Fat Back and Hog Jowls

For the life of me, I haven’t been able to figure out why Fat back and Hog Jowls haven’t taken off in popularity in the last few years. With the onset of “Bacon Mania” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacon_mania) and the resurgence of “discarded bits” and “offal-centric” cuisine, one would think that it’s a match made in porky heaven.

Lets start of with the basics. Unbeknownst to most people “bacon” can refer to different cuts of pork in different parts of the world. Essentially, the only thing that binds them together is the fact that the majority of things called bacon have been smoked and cured. Bacon, as we know it in the U.S. is typically made from smoked and cured pork belly. But quite a bit of other “bacons” are readily available here in the states.

Example 1: Fatback.

Fatback. Image Credit: Ryan Adams via http://www.chefs-resources.com

Fatback is smoked and cured adipose tissue (subcutaneous fat) from the back of the pig. As it’s name suggests it is mostly fat. Occasionally however, it can include some rind (skin) or meat (back bacon) in it as well.

Fatback is most commonly used as a flavor enhancer (drop it in a pot of peas, collards, etc.) But, I do know people that pan fry it and eat it like belly bacon. (If there’s rind attached, be prepared for it to be quite chewy.)

To be honest, I’m not a fan of the pan-fry fatback method. It produces a ton of grease, is extremely salty to the taste, and can burn quite quickly. I think fatback really shines as a “toss in the pot” ingredient. All that goodness that cooks out of the fat marrys well with something with a high starch content like a big boiler of dry butter beans. The beans will soak up that cooked-off grease and salt and give the beans a nice salty, smoky, pork flavor.

I flip flop my opinions for hog jowls. I think “toss in the pot” with them is a big waste. Here’s why:

Hog jowl is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the smoked cheeks of the pig. It’s often overlooked because most people are turned off at the thought of eating the cheeks of an animal. (I usually laugh at people like this every time they eat a hot dog or a chicken nugget. I’ll let you Google that and find out why.) I think a lot of it has to do with the mental picture of someone slicing a hunk off of the head of an animal and making you eat it. Most Americans don’t want to know where their meat comes from, and don’t like to think about the fact that the meat they eat used to be part of an animal. But at some point, “animal” turns to “meat” and winds up on a grocery store shelf in a nice vacuum sealed package. Then we’re okay with it.

So, just for those squeamish people, here’s a picture of uncooked hog jowl.

Smoked hog Jowl

Smoked Hog Jowl. courtesy: http://www.earthydelightsblog.com

Holy crap! It looks like bacon! Amazing! It’s not a horror show after all!

Now that the hard part is over, lets get down to business.

I’ll just come out and say it. Hog jowls make the best damned bacon you’ve ever tasted. It’s thick, highly smoked, and moderately salty. The outside is crunchy, the inside is chewy and there’s just enough fat to make it have that luscious bacon flavor that drives people nuts.

I cook it just like I cook my belly bacon. In the oven.

Single layer it on a sheet pan, pop it in a 400 degree oven, and turn it every 10 minutes until done. It’s magical. (Some folks brush a little oil on the top of the jowl before putting it in the oven the first time. I’ve never tried it. It’s a little bit of “gilding the lily” for me. But they swear it helps the “outside crunchy/inside soft” texture.)

After it’s done, this is what you get:

Lambert’s Cafe Hog Jowls – courtesy: http://www.gypsynester.com

Looks awesome, right? It is. I’ve had that exact same meal at Lambert’s Cafe in Foley Alabama. It was bacon perfection.

Boiling this stuff absolutely kills it’s potential. I don’t boil hog jowl for the same reason that I don’t boil belly bacon. If you boil it, you’re ruining a great piece of meat. If you just want to add flavor to a boil, use fatback. You’ll get a lot more flavor “boiled out” and you won’t ruin the crunchy-chewy goodness that is jowl meat.

On a parting note, both fatback and hog jowl are a great way to keep moisture in roasted poultry or game birds. Spread slices of either across the top of the bird before slow roasting, and the fat will baste the bird as they both cook.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at a couple of oft neglected southern favorites.

Till we meet again.



Poor-Man’s Gravy

Image Credit: visualrecipes.com

Red Eye Gravy or “Poor-man’s Gravy.” It’s a term, to me, that is a complete misnomer. It shines a negative light on a food tradition that is uniquely southern, and exceptionally positive in nature. I submit this, to you the reader. In a world where we revere French cuisine. Especially, as of late, the “humble working-man’s faire” attributed to the modern revival of French haute. So why do we hold with such reverence a style of cooking that stems from the lowest caste of French society, while insulting the simple goodness of another? Why is it that roasting beef bones for marrow, or tourneing vegetables is considered “humble working-man’s faire,” but using the “leftovers” of a southern breakfast to make something wonderful is characterized as something only a poor man would do.

Maybe it’s how we’ve become a society fascinated by cuisine… everywhere but here. We are amazed at someones ability to take scrap, bones and varietal cuts of meat and make amazing dishes (as long as they live somewhere else.) So while the rest of the world turns their eyes somewhere else, to experience the “something from nothing” cooking that is so popular as of late, what do southerners do at the mention of “Poor-man’s gravy?”

They absolutely flip out over it.

Take my advice, if you ever make this stuff, keep your hands away from the inside of the bowl when placing it on a table (especially if your family/friends/guests are already seated.) Not for sanitary reasons, but because you might lose the offending digit in the scramble. Southerners fall on Red-eye gravy like ravenous vultures, dipping, spooning, pouring and sopping. A veritable feeding frenzy at the breakfast table.

For the displaced southerner, It can be especially helpful for finding the uninitiated amongst a group of people, like an inside joke or a secret society. It’s the same scenario every time around. A bowl of the dark, greasy, viscous liquid is placed on a table and looks of confusion and repugnance wave of the faces of those oblivious to it’s charms. But for those who know, pure elation. Their eyes light up, their heart starts racing, and their face becomes awash in notions of reminiscence and unctuous pleasure.

Rightfully so, I might add. That “dark, greasy, viscous liquid” I mentioned earlier, is an explosion of simple flavors bound in a complex way (a metaphor for southern cooking?) The recipe, which I’ve wit held until now for purposes of drama and storytelling, is a prime example of making something amazing from scrap:

Country ham drippings and black coffee.

Yes, that’s all.

Though some may turn their nose up at the notion of gravy tasting like salty pork fat, bitter coffee and acidic undertones, the actual product is a complex and wonderful marriage of flavors.

Red-Eye Gravy

In a cast iron skillet, or heavy bottomed non-stick skillet, brown a few slices of thick Country Ham (or any salt cured ham) reserving as much of the drippings in the pan as possible.

Remove the ham slices and place on a serving dish to hold until later.

Drain the pan juices into a serving bowl, and cover them to keep warm. Do not attempt to scrape the pan, we’ll need those bits in the next step.

Deglaze the pan with just enough coffee to fill the bottom and give room to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. (Usually 8-12oz.)

Simmer for one to two minutes, or until the coffee comes to temperature.

Remove the cover on the bowl of reserved drippings, and pour your coffee mixture into the bowl.

Serve immediately.

Don’t be afraid of the fact that the mixture stays separated, it’s supposed to (that’s where the “eye” in the name comes from.)