Monday, April 19, 2010

Crackling Pork Shank

Over a decade ago, I had my first brush with culinary perfection. Not of the refined but the more counterintuitive variety - something so simple, so expertly-prepared and so seemingly wrong that it stays with you forever.

I was in Germany (I did say "counterintuitive"), at an inn called Hotel Zum Loewen in Freiburg. My professor insisted on each of us ordering the house special: Schweinshaxe, a spit-roasted, crackling pork shank. It came out on a metal plate with a knife stabbed in vertically. As sides, a bowl of pommes (french fries), some mixed greens, and a tarragon cream sauce.

Even without the German inn ambience, we all felt like 12th-century barbarians digging in to the massive, bone-in piece on our metal plates. The experience cannot be conveyed in words. The meat and fat were indistinguishable, a tender, juicy mountain of meat inside a crackling exterior. Whatever gristle and connective tissue had been in the shank had long since surrendered and become butter. It was simply heaven. Washing it down with a round of Birnenschnapps did nothing to detract from the experience either.

Many would find it odd that my obsession with good food started not in Italy or France, but in Germany. As much as I've grown to love and appreciate classical cuisines (rustic and refined), this was the experience I've been chasing. Chasing with numerous bitter disappointments. Supermarket-bought pork shanks braised to a limpid, grey pulp surrounded by yellow fat. Or roasted and dry. I came close by confit-ing a shank and then roasting it, but the flavor did not satisfy.

More than once, friends from Europe would tell me to stop trying to replicate the dish, as American pork is bred (and injected with hormones) to produce the maximum amount of lean meat in the least amount of time. As such, the texture and flavor would never compare to a provincial German hog, raised outdoors and allowed to grow and put on fat at a natural pace. Eventually, I conceded the point.

Fast forward to March 2010.

I now have 133 pounds of organic Berkshire hog. I have butchered the primals and cut into myriad roasting, braising and curing joints. Among them are the shanks, separated from the trotters:

Days after the butchery, and subsequent roast and sausage feast, I eventually found myself thinking about pork. And about my Schweineshaxe. I decided upon a plan of action for a dry run - brine one shank, braise it until tender, rest, and roast to crackling. The brining I decided was critical to bringing out the pork's flavor at the beginning, so that I didn't risk having to save it with extra seasoning at the end.

Accordingly, on the evening of March 30 I threw one shank into some pork brine (Thomas Keller's formula).

The next morning, I tied the shank and threw it into a braise of onions, carrots, wine, aromatics and stock. I made sure to get some mace, marjoram and caraway in there. I braised at 275-300 for about four hours, until tender.

I then let it rest and dry in the refigerator. As dinnertime approached, I brought it to room temperature and scored the skin with a utility knife. I preheated the oven to 425 and rubbed the shank down with salt, pepper, herbs and a bit of olive oil for the skin.
I popped the shank in for about 30 minutes, until heated through and crackling. And serve.

With boiled potatoes, a mustard-tarragon sauce, and beer, this was delicious. If it's not quite perfect, it's close. Crackly, unctuous, tender goodness.

One could eat the meat with a spoon, if one were so inclined.

In the future, this will be more efficient to prepare in bulk. More than likely I'll brine and braise the remaining three shanks ahead of time. When Feast Day comes, I'll either roast them as above, or introduce the three shanks to an outdoor deep-fryer for a couple minutes. (I do suspect that is how the Germans made them to order).

I'll update when I try it again. In the meantime, this was an 8 out of 10. We gave a piece to the Peanut, and she immediately nodded emphatic approval. She has good taste.

No comments:

Post a Comment