One of the most inexpensive cuts from the useful pig is pork belly. But in the hands of a Brazilian chef at the Latin Flavors, American Kitchens symposium at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus last week, this meat became a most exquisite food: pork cracklins.
The chef demonstrating how to make near-perfect cracklins during an afternoon session titled “Pigs Gone Wild” was Rodrigo Oliveira. The tall, soft-spoken chef owns Mocotó Restaurant and Cachaceria in Sao Paulo. A rising star in Brazil, Oliveira has won acclaim especially for his interpretation of cuisine from the northeastern region of Brazil, known as the Nordeste.
The preparation is simple, but demands attention to detail.
“It was a lot of work to get this pork belly,” said Oliveira, holding a strip of pork belly up that was about two feet long.
First, he couldn’t find a local provider selling the skin-on pork belly. Since the skin is what makes the “cracklin” part, this was important to the demonstration. Then, he received a pork skin – with nothing else. “So, I said, ‘Oh, shit,’ ” said Oliveira, who instantly apologized to the laughing audience.
“We hear that all the time in America movies,” he explained. Since many in the audience had worked in professional kitchens, that expletive was hardly a shocker.
His delight in discussing cracklins, or Torresmo, in Brazillian, was contagious.
The audience went from laughter to drooling as we saw the camera close-ups of the finished product, noting the supreme crunchiness of the finished skin and the juicy tenderness of the meat layered with melting fat.
“Where I come from it is very poor,” said Oliveira. “That is why I learned to look at every cut of meat. This (pork belly) is as valuable to me as foie gras. And, it is crunchy!”
Because the strips of pork belly must be marinated in a solution of water, salt and baking soda for 12 hours or so, then smoked for another 6 hours, the demonstration was largely narrated.
The way the skin becomes blistered and ultra crackly is by frying twice: once at 302 degrees, and then again at 374 degrees. It is served with quartered lime or Mandarin lime for squeezing.