Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Mexican Fiesta Part II

I am going to digress for a few moments to discuss the method of preparation that I have observed used, and some other stuff.

It is a fairly common practice in all cultures that eat pork to withhold food for a day before the hog is to be slaughtered. The following day, usually early in the morning, a pan of food is used to lure the hog to the designated spot, whereupon it was shot in the head and immediately hung up and bled out. This is my preferred method also. But I have noticed that both Cuban and Mexican slaughtering methods are a bit different. They tend to prefer the stab to the heart method, preferably with a sharp butcher's knife. Unfortunately this, more often than not, results in either someone catching a butchers knife in the leg or in a seriously wounded animal which is stressed. It is my opinion that this degrades the quality of the meat due to the stress, and the adrenaline hormone flowing through the tissue. Peter H. Capstick has remarked that spine shot cape buffalo which die immediately, taste much better than those that are shot any other way. I don't have any scientific evidence to prove this with hogs , but there is quite a bit of empirical evidence (dinner table) to suggest that this is the case.

Be that as it may, once the animal is down, the real work begins. Putting it up on the dressing table can be a real chore once the hogs start to get past 300lbs and a heavy duty block and rope or cable is sometimes neccesary. A good hot fire needs to be lit earlier and a cauldron of water set to simmer. The cauldron of scalding hot water is then set near the work area. Using ladles, the water is poured over a section of the hog, and the hide scraped clean of all hair, and I mean all of it, right down to the feet. Holding a large butchers knife at a right angle to the hide, you scrape and pull the hair right out of the follicle. If it is too difficult, ladle some more water on it. Every couple of minutes the boys bring a hunk of cast iron, (mostly old disc brakes) that has been setting in the fire, on a long hook fashioned out of rebar and drop it into the cauldron. The water stays at scalding temp throughout the operation in this way.

The cauldrons I have seen range in design from the exquisite pure copper kettles polished with salt and lemon juice, holding 70 gallons and more, to rough serviceable cast iron ones. You can make one from a beer keg that has had its top sawn off, the loop handles are already there. If not you have to bolt or weld round handles to it. Made of heavy gauge stainless steel they seem to take the heat well and clean easily with a scouring pad and elbow grease. the problem is one of capacity, kegs are 30 gallons (I think) and are rather narrow, the width of a 50 gallon drum being preferable.

Gutting the hog by standard methods, great care is taken not to damage any of the entrails or organs. A half barrel of brine awaits all the viscera except the lungs and bladder, which are disposed of. While the guys work on the carcass, the women prepare the entrails. In short, the intestines are turned inside out and scrubbed clean. Likewise the stomach. The heart, kidneys and liver are rinsed in brine then put in clean ice and brine to chill. The skull is carefully split and the brain removed, it too goes into an ice and brine solution.

The now hairless hide is removed, care being taken to leave an even, inch thick layer of fat attached to it. The hide is placed fat side up a slatted surface in the shade and out of the sun. Personally, I sprinkle a light dusting of black pepper on it to discourage flies from landing and setting up household.

Back at the carcass the lard is trimmed off and thrown in the cauldron which is now back at the fire pit. The fire pit is nothing more than a hole dug out of the soil with two parallel pipes crossing over it to hold the cauldron. Fancy is good too. Mine is a raised brick lined fire pit with a sloped feeding hole for the wood. A wooden deck surrounds it, and the cover is a slotted manhole cover I bought at a flea market. One of these days I'll put a wood fence around it to keep children from inadvertently burning themselves, at the fiestas I've been to there are always a couple of dozen of the urchins running around and I always worry.

As the sizzling lard renders, the water is driven off. By the way, this is the quintessential pot of boiling oil. Be careful. During this time the hog is dismembered, the cuts kept in large pieces. Season in any way you like. Down here in sunny Florida, the use of citrus marinades is very common. Reserve any parts that you may wish to prepare differently, but the custom is to cook the whole pig as it is supposed to be a communal affair.

After rendering the lard, a second container is prepared in order to filter the lard. A large towel is held by two individuals while two more lift the cauldron with a stout stick through the handles. Another fellow tilts the cauldron and gently pours the lard through the cloth which acts as a filter and removes any foreign objects. The cauldron is cleaned and the now filtered lard is put back in it. Back onto the re-stoked fire it goes and is brought back up to temperature.

The first pieces that go in are the meats, be sure to cook them until they are done. You will learn by trial and error how long you must cook it for, start out with smaller pieces and work your way up to the large ones. I have never been responsible for the cooking so I can't advise as to the specific times. But I am going to find out next time I'm invited to a fiesta.

Then the viscera and feet are cooked the same way. Once again the lard is filtered and the cauldron cleaned quickly. The cleaned intestines are cut into three to six inch sections and tossed into the heated lard. Once they are cooked, which in this case doesn't take long, they are sliced into thin ribbons and eaten with tortillas and lemon or lime and salt. To be honest I don't remember how the liver and kidneys were done. They might actually be done inside, I have never noticed...

Now comes my favorite part, the hide. The hide is cooked, not once, but twice. First cooking makes what is called "salcochado" which means sautéed. Then after the second cooking they are pork rinds, like the ones in the bags, but fresh and tasty. The hide is cut into six to ten inch squares, and placed individually into the clean, hot lard in the cauldron. They are cooked until the fat has almost completely rendered and the hide becomes translucent. I warn you these are addictive and will raise your cholesterol beyond any machines ability to measure. You have been warned! Pulled burning hot from the oil, they are put on a clean absorbent towel, covered and pressed. The oil is still hot enough to burn the hide off your hand so use enough towel. Immediately it is transferred to a cutting board where it is cut in half and then cut into strips. A little lemon or lime juice, a sprinkle of salt and you have the most delectable treat known to mankind. After everyone has clogged their arteries, the hide is once again put into the cauldron in order to cook it into rinds.

And finally the brains which require the most preparation and taste scrumptious. The men do not do this. I guess it takes a woman's delicate touch to cook this. The brain is sliced into thin slivers, which are seasoned with salt and lemon, wrapped in tortillas, and skewered with a toothpick. After they are all made, and the lard filtered and reheated, the little roll ups are put in to cook. Again, I'm not sure of the time, but I will find out. When they are done the tortilla is crisp, and the brain slices have a decidedly different taste to them, sort of like egg but not quite. I like them too.

Well, let's get back to the fiesta.

Father Ramon had finished his benediction and everyone headed towards the serving tables. I stayed back waiting until everyone had been served. I don't like to be made the center of attention, I prefer to do it myself. And if I headed to the tables I would be made to be served first and I would then have to endure thank you after thank you from each of the guests, and my food would get cold anyway. Putting my glass down, I busied myself with the fire throwing in a few more quarters of oak. Pushing at a misplaced piece of wood with a rebar poker, I felt a firm hand squeeze my shoulder. I turned my head, and I saw it was Father Ramon. I flashed back to a misspent youth in New York City where I attended St. Bartholomew's. Run by Franciscan Friars, whom I believe wholeheartedly are the storm troopers of His Holiness the Pope, and their sidekicks the full habit wearing Nuns, (Which Order they were part of I was never able to ascertain it was a "State Secret" I think.), St Barts was to Catholic schools what Riker's Island is to prisons. Discipline was maintained with an iron fist sheathed in a velvet glove, and justice was swift, efficient and merciless. (No fooling around in those days, and we didn't have school shootings, disturbances or attention deficit disorder either.) It was all I could do not to run, screaming "It wasn't me! It wasn't me!" But realizing that this wasn't Brother Thomas I relaxed, smiled and slowly rose to my feet.

"Father Ramon," I said, "que tal, como esta usted?" It never hurts to be polite and formal with the clergy. A smiling Padre responded, "Well my son , well." He's only a couple of years older than me, so I find it odd being called son. "This is a wonderful thing that you do. It is good for everyone." He paused, and I braced for what I knew was coming. "Tell me Alberto, why haven't I seen you at church?” Its real simple: I don’t go! “When was the last time you went to confession?" 1974. And I was almost caught by Sister "Knuckle Buster T" Theresa with Patty the 8th grade redheaded Irish bombshell. So you can imagine my aversion to confessionals. Avoiding the whole confessional thing I told him I would try to make it tomorrow. He wasn't fooled by me, not one bit. But he let it slide.


I've thought of inviting him to join me on a hunt. I am almost certain that he would. I know he enjoys a good wine and he has no problem with hunting. I'll have to give it some more thought though.

We chatted about the kids, briefly touched on the war in Afghanistan, and he asked me if I could help an elderly parishioner with a small matter. I agreed and he motioned to the serving table which by now had thinned considerably. “He's sharper than I thought.”, went through my mind. I excused myself and started to turn. He grabbed my arm. "Manana, (Tommorrow)" he said, looking me straight in the eye. "OK Padre, tomorrow 9:30 sharp." I smiled and figured there were worse ways to spend a Sunday morning, like maybe a British penal colony. I hadn't counted on the conga group in my head, but that wouldn't be for another fourteen hours or so.

My plate was ready by the time I had walked the twenty steps or so. As it was I was thanked by a half dozen people for providing the main course. After as many "You're welcomes" I managed to get back to my tottering seat and my drink, which had suffered my inattention for quite a while.

The band had started to play again, having taken a break. This was the first serving in what would prove to be many. The pork was cooked to perfection, the rice was seasoned with spices, and the "Pico de Gallo", had a bite to it. I put down my plate and topped off my drink. I was in figurative heaven. Father Ramon not withstanding.

The rest of the evening was punctuated by conversations and congratulations. One of the younger couples decided to announce their impending nuptials. After that the libations poured twice as freely. As the Patron I was required to make the obligatory toasts, and boy, did I have to make them. It seemed that at every turn a request came for another toast.

It was late in the evening when my wife came to get me, I was satiated and had single handedly insured Bacardi's January profit margins. I can't remember a more memorable fiesta.

Hope you all enjoy!

The Hunt Continues...