In all my years of cooking, something I’ve often struggled to understand is the relative difference in cost between cuts of meat according to their fat or bone content. Take a chicken: it has two of pretty much everything, and each part is excellent for different jobs; the wings for roasting to a crisp in a sticky marinade; the legs for curries, stews and casseroles, as well as forgiving one pot roasts that don’t suffer greatly if you leave them in the oven for 15 minutes too long; the breasts for butterflying and grilling, bashing out into escalopes or precision-timed sauce-based things. Despite all that, the breasts cost a king’s ransom, whilst a bag of thighs, wings or, often, the entire bird are a relative giveaway. I fear it’s their leanness that elevates them to this status, and that confuses me. Do people really prize a low fat content over flavour and versatility?
Since childhood, bafflement at the discomfort of others over the delicious parts around the edges of meat has been with me. I remember watching with dismay as people trimmed the fat from their edge of their bacon and pushed it to one side at breakfast, not to save for later, but to leave. Why would you just settle for the boring, pink bit? It needs its glutinous neighbour to work. Could they not see? In the dark days of the calorie-counting fad (maybe that fad is still with us? I like to think things have become a little more nuanced now, but perhaps not) I remember seeing people on daytime television urge those watching their weight to remove the skin from chicken before cooking it. The skin! That’s like asking someone to deflate the tyres of their bike so they get fitter in their struggle to cycle the thing. The wretchedness of it.
So yes, I love fats of all kinds and the wonderful transformative effect they have upon food during cooking. It is perhaps the reason I don’t think I could ever be a truly happy vegetarian; the complete package of a well marbled piece of meat strikes me as nature’s ready-meal. If you put a good rib-eye steak into a hot pan, it will perfectly happily cook itself to crisp gloriousness without a single addition.
Of all animal fats, the one that is most likely to wake me in the night, mouth watering, is probably that of the pig. Lard has a smooth silky quality, brings the food around it to crisp, singing brownness like almost nothing else and carries surprisingly low level of cholesterol, yet has a rather undeserved reputation for deadly artery clogging qualities. Maybe it’s the name? Anyway, give me the fatty bits of pork any day of the week, whether it’s crackled roasted pork belly, beautifully marbled chops, with a thick halo of fat or, as I used this evening, rib steaks, with their spider’s web of white running across dark, pink flesh.
This recipe is disarmingly simple, using only three main ingredients, and can be carried off from ingredients to plate in not far off 15 minutes.
First, I heated a pan over a high heat, adding a generous slug of oil, til it shimmered and smoked slightly (Nigel’s suggested oil throughout, this book is Olive Oil, though my stock frying oil is, and will continue to be rapeseed oil. I see nothing wrong at all with the job it does, and it costs considerably less). To this, I added some lightly seasoned pork rib steaks, leaving them untouched for a minute or two per side, in order to allow them to build up a crisp, dark golden outer layer all over. I then tossed in a thinly sliced bulb of fennel, its spindly fronds picked and reserved, turned the heat down and shuffled the meat around a little to give the fennel as much contact with the bottom of the pan as possible. I left the lot this way for seven or eight minutes, agitating the pan now and again, and giving the meat the odd turn whilst I threw together a simple green salad. Once cooked, I removed the meat to a warm plate and poured the juice of two or three small lemons into the pan to bubble for a minute or two (Nigel suggests the juice of a large one, and I get the feeling a huge, fruity Amalfi lemon or something of the sort would be the perfect ingredient for this recipe, but I wasn’t so lucky as to find one today) along with the reserved fennel fronds.
And that’s it. No butter to finish, no special spicing (though I did add a fairly generous pinch of salt to the lemon juice at the end, to counteract its sharpness) and no funny-business whatsoever.
We ate it with the aforementioned salad, and some plain boiled white rice and, sitting there on the plate, the product of no time at all and three fairly humble ingredients, it seemed impossible to believe there’d be much to write home about taste-wise here, yet the flavours sang; there was a subtle aniseed note to the fennel, which both softened and caught on the bottom of the pan, and the lemon juice and pork fat worked hand in hand to create a beautiful sauce that was far from the sharp assault on the tastebuds one might expect.
If I were you, I’d pass by the fatless, beige loin steaks, grab something a little stringier and give this one a try.
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