Colombian Food: Chicharrón
By Tom // Posted 20 August, 2009 in: Food + Drink, Recipes, Technique, Travel
I am ready to eat Colombian food again. That was not the case when Martha and I got back from Colombia in mid July. On the flight home, somewhere over the Caribbean, I became violently ill and Martha was in the same state by the evening. Although our flu lasted less than 24 hours, eating anything made me nauseous for about a week, and thanks to the magic of taste aversions even the thought of an arepa made my stomach churn. But by last Friday I was over that and ready to reexperience Colombia through food. Where better to start than chicharrón?
If your mouth isn’t watering already, perhaps a quick translation is in order: deep-fried pork belly. That is the very fattiest part of the pig cooked in even more fat until crispy. In terms of eating pig, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Making chicharrón requires pork belly, which is not easy to find. To make things more difficult, chicharrón is made with bone-in pork belly. That is the belly with part of the ribs still attached (for a quick visual aide, run your fingers down your sides — mmm, delicious). Martha’s Aunt Stella, my mentor in all things Colombian, mentioned that they have never found this cut available in the US.
Obviously, they never went to Clancey’s. It required a special order and a wait of a couple of weeks, but last Thursday Kristin Tombers of Clancey’s was on the phone saying the pork belly was in.
Given all the fun I have breaking down chickens, I was looking forward to throwing this substantial hunk of pig on my counter and hacking away. Luckily, Kristin of Clancey’s is wiser than I and advised against taking the pork belly home in one piece. She didn’t think I was going to get very far without a cleaver and a bone-saw, but was kind enough to fire up her electric saw and cut the belly into more manageable pieces: 1″ wide by about 4″ long, and 2″ deep (that last measurement depends entirely on our friend the pig).
When Martha got home from Clancey’s with this big, white paper wrapped package it was better than Christmas and my Birthday combined; I could not wait to open it up.
The mound of white pork fat and pink pork flesh did not disappoint.
As excited as I was I had to exercise a little self-control: 8 pounds of pork belly was a good thing, but probably too much of a good thing. I kept four pounds in the fridge and split the other four pounds into three portions for freezing, frozen treats for another day.
Four pounds of pork belly is still a lot to deal with, but chicharrón requires very little prep. It was already sawed up for me by the butcher; I just added bone-deep cuts at 1″ intervals through the belly meat on every piece that still had a bone attached (some pieces had become boneless from the cutting process). I learned to do this in Colombia: the justification had something to do with — I think — preventing the meat from buckling or bending. I don’t really understand why that would matter, but cutting the pork in this way does create a number of extra edges — edges that will become crispy when deep-fried. Other than that no additional prep is needed; the meat will get salted after it leaves the oil.
Speaking of the oil, I poured an inch of vegetable oil into a couple of cold pots (if you had a really big pot, or not very much pork belly, you could do it in one). Before turning on the heat, I added the pieces of pork with bones bone-side down. The bone-in pieces have to cook the longest since bones don’t conduct heat as efficiently as flesh. After adding in the pork belly the skillet was pretty packed and my inch of oil was mostly covering the pork. I turned the heat on high and let the oil come to temperature.
Within a few minutes, a mouth-watering crackling sound was issuing from the stove and the apartment was filled with the warm smells of gently cooking pork fat. I added the boneless pieces around the time that I heard the first crackles. Someone with a powerful stove might need to reduce the heat at some point to avoid an oil fire, but since my stove is weak and pathetic I left it on high the whole time. It took 20 minutes for the pork to be crispy dark brown, and some pieces were done before others — just remove them as they look ready to a paper-towel lined tray and hit them with a shower of salt. And resist the temptation to eat the whole pile without advising your guests that dinner is ready (I couldn’t resist a few samples; had to make sure it was good!)
What can you possibly serve with chicharrón that won’t seem inadequate next to this pile of fried glory? That’s a tough question to answer, but here are the typical Colombian sides that I made:
Tostones/Tostadas/Tacadas/Fried Plantains. These deserve a post of their own: peeled green plantains (ours were actually a little too ripe — the skin was starting to yellow) are cut horizontally into 1 inch pieces. Fry these pieces in hot oil until they start to brown in spots — if you have a pot of pork-fat infused oil from frying chicharrón to use for frying, all the better. Drain the fried plantain chunks on paper towels. Then, take each chunk and place it on a cutting board. Using another cutting board or, even better, a culinary rock, smash the fried plantain piece until reasonably flat and circular — about ½” thick. With plantain pieces flattened, add them back to the oil and fry till golden. Drain and salt and serve immediately.
Ají. No tostón would be complete without some ají to put on top. Ají is actually just the word in Colombia for hot peppers (chiles) but it also refers to a whole range of sauces that are used on everything from meats to arepas to empanadas to, well, tostones. I made Stella’s version: I took half of a white onion and roughly chopped it,and then put it in a bowl with about a quarter cup of white vinegar. Apparently, the vinegar takes some of the bite out of the onion. To this mix, I added two expertly selected (by Martha) Haas avocados (in Colombia we always used much larger, green-skinned avocados) also roughly chopped, a half cup of chopped cilantro, a few dashes of Tabasco (it’s not ají without something spicy) and enough salt to be able to taste everything. The vinegar in the ají is vital in this meal for cutting through the fat that coats your mouth from the chicharrón. Beer is also very helpful in this regard. Two beers more so.
Frisoles/Frijoles/Beans. The national bean of Colombia is the cargamanto, a large red bean with white flecks; maybe the same as cranberry beans. Since I don’t have a convenient source for either kind of beans, I used red kidney beans. At least the color would be right! For the beans I followed my usual procedure: I soaked a pound of beans overnight (yeah, yeah, you don’t have to soak beans; I still think soaking reduces cooking time and on a 90 degree day any minute without the stove on is golden), then boiled them for two hours with a ham hock and an onion, split in half. To finish the beans, I cooked three minced cloves of garlic in oil until fragrant then added the cooked beans, their liquid, and the shredded ham from the hock and let them cook until they were nice and thick.
Rice. Nothing special here, just regular white rice. It seems like we ate white rice with every large meal in Colombia — it just wasn’t a complete meal without a bowl of rice on the table.
Avocados. A couple more avocados cut into slices are a great garnish for the beans.
And so it was that after a month of food aversion I dove back into the cuisine of Colombia. If you are trying to remember the merits of Colombian food, you could hardly find a better place to start than crispy, fatty chicharrón. It’s like pork candy! This opens up new possibilities to me; there are a lot of Colombian dishes I want to try to replicate, some of them not involving deep fried pork fat. But, then again, three packages of pork belly sitting in my freezer say I’m making chicharrón again.