Friday, May 28, 2010

Hot Dry Sausage from Claudio

I cheated, once. It was Christmas of 2008, and I was spending it in a more Christian way than ever before; with a family of Catholics. Not that there was anything particularly Catholic about these Catholics. It was Christmas with the Hardys.

Joe Hardy is my old friend and, as some tabloids have suggested, my favorite. When we first met, I learned that he didn't like to be called anything other than 'Joe' by his friends and 'Joseph' by his elders, so naturally, I've called him 'Joey' for the past eight years.

Joey invited me to spend Christmas eve with his family, as I was to be trekking to my aunt's nearby the following day. My family has never been too big on Christmas, aside from it being an occasion for us to gather and irritate each other. Perhaps all other families in the world, including the Hardys, spent Christmas the same way. But there was a far more festive spirit in the air, and their varying gradations of British accents brought a sense of correctness to to the setting.

At the time, I lived right in Philadelphia's Italian Market. As a token of my regard for the Hardys and the ever-so-slight mutual loathing underlying the love that has kept me and Joey friends for so long, I decided to bring a token of my gratitude in the form of some hot dry sausage from Claudio. I felt it to be a fitting gift in that I would be unable to eat it, and so would have to ask them how it tasted, to which they would, bound by courtesy, tell me it was delicious. I would then spend my life obliviously believing that this tube of sodiumized animal meat tasted great, never knowing the true answer. This was my aim, but I thwarted it myself after a couple of drinks on that first night. In front of me sat a plate piled with slices of the links, and around me sat the Hardys, talking about most un-British things in their accents.

I was contemplating eating on of those little discs, hard. It went on for about ten minutes. I stared at it, sipping my drink, bending my eyebrows like hermetic kung fu master sizing up his newest pupil. Finally, I leaned forward and with an inward "Fuck it", I grabbed one and threw it into my mouth. This was immediately followed by my eyes darting around to make sure no one just notice the Muslim eating pork. It was, indeed the perfect crime, unless of course god was watching.

I forgot about this incident until just recently, when I was in Claudio buying olives and cheese. Along with a wedge of brie and some olives stuffed with almonds, mini jalapenos, gorgonzola, and anchovies (yes), I got a turd-looking sausage that I suddenly realized I'd purchased before.

Suddenly, there was an adventure more important than all the ones that came after it. The real first time I willingly ate pork; it had to be revisited. Arriving at home, I fixed myself a plate of cheese, olives, and...I couldn't do it. Not yet. I had to be in the perfect state of mind to recall everything I felt at the time. This was to be a jolt, and I had to prime myself for it. A day passed, then another, until the olives were gone and there was just a bit of cheese left. Finally, I was ready, and I fixed the originally intended plate, the only substitution mini dill pickles instead of olives. I threw a slice of sausage into my mouth.

Even though I'd cut off most of the rind, this thing was damn chewy, almost unpleasantly so. I wondered if this was the stuff meant to be cooked before eating. Alas, it was the same sausage I had had before. While the hot and savory curing was quite tasty, it didn't attempt to cover up the smoky taste, surprisingly similar to what I've tasted in some bacon. The flavor was disproportionately strong for the size of slice that I had eaten, and at first it was a shock to my taste buds. It only reminded me that the first time I had eaten this stuff, I was so focused on my stealth that I barely tasted it. I worked that slice over and went around the plate eating a slice of cheese and a little pickle. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the flavors. It was a bit too much saltiness happening at once, particularly with an entirely new type of saltiness thrown into the mix. As I ate more sausage slices, I began to get used to the flavor. The texture, on the other hand, gave my jaw a proper work out, and by the time I was done it felt like I chewed a whole pack of Bubblicious for four hours.

Sausage is a good snack along with other cheese shop staples, but I'm glad it wasn't my first coherent adventure. Prosciutto eased me into pork with its relative lack of offensive qualities. I might venture to try sausage from different stores, but again, eating pork at home in my realm of comfort isn't something I'm inclined to do any time soon.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Peter Luger's Thick Cut Bacon

Now, that's more like it. Every standard bacon experience has been lacking something, a certain meatiness that you just don't get with ultra thin slices. I've learned that crispy bacon doesn't do it for me, and being the type for soggy, floppy bacon has left me famously disappointed. Bacon that I truly enjoyed was literally a birthday gift.

My mom asked me where in New York I wanted to eat for my birthday, and my answer spilled out instantly. Peter Luger is arguably the best steak house in the city, and I'd only heard tales of their butter like steak from my brother, far more of a meat connoisseur than myself. My mom obliged her baby boy and just a couple of days before my 26th, I was at a table with her, my meat-loving brother, my very-soon-to-be sister-in-law, and my oldest-friend Jes-hyphen-hyphen. One of three appetizers ordered had to be the bacon.

There's some dispute as to where the bacon they use at Peter Luger comes from. There is unanimous agreement, however, regarding what makes it amazing. It's the broiler. You can try it a million times, but simple fried bacon just won't have the same result. While it was the tenderness of smoked pork belly done BBQ style that originally endeared me to this cut, this thick cut bacon was the best example of anything I've had that reaches that rubbery consistency in preparation. There are few foods more fun to bite into. As this stuff gets cooked, the contrast between the fatty and meaty stripes begins to blur. They begin to distinguish themselves past your teach, when the fat begins to disintegrate quicker. It's overall a much meatier eat, sparing the slight level of greasiness.

And then there was the steak...but this is a pork blog. You didn't think I would go into it, did you?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Kraftwork's Bacon Krispy Treat

I prejudge bacon desserts. Ones I've come across always seem to pander to the eyes and not to the tongue, relying more on the novelty of the ingredient than the ingenuity of the combination. You haven't seen much about desserts on Adventures in Pork for this very reason. I want to taste pork and not merely be told that it is present in my food. I finally went to the right place.

Kraftwork just opened up less than a week ago, and Brian, being the gastropub aficionado he claims so loudly to be, was there for a beer in the blink of an eye. Later that very day, I got a message from my friend Sean (who's in a real nasty band called the Spooks), who works at Kraftwork, informing me that they do a bacon rice krispy treat. My curiosity was piqued. A couple of days later Brian, Justin and I headed up Girard Avenue.

Following a satisfying chicken sandwich, we were presented with the dessert in question. It appeared simple like a rice krispy treat should, its only flare a little chocolate garnish that upon closer inspection concealed little bits of bacon (not bacon bits, mind you). At this time, I got a phone call from my mom. Being a courteous co-diner, I remained seated at the bar as my mom and I took turns raising the decibel level of our conversation, a banal one regarding cell phone plans, in a muddle of Urdu and English. When I got off the phone, Brian and Justin were talking to the chef, who had just emerged from the kitchen.

I joined the conversation and naturally, things turned to pork. The chef described the make up of the treat I was about to bite into. He kept things simple; the same store bought marshmallows you'd get in the supermarket acted as an adhesive, but something quite different composed the body of this square. Not a single rice puff in there, just a lot of pork rinds.

Biting into it revealed both the saltiness and the sweetness I would have expected, but they complemented each other cleanly, like all rice krispy treats could do with a dose of breakfast meat. While you'd think that the fluffiness of marshmallow and the slight crispiness bacon would clash unpleasantly during the chewing process, it was as gooey as anything fresh out of your grandma's oven and didn't skimp on the bacon (wow, that sounds gross). Though pleasing, it required a self preparedness to dive into. I finished it in the standard four bite sequence, then took over a week to write about it. I know.

The bacon krispy treat opened me up to the prospect of desserts successfully infused with bacon. Not long after my meal at Kraftwork, my dear friend Jes read my mind and gave me a bag of assorted bacon chocolates for my birthday. This ain't over.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cantina Los Caballitos' Roast Pork Empanadas

The question before this last little adventure was; is there something Mexican and pork-xican that will make me love it more than I love Puebla's el pastor? Not bloody likely. But I'll be damned if I won't give it a chance.

As I've long maintained, Mexican is not my favorite style of food, pork or not. What most concerned me about the early Mexican pork dishes I tried was the lack of seasoning to cover up that porky essence that stops me mid-bite on occasion. The plantains packed into the roast pork burrito I had at Pico de Gallo a little while back didn't do enough to mask this flavor, in hindsight.

Believe me, I've considered what an asshole I am for seeking out foods that cover up the taste of roast pork. I know that by doing so, I'm shadowing the reality of the roast pork I consume, and I might as well not pursue such dishes if they keep making me fell sick. But despite my desire to make the Adventures easy on myself in this way, forging forward is the only choice. I can't very well avoid a whole category. This blog is about eating pork from the perspective of a Muslim, and this is how this particular Muslim chooses to deal with roast pork...I know, I know, if that last sentence made you feel angry/confused/sad/fearful, please, just write your thoughts in the comments section.

I was just getting back into town from yet another multi-hour stint in my less-than-tidy car, and I hit up Sunny Ali, who happened to be sitting outside Cantina Los Caballitos about to order some grub. As I arrived to join him, the sun was suddenly obscured by half-menacing clouds. The wind started to pick up as I approached the table as if we were about to have a shootout, or at least words leading to one. Whatever the weather suggested fizzled out as I sat down across from him and heartily greeted my partner in crime. Just then, Sunny's girlfriend Cait, a waitress at this Cantina, brought us a couple of beers. Perfect way to end a shitty drive on the NJ turnpike.

Initially, I didn't feel like experimenting. I just wanted something familiar that would go down easy, the quesadillas I ordered being almost too deep in that category. The pork empanadas were actually Sunny's choice, but the configuration of our plates demanded that we make a partial trade. The picture would have been perfect if that bastard hadn't gotten salsa all in the sour cream.

Because I'm used to empanadas being either the frozen snack or of the corner store variety (which I am suspicious might be the same thing), having a hand crafted one with the shell cooked just right was a treat. The filling was decent at best, not much by way of standout seasoning. The unwelcoming essence of roast pork was at about 40%, especially with a dallop of sour cream. The pork was a little stringier than normal, either the cooking method or the pig being at fault. Overall, the bite match my mood: a little tired and craving a change.

I like both Cantina's in Philly for their atmosphere and layout, not to mention the Tecate and Tequila drink special that pleasantly ruined a few summer days last year, but there food has always left something to be desired. There's something un-Mexican about preparations that I can't quite put my finger on. In a town that has a serious Mexican diaspora and plenty of eateries serving its need for authentic food from home, it seems unnecessary to travel to a hip block for dishes that come off as a very slight attempt to differentiate. Don't be surprised if you see me chilling at Cantina on a hot summer day drinking a Pacifico, but if I ever feel the hankering for something south of the border, you'll find me on 9th St.