Fresh Leg of Pork: The Versatile Option


appetizing baked pork hock
German-style Pork Hock

When describing the range of applications for certain cuts of meat, “versatile” is bandied about so much that it has virtually lost its meaning. But before it falls by the wayside completely, one seldom-heard-from meat cut deserves a chance to restore our faith in the word.

Enter the fresh leg of pork, also known as fresh ham.

Asian stir-fry. Classic pot-au-feu. Osso buco with a twist. Cross-cultural barbecue.
Braising. Roasting. Poaching. Pansmoking.
Family-style. Banquet service. Upscale dining.

These and more cooking applications and presentation concepts emerged from the challenge Chef magazine recently gave to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. To wit: Take a fresh leg of pork. And show us your stuff.

The academy’s chef- instructors, its president and a second-year student accepted the challenge with relish. “Flavor will be the winner in the end,” predicted Keith Keogh, C.E.C., president and chief operating officer.

“Flavor will be the winner in the end”

Keith Keogh, C.E.C.

Tackling the challenge head-on, the cooks involved looked no farther than the academy’s own curriculum philosophy, that four primary cultures African, Asian, European, and Native American-form the foundations of global cuisine, itself a fusion of these foundations. To apply the philosophy, each cook took a different form of fresh pork leg-a bone-in, whole leg; the inside muscle; the outside muscle; the tip or knuckle; the hock; and the boneless whole leg, rolled and tied and chose a cooking application that capitalized on its particular attributes. Along the way, unique and marketable aspects of each pork-leg product were discovered.

Most important to the cooks, however, was maintaining the integrity of the pork itself in each presentation. “Why would anybody take a leg of pork and add a lot of expense to it?” Keogh asked. “When someone orders one of these dishes, they’ll want the pork to be familiar. I believe in my heart that anyone who likes fresh ham wants to order a dish that resembles fresh ham.”

To complete the challenge, each participant was asked to maximize suggestive selling on the menu by romancing” the name of his dish.

When it was all over, the California Culinary Academy team had developed six appealing dishes that make the most of fresh pork leg and its components.

On the pages that follow are the academy’s pioneering menu concepts featuring the fresh leg of pork-a cut of meat with more cooking and presentation options than you’d ever imagine.

WHOLE, BONE-IN LEG, SKINLESS

You put a whole leg in the oven and roast it. What could be simpler than that?

Chef-instructor Clyde Serda, c.c.

Whole, roasted leg of fresh pork is wonderful for banquet service, says Chef-instructor Clyde Serda, c.c. “You put a whole leg in the oven and roast it. What could be simpler than that?” he asks. At service, Serda slices the leg very thin to compensate for the different grains running through the various muscles.

“When you use a whole leg, you have all the muscles, so you have to slice it very thin because one grain’s going one way and another grain this way,” Serda says. “Slice it slightly on a bias. When you present it, instead of laying it flat, turn it slightly to it give it height. It’s just a matter of taking a fork and turning it. It gives you a nice presentation, and it doesn’t cost any more.”

Says Serda, himself of Apache Indian heritage, the leg inspires the use of Native American flavorings such as chilies and accompaniments such as fruits and vegetables indigenous to this continent.

“I approach the flavor profile from, one, the interest on the part of the guest in Native American products, and two, the fact that society’s aging,” Serda says. “There’s a demand among diners for fuller flavors. You see much more peppers and full flavorings being used today.”

 Serda says that to achieve this with a whole, bone-in, fresh leg, studding the meat with strongly flavored ingredients such as poblano chilies and garlic cloves imparts flavor to the center of the leg. Rubbing the outside with a chili paste adds texture, color and flavor. Roasting achieves richness of flavor, and it’s a cooking method that’s familiar to the customer. Roasted and grilled vegetables and fruits such as plantains, corn, onions, pineapple and chayote squash complete the theme.

Says the academy’s resident butcher, Chef-instructor Bob Fanucchi, most chefs ordering whole leg for banquet style service will want to order skinless as opposed to skin-on, because the rind-sometimes several inches thick-can be tough, and to many people can be somewhat unsightly cooked. Skinless pork will still have a layer of fat on the back portion of the leg, which can be trimmed if desired, although all the chefs at the academy recommend keeping some of the fat intact during dry-heat cooking, to contribute flavor to the meat and aid in retaining moisture.

“If you’re a pork lover, you love the skin,” Fanucchi says.

For front-of the-house service, though, it’s better to slice a whole leg skin-off. That doesn’t mean the leg can’t be roasted with the skin on; if you score the skin, put in a low oven, and cook for a long period of time, the skin will break down, and you’ll have a nice crackling flavor . Simply remove the fat after roasting, for presentation on the carver.

Chef-instructor Bob Fanucchi

Indeed, the whole legs ordered for the California Culinary Academy project were received very lean, Fanucchi says. “I get some that come in with a crust, or back fat, 2 or 3 inches thick,” he adds. “I trim it down. But a little fat is a good idea during roasting.”

OUTSIDE MUSCLE

Roasted pork leg

Chef-instructor Daniel Fluharty prefers the outside leg muscle, also known in the industry as the inside round or bottom round, for preparing Asian stir-fries. The reason: “The outside muscle is an inexpensive cut of meat that you can elevate to another place,” says Fluharty, who also oversees a.m. production in the academy’s Tavern On The Tenderloin, a full-service restaurant and cooking lab. “You can make it elegant, more user-friendly, especially for family-style service. It’s perceived as being a tough piece of meat, but if you take care of it and serve it properly, it really isn’t.”

Fluharty uses a process called “velveting” to tenderize the leg muscle. First, he slices the deep-chilled (not frozen-deep- chilling aids slicing with a sharp knife) meat very thinly across the grain, then marinates overnight in a solution of corn starch, baking soda and egg white. Finally, he poaches the slices in canola oil at a low temperature.

“Many Chinese preparations do not use fine cuts of meat,” Fluharty says. “A tenderloin is a non-motion muscle, and more naturally tender than other cuts for that reason. But when you stir-fry tenderloin, the mouth feel is all mushy. And you’ve paid three times as much for that cut. When you go to a Chinese restaurant, the reason the meat tastes so good is that they’ve taken the time to work with a cheaper cut.”

The combination of thin-slicing against the grain, light marinating, and low-temperature poaching in fat makes the outside muscle of pork leg wonderfully tender, and according to Fluharty, the poached meat can be stored, chilled, for days until needed, maximizing prep time.

“The most critical step in stir-frying tough meat is first poaching it in a low-temperature fat,” Fluharty says. “Another benefit is the meat doesn’t seize or tense up when it later hits high-heat fat.”

For variations on this dish, Fluharty suggests marinating in soy, ginger, and garlic, to add flavor to the pork. Poaching in peanut oil rather than canola is fine, but it’s more expensive. This dish, Fluharty says, might sell for $4 to $5 in most Chinese restaurants, but can sell for substantially higher-with a higher profit margin-in other operations.

Fluharty says that the outside muscle on a pork leg is also excellent ground for Asian applications such as dim-sum stuffing. But even something as American as meatloaf can benefit by the addition of ground pork leg.

“The best meatloaf I’ve ever made consists of two parts beef to one part pork,” he says. (Fluharty adds that meatloaf can be made solely from ground pork, but the nutrition issue may arise with those customers who perceive that pork has more fat than beef.) Stuffings, Bolognese sauce and other meat sauces, burgers and pates are also good uses of ground outside muscle of pork. “There’s more flavor in pork, and it’ll elevate a burger,” Fluharty says.

“I have three little philosophies of cooking,” Fluharty concludes. “Keep it simple, cook it right and use fresh ingredients. When you have a nice piece of pork that’s been trimmed properly and cooked properly, you wouldn’t throw it on the grill and make a steak out of it. It would be tougher than your shoe. Do something like this where the muscle is cross-cut. It’s really, really tender. Your customer will say, ‘Wow, what cut of meat is this?’ They’ll almost think it’s tenderloin. The outside muscle has a nice color when stir-fried, a nice mouthfeel to it, and above all, a nice flavor.”

PORK TIP
(KNUCKLE)

Baked pork knuckle with mustard and cabbage

Jason Carr, a student in his sophomore year, learned how to poach in his basic-skills class. He chose a classic preparation and presentation for the knuckle because he wanted to achieve a dish that would be appropriately light-tasting for spring, and to that end also chose spring vegetables to accompany the knuckle in the broth.

All the academy’s chef- instructors agree that the knuckle lends itself well to a fabricated product. “It stands up to a lot of work,” Keogh says. “You can do a lot of different things with the knuckle as long as you take steps to tenderize the meat.”
With suggestions from his instructors, Carr sliced through the knuckle and unrolled it to obtain a single flat, thick piece. He then pounded the meat to loosen the protein fibers. Carr cured the unrolled pork in apple juice (instead of water, to lend sweetness) and salt for a few hours, then gently worked fresh sage into the meat. He rolled the knuckle up, wrapped it in cellophane, and lightly poached.

“During the curing process, the meat absorbs moisture,” Carr says. “You don’t have to cook it as long. Moist-heat cooking is necessary because you have grains going in different ways. The knuckle is a very heavily used muscle, which makes the meat a little tougher, but pounding and curing tenderize it. We used a very light poach, but you still have enough moisture cookery to break down the fibers.”

Additionally, says Carr, pounding the unrolled knuckle to loosen the proteins, followed by poaching the meat, eliminates the need for a forcemeat to keep the meat together once it’s rolled back up. Instead of a forcemeat, Carr stuffed the rolled-up knuckle with fresh sage that lends flavor to the meat during poaching.

Raw Pork knuckle

To round out the dish, Carr’s instructors suggested flavored pasta. “Jason needed a nice starch that is equal to the task of this dish,” Keogh says. “So we suggested pasta rolled with thyme and sage to reinforce the sage flavor in the pork. The sage-flavored pasta and the broth, in which the vegetables were also poached, will bring the entire dish together.

It’s a nice, lighter dish with a lot of flavor and contrasting textures.”

Keogh says that Carr’s dish is perfect for couples in a fine-dining environment. “This is for one or two people,” he says, adding that this dish would be served so that one of two diners can take a second helping. “It represents a present-day ‘platter for two.’ It’s not a competition platter, where you would have even numbers of everything on the plate. If my wife and I were eating this at, say, Carmine’s or LuLu’s [both in San Francisco], we would each take a piece of the knuckle and some of the pasta and vegetables. Then, if I wanted another piece of this or a piece of that I could have it. You don’t take it all in the first helping; you always leave something in the bowl.”

HOCK

“This is more of a modern presentation of an Old World dish,” says Chef instructor Mark Davis, who also heads up the academy’s Production Department. “But it’s got an advantage over traditional osso buco preparation, where you can’t roast the bone prior to cooking. By removing the shank bone, roasting it and using it in the broth, you’re going to have a more powerful flavor.”

To remove the bone from the hock, Davis follows it with a boning knife around the base where it connects to the flesh. “The bone is a little difficult to remove, but it’s fairly obvious where it connects to the meat,” Davis says. “Just follow it around with the boning knife, and pull it out. As you’re pulling it out, you can see where to cut.”

Once the hock is deboned, the tough Achilles tendon is also removed; both are used in creating the broth. (The broth gets added richness from the breaking down of elastin, the connective tissue found in the joint, that contributes silkiness to the mouth feel of the broth.) Then the hock is seared to caramelize the outside of the meat. Both the bone and Achilles tendon are added to the broth in the oven, and during braising, the juices cook down, tenderizing and flavoring the meat.

“This dish has a lot of caramelized juices that flavor the broth in the pan,” Davis says. “The pork broth actually gets darker and darker as it cooks. The hock essentially bastes itself in its own flavors.”

The bone in the hock is replaced by a daikon radish stuffed with a horseradish panada-a thick paste made by mixing a starch such as bread crumbs or rice with a liquid, either water, milk, stock or melted butter. Says Davis, this dish meets 11 the unexpressed need” of the guest, the often subconscious desire to leave nothing on the plate after dining.

As for presentation, the shank is recognizable to restaurant patrons, as is cooking and serving everything in the same vessel, Davis adds. “The shank is more often featured in restaurants today. We’re upscaling by removal of the bone, but still keeping the classic presentation. And customers have favorable associations with other boneless meats. It’s comfort food. People will recognize it right off the bat, even if they may not realize it’s a daikon radish where the bone used to be. They’ll say, ‘This is what I had at home. This is what Mom used to make.’ But they’re eating it in a fancy restaurant. They’ll see the twist, the ‘little extra’ of stuffing the daikon with the horseradish panada, and that’s just value added, something that we did because we knew the customer would like it. He doesn’t have to ask for it.”

Adds Davis, although an operator can menu this dish at less than 20% food cost, the perceived value to the diner-and the higher price charged by the operator-is achieved by the choice of accompanying items. “For this dish, you could pair the pork with exotic beans, like favas,” he says. “You want to upscale the accompaniments, say, kennebec or Yukon gold potatoes, and roasted shallots.”

Davis likes using pork hocks, he says, for two reasons: “The food cost is very low. It’s one of the least expensive cuts. It also has one of the best eating qualities, because of the mouth feel resulting from the breakdown of elastin. It’s satisfying and hearty. Nutritionally, everything is there. You’re not losing one ounce of nutrition in the whole process.”

INSIDE MUSCLE

Keogh perfected the art of pansmoking over wood chips while manager of the 1992 and 1996 Culinary Teams USA. To pan-smoke, Keogh takes an aluminum or hotel pan, lines the bottom with seasoned or cured wood chips; elevates the meat on wire mesh or a shallow grill over the chips; covers the pan; and places over a heat source such as a range burner. The inside muscle of the pork leg is perfect for this method of cooking, Keogh says, because the meat is naturally tender starting out.

“We take the inside round that’s very tender and marinate it, pan-smoke it, slice it, and place it atop cold, barbecue flavored pasta noodles,” Keogh says.

“And what’s your cooler? In Southern cuisine, it’s a salad or cole slaw. The cabbage has been grilled and then doused in vinegar and sugar, escabeche style. It’s reminiscent of cole slaw. It’s the epitome of fusion cuisine. You look at it and it looks Asian. It has a preparation technique that came from China. But what’s more Southern than smoked pork and cole slaw? If you want texture in the form of noodles, that’s where you put your really zesty barbecue flavor. So you have a nice pork medallion, soft texture, very tender, and noodles that are presented very Japanese-style, but with a zingy barbecue taste.”

BONELESS, ROLLED & TIED ROAST

Tied pork roast

Says Chef-instructor and department head Herve Le Biavant, boneless – rolled- and-tied roast leg of pork is perfect for A la carte service. “You can take the string off, roll the BHT out, separate into its different components, and essentially turn the leg into smaller, individual roasts,” he adds. “Slice from a single muscle and put the rest back in the warmer. Segmenting the BHT gives you control over the independent grains.”

Because roasting can dry out smaller muscles, Le Biavant maintains moisture by wrapping each muscle in forcemeat, then bards with sliced portobello mushroom. “The portobello is 90% water,” he says. “It makes the meat easier to carve, and adds value to the dish.”

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