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Kitchen Improv: Pork Rinds for the Thrifty-Minded

Smoked Ham Hock Pork Rinds
Smoked Ham Hock Pork Rinds
Nicholas L. Hall

If there's one thing Shiftwork Bites taught me, it's how to improvise. From poaching eggs in a coffee maker to the space management required to cook in 25 square feet, I learned how to make do with what limited resources I had, both in terms of space and equipment. I try to incorporate those lessons into my cooking on a regular basis, finding ways to do things that might not be immediately obvious. In this (highly sporadic) series, I'll explore some of these make-do techniques and how you can employ them at home.

I grew up eating a lot of beans. How pintos and rice became a staple meal for a family in northern Indiana, where Mexican food was limited to Taco Bell or an Irish fusion joint called "Señor Kelly's," I'm not really sure. We made sure to Yank it up a bit with a side of buttered tortillas or, on rare occasions, by swapping the rice for boiled potatoes and tossing in a loaf of soda bread (perhaps a move my mother stole from Señor Kelly himself). Regardless, I'd say we ate beans and rice at least three times a month for my entire childhood. It's a habit that's stuck with me.

My formula for beans is simple and unwavering. Beans, pot, water, ham hock. That's it. If my wife is cooking, she might tart up the proceedings with a bit of onion or whatever random vegetable is languishing in the crisper. Me, I keep it simple.

Last time I made a pot, I found myself staring at the pot after dinner, wanting to stretch the remains into another meal, yet wary of my leftovers-averse children. I strained the beans and set them aside, returning the ham hock and liquid to the pot and throwing them in a low oven to make hock stock. It made a delicious soup the next night.

When I pulled the hock from its bath, it suddenly dawned on me that I was half way to making pork rinds, recalling what I'd learned about the process while staging for Randy Rucker at the late Bootsie's. I figured I might as well go the other half.

The extended stay in the stock had tenderized the skin, rendered the fat, and converted the tough collagen to gelatin. Once the hock had cooled slightly, I pulled off the skin and scraped the remaining meat/fat/gelatin from the back using a spoon and a light touch, so as not to tear the skin. I wish I'd let it cool slightly, as I think I'd have had more luck keeping it in one piece.

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Once I had the skin cleaned, I threw it on a perforated pan and put it in the oven at its lowest setting (if I crack the door, I can keep it at around 150f) until it was thoroughly dehydrated.

I stashed it in a plastic container with a folded paper towel to absorb any residual moisture. A couple of days later, I broke it into smallish pieces, heated a pot of oil to around 350 (I couldn't find my candy thermometer, so I guessed a bit on temp, adjusting as I fried), and tossed in the dried pork skin. The first few, skinny little odds and ends, fizzled and burned, refusing to puff up.

I had much better luck with the larger pieces, and the ones where I'd done a better job of scraping the skin clean. They puffed up nicely, with a pleasingly airy crispness and a nice porky flavor with just a hint of smoke, a nod to their smoked hock origin. I tossed these simply with a bit of salt and put them on the counter, where my kids ate them faster than I could fry them up. Of course, with just the one hock, the whole affair was over in seconds, with the kids clamoring for more.

I made another pot of beans last night. When I cleaned up after dinner, I pulled the skin off the hock and stashed it in a zippered bag in the freezer. Once I hoard a decent quantity, I'm going to make a larger batch of pork rinds, playing around with various post-fry flavorings. I'm leaning toward togarashi, and maybe one with dehydrated gazpacho. Either way, it's definitely going to become a part of my bean cooking process, and one I can't believe I didn't light on sooner. Don't make my same mistake.


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