during the deep frying stage. The individual pork rind pellets are held down in the near-boiling oil with a metal screen to insure consistency; after about 60 seconds, they're ready for packaging.
In Mexico, very little processing takes place between the on-the-hoof pig and the cazo (huge metal pot used to make chicharrones). The slaughterer skins the pig in as large a single piece as possible, soaks the skin briefly in brine, and sends it to market. At the tianguis where I shop on Wednesdays, the chicharrón vendor's brother kills the pig at the rancho. Another relative--the vendor next to the chicharrón purveyor--sells the rest of the freshly killed animal: ribs, tongue, liver, kidneys, legs, chops, tenderloin, etc. Feet sell fresh or pickled, ears sell fresh or fried.
In Mexico, customers usually wait in line for fresh chicharrón to come out of the cazo. Although packaged chicharrón is available in supermarkets, freshly-made is infinitely better. Truly, there is no comparison.
Pork rinds, long a popular snack food in the southern United States, became popular country-wide with the advent of high-protein food plans such as the Atkins and South Beach diets. Unlike potato or corn chips, fried pork rinds have no carbohydrates at all. They are exceptionally high in protein, however, which makes them ideal for those who prefer snack foods that have no starch component.
Fresh chicharrón can be delgado (thin, above) or gordito (thick, below). Chicharrón delgado is just the crispy, crunchy fried skin of the pig. Ask the vendor to weigh out as much or as little as you need; in Mexico, chicharrón is sold by the kilo. You can see the old-fashioned scale that my vendor uses in the photo above. Other vendors at the tianguis use digital electronic scales.
Chicharrón gordito is fried with little squares of pork meat still attached to the skin. The meat develops a creamy texture, which contrasts beautifully with the crunch of the crisp-fried skin. The difference in color between this photo and the one above is due to the red lona (tarp) that hung above the first booth and the blue lona that hung over the second booth.
The main concern about pork rinds, however, is their high sodium content. Pork rinds can have up to three times as much sodium as regular potato chips. In spite of their sodium content, pork rinds are usually less greasy than other snacks.
In addition to eating chicharrón as a snack food, most Mexicans also enjoy it as a high-protein yet inexpensive meal. Served everywhere in Mexico, chicharrones en salsa verde is enormously popular.
Chicharrones en Salsa Verde
Fried Pork Skins in Green Sauce
1 lb fresh tomatillos, husked and washed
1 large bunch cilantro, washed well
4 to 6 chiles serranos, depending on your heat tolerance
Salt to taste
Mexico Cooks! already ground the tomatillos and chiles in the blender. The cilantro is ready to add.
In a large, heavy saucepan, bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Add the husked tomatillos and the chiles. Allow to boil until the tomatillos begin to crack open. As each one opens, remove it to your blender jar. A few may not open; when the rest are done, just add the unopened tomatillos to the rest in the blender jar. Add the chiles as well. Blend until roughly chopped. Using the hole in the center of your blender top, add the cilantro little by little , blending until the cilantro is finely chopped. Add salt to taste.
Heat the salsa verde in the large, heavy saucepan until the sauce is simmering. Add six or so ounces of freshly-made crunchy chicharrón delgado.* Allow the chicharrón and salsa to simmer for several minutes. The texture of the chicharrón will change; during the simmer time, it will become soft and slippery.
If you prefer, you can put a portion of chicharrón into a bowl and pour the heated sauce on top. The chicharrón will stay crunchy.
*Don't try to make this recipe with pre-packaged snack food pork rinds; they will fall apart in the sauce.
Serve with hot tortillas, steamed rice, and a cold beer.
Serves two or three.
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