Puerto Rican Chefs Pig Out
Rising protein prices last year did not discourage chefs from going hog-wild over pork. In Puerto Rico in particular, chefs are advancing pork in ways the U.S. can learn from, like incorporating pig fat to infuse more flavor into a dish and thinking of texture to invoke a pleasant surprise in the mouth.
They’re also experimenting with beverage pairings, bringing forth bold and sweet wine combinations, as well as rum and Champagne cocktails, to complement the pork.
“I would have to say it’s become the hippest meat out there to use for chefs,” says Chef Roberto Treviño, who operates Out of this World Restaurants group in Puerto Rico. “A lot of trends in Puerto Rico really don’t depend much on whether it’s too healthy. We’re willing to cook a whole pork belly in a whole vat of fat. We’re willing to go there, you know?”
His words ring true. One aspect of pork that’s become trendy is using fried pork skin, whether a crackling piece on top of a risotto dish or the chicharron, which is fried pork rinds, served as an appetizer or as a supplement to a stew.
“I have a little saying: I don’t care where you’re from, crispy is always good,” says Chef Wilo Benet, chef/owner of Pikayo, Varita, and Payá restaurants in Puerto Rico. “We’re always in search of how to crisp certain things. While I was burning a ham hock recently, I said let me fry the skins and see what happens.”
Chef Jose Santaella, of Santaella restaurant in San Juan, recently served a pork shoulder sandwich with greens, pineapple jam, and crispy pork skin. “You get surprises in your mouth,” he says of the amalgamation of tender and crunchy in one bite. Another of his specialties is a shepherd’s pie with pork, root vegetables, and a creamy wine sauce.
What makes pork such a popular protein is its versatility and ubiquity around the world. The Chinese, for example, have used pork for centuries, creating the Caja China, a box large enough to fit a whole pig. The pig sits inside and roasts while coals burn on top of the box. The Chinese are by no means alone in their pork love affair, which spans every continent, Chef Treviño says.
“I think pork lends itself [to common usage] because of its exposure around the world and it’s different traditional techniques. It lends itself to fusion. I feel like I’m cheating a little bit cooking with it because pork is so popular,” he adds.
As for which alcohol to serve with pork, chefs say anything goes, depending on the dish. Chef Santaella served a pineapple rum cocktail with his pork shoulder sandwich, to complement the pineapple jam on it, while Chef Trevino favors a Champagne cocktail or sangria, something refreshing to contrast the salty, fatty, crunchy content of a crisp pork offering such as chicharron—a food he expects to be on every chef’s radar sooner rather than later. “I think it’s one of those forgotten things in the Puerto Rican dining lexicon. I foresee the chicharron will be the hippest of the pork dishes to cook in the near future.”