A cross of bacon + butter = lardo




At The Crested Duck Charcuterie in Beechview, owner Kevin Costa treats his pork fat gently. Squares of back fat from Berkshire hogs bathe in brine flavored with aromatic herbs for three months. Once cured, they air dry for several days, and then he places the cream-white squares inside his store's deli counter labeled "Lardo."

"There are definitely people who ask, 'What is lardo?' and I say, 'It's fat!' They might give me a funny look after that, but once they try it they always love it," Mr. Costa says.

At Parma Sausage Products in the Strip District, another transformation of fat to lardo happens inside the darkness of an ageing room. Here, the fourth-generation Pittsburgh charcuteriers are following Italian tradition and burying thick slabs of fat from a Mangalitsa hog in a proprietary mix of salt and seasonings. The Mangalitsa is a heritage breed of hog specifically bred for its rich fat content; if fat is your thing, this is the perfect pig.

Lardo sliced as thin as tracing paper topping a warm baguette melts into a liminal state -- not quite solid and not quite liquid. Sweet, porky, and, in both Mr. Costa and Mr. Edward's preparations, rosemary herbal, it transcend into a soulful snack.

"It's a magical cross between bacon and butter. You're going to be very happy," says Mr. Costa.


This is the gold standard of fat

Lardo is the back fat of a pig, trimmed of skin and meaty bits, then cured several months with salt and herbs. The creamy, fragrant slab is sliced thin as part of a cured meat platter or whipped with butter into a spread for crostini. Slices can be draped over a white pizza, or basted to perfume a roast chicken or asparagus or salmon on the grill.

Pittsburghers are accustomed to chef-made lardos from local heritage pigs offered at nose-to tail places such as Cure or Crested Duck. But new for this city, and infrequently found anywhere, is Parma Sausage's house-cured lardo, made from the fat of Mangalitsa pigs.

These curly-bristled aristocrats, looking more like wooly lambs, were historically raised in Hungary for Hapsburg nobility. They nearly disappeared two decades ago when the world wanted lean pork. Costly because they are small, slow to fatten, and have tiny litters, the cold-preferring animals develop a thick layer of back fat that is the gold standard.

Parma sources the fat from Mosefund Mangalitsa in New Jersey, suppliers for fussy Manhattan chefs such as Wylie Dufresne. They are exploring having Mangalitsas raised locally for them.

Check out Parma's cure flavorings, including rosemary, at $12 a pound.

"We will have Mangalitsa guanciale coming in a month or two," Parma owner Rina Edwards says. "Isn't it wonderful. America is coming back to the fatty pig."


While slathering toast with a lash of butter doesn't give most of us a second thought, spreading cured pork fat onto the same slice of bread might seem like diving into the deep excess of porcine gluttony.

Perhaps it's time to rethink that mindset. Boisterous celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse may have been onto something when he shouted (and shouted and shouted) one of his most quotable catchphrases. "Pork fat rules."

Slowly, lard is regaining its place in the heart of the kitchen. Now chefs across the country, conscientious not to waste anything edible from an animal, are challenging the notion that lard is a health hazard.

"People are trained to think that pork fat is not good for you, or that it's gross. I think there's a really skewed opinion about the difference between healthy and wholesome," says Justin Severino, executive chef of Lawrenceville's pork-centric restaurant Cure.

Here in Pittsburgh, lard once again is appearing as an essential ingredient in a chef's pantry, and home cooks are beginning to grow savvy to the flaky texture lard adds to a pastry crust and the sweet crispness of braised meat slowly finished in flavor-filled fat.

The rise and fall of lard

If lard is such a beautiful ingredient, why did it fall out of favor in the first place?

Research conducted in the 1950s led doctors to conclude that saturated fat -- most commonly found in animal fats (such as lard) and tropical plant oils -- was a primary factor in causing heart disease. A health-conscious public slowly started to replace blocks of lard, butter, and bacon grease with vegetable oils, especially olive oil, and margarine.

However, the movement away from lard started even before saturated fats became an unwelcome part of a diet. The case against rendered pork fat was largely made by two brothers-in-law looking to sell a new product invented to offset financial losses due to a decreasing demand for candle wax.

Crisco

Early in the 20th century, Ohio businessmen William Procter and James Gamble began building control of the nation's cottonseed oil stocks so that they could inexpensively supply raw materials to their respective candle and soap businesses. In order to turn the liquid oil into a usable product, Procter and Gamble developed a then-revolutionary process called hydrogenation: hydrogen atoms introduced to the vegetable fatty acid chain caused the vegetable fats to become solid and shelf-stable at room temperature.

But with electric light quickly diminishing the need for a constant supply of candles, P&G knew they had to repurpose their innovation into something more sustainably profitable. Happily for them, this solid vegetable fat bore an uncanny resemblance to lard.

In 1911, the duo introduced Crisco to the United States as "the ideal fat." Crisco was touted as the miracle food of the Progressive Age. It could remain at room temperature for months without going rancid, baked into a consistent, flaky pie crust without a "porky smell," and was less expensive than lard. Best of all, they said, Crisco was good for you.

In the 1913 book, "The Story of Crisco," Marion Harris Neil writes that "this rich, wholesome cream of nutritious food oils [comes] in sanitary tins ... hundreds of instances of Crisco's healthfulness have been given by people, who, at one time have been denied such foods as pastry, cake and fried foods, but who now eat these rich, yet digestible Crisco dishes." The book, published by Procter & Gamble, includes more than 600 Crisco-filled recipes; there's even a recipe for "Health Bread" that includes whole wheat, bran, and, of course, a heaping 3 tablespoons of Crisco.

Of course, contemporary nutrition science tells a different story of Crisco.

"Would I cook with Crisco? Absolutely not. It's full of hydrogenated fats, and those are the absolute worst fats for you," says Mim Seidel, a registered dietitian and faculty member in the Chatham University Food Studies program.

Ms. Seidel says that despite lard's relatively high saturated-fat content, its reputation as a bad actor is unfounded.

"Modern conventional wisdom assumes that lard is worse for you than butter, but it turns out that's not true," she says.

"Tablespoon to tablespoon they have the same calories and the same amount of total fat. But when you look at the makeup of the fat, lard has less saturated fat, almost twice as much monounsaturated fat, and a little more polyunsaturated fat," she says.

Monounsaturated fat is the "good" fat that's made olive oil the toast of the town; it increases healthy cholesterol levels while lowering artery-clogging "bad" cholesterol. Lard contains up to 45 percent monounsaturated fat -- more than many popular vegetable oils.

Proponents of pasture-raised hogs argue that the fat in their hogs also gives eaters a healthy dose of omega-3, a polyunsaturated fat linked to cardiovascular health, reduced inflammation, and easing depression.

Ms. Seidel says that while that claim that pasture-raised hogs are healthier than conventionally raised hogs might someday be proved true, the evidence thus far is just anecdotal. "It's hard to prove right now," she says, because there haven't been enough studies.

Pork fat rules

True to the style of his restaurant, Mr. Severino and his team take the transfiguration of pork fat to the far reaches of decadence.

At a few minutes past 11 on a sunny spring morning, the Cure kitchen is already cranking. Nathan Hobart, Cure's lanky 20-year old sous chef, is hovering over a vacuum-sealed packet of pork fat. He slices the white ribbons into chunky squares and adds them to a large stockpot and covers it with water. It's just the first step in a nearly two-day process.

During the process, the fat will be simmered, blended, simmered again, strained, infused with herbs, simmered a third time, strained, cooled, and then finally whipped with a little bit of butter and salt into a glistening, airy white fluff begging to be spread over bread.

"It's just what we do here. Why just give someone butter? We want to do something that's special, that's better than that," Mr. Hobart says.

When you run a restaurant like Cure, gathering and preparing the best ingredients is par for the course.

Yet there remains a challenge for the home cook looking to get into the fat game: good lard is hard to find. The region's larger grocery stores, if they carry lard at all, carry lard processed with hydrogenated fats; these lards have all the health risks associated with processed vegetable shortening while containing none of the wholesomeness of pasture-raised lard.

A good rule of thumb is that you want to buy lard that's found in the refrigerator case rather than lard that's found in a tub in the baking section.

There are a few markets in town that carry pure lard. Wild Purveyors in Upper Lawrenceville has a ready supply. Reyna's and Marty's Market in the Strip District both carry lard, too. At Marty's Market, butcher Steve Beachy, who purchases whole hogs from North Woods Ranch and Clarion River Organics, sometimes renders it in the store.

For the curious -- or thrifty -- home cook, rendering lard isn't terrifically challenging. If you purchase a pork shoulder, you can even render the trimmings instead of throwing them away. Or seek out back fat and leaf fat (the fat that forms around the kidney and other organs, what Mr. Beachy calls "the best fat for making lard") from suppliers such as Wild Purveyors, North Woods Ranch or Clarion River Organics.

For his part, Nathan Holmes of Clarion River Organics would like to see that happen. "Any way you can turn parts of the hog into something that people are excited to use is a good thing," he says.

Begin by chopping the trimmings into the smallest pieces you can manage. "You want the fat to be as cold as possible," says Mr. Beachy.

At the start of the rendering process everything will seem horrible; you'll wonder if it might just be better to throw away the excess pork fat and get a vat of Crisco. As the trimmed bits of fat melt in a hot pot, they'll begin to resemble a macabre, winter-gray rice porridge. The aroma is very intense and porky (and not in a perfumed, "Let's put bacon on everything!" fashion). But dare to press on: stir constantly, making sure not to let any of the solids burn. The fat thickens as water evaporates, solids transform from gray to golden and the aroma sweetens. The final bits of water evaporate with a violent "Pop! Pop! Pop!" When there are more bubbles, it's time to strain. The golden liquid cools off-white.

This is the dry method. It's faster and results in lard with a hint of porcine flavor.

The "wet method" produces a clean and mild-tasting lard: add fat trimmings to a pan filled with half as much water, bring to a boil and simmer low on the back of the stove for the rest of the day. Check in periodically to stir, skim off any scum, and make sure that the leftover bits of fat don't burn as the water evaporates. When there's just a scant amount of water left, remove the rendered fat from the heat, strain and cool. The lard will float atop any leftover water; simply remove it, pat dry and refrigerate.

"Lard is the key to making lots of things delicious," says Mindy Heisler, chief pie-maker at the forthcoming Pub Chip Shop on Carson Street. She tested a variety of recipes for several months, and the pies made with lard always stood out in taste tests.

"I would challenge anyone to make the exact same pie crust recipe -- one with butter, one with lard -- and tell me the one with lard isn't better," she says. "It is better. The texture of the crust is better, the ease of working with it is better, the flavor is better, and it bakes better. It's better."

And for carnitas, the delightful Mexican pork shoulder braise, lard is practically a necessity. Diana Kennedy, the legendary authority on Mexican cookery, writes, "many of the best cooks I know still insist on using it (and they are healthy and slim), even when most people have switched to vegetable oils."

Carnitas can be prepared without lard, but they'll never be as flavorful as carnitas with a good dollop of lard added at the beginning of the process. As the braising liquid begins to evaporate, a leftover pool of flavor-rich lard remains to fry the chunks of flavored meat; the result is a magical mix of tender and crisp.

Lard likely never will regain its prominence as a staple, but perhaps it's time to give pork fat another look.

For Ms. Seidel, the nutritionist, it all comes down to balance. "People should eat whole foods, nut and seeds, plenty of vegetables. You should also exercise. If you do all those things and have a piece of pie or something fried with lard, who cares? I don't see a bad health consequences when the total diet is healthy, one's total weight is good, and one exercises," she adds.

Then again, according to Mr. Holmes of Clarion River Organics, sometimes it's just appealing to sit back and embrace a bit of old-time simplicity. He says, "I think this is such a missing piece in our culture. To fry an egg with a little bit of lard in a pan is such a wonderful thing."


Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and writes for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets: halbklein@gmail.com.




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