In Praise of Fatback

Karl Wells
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Alice Waters is a pioneer of Californian cuisine. It's a way of eating based on fresh, seasonal ingredients and flavour. Recently I heard a quote from Alice Waters. She cautioned chefs about cutting all the fat off legs of lamb, cuts of pork, beef and other meats. Her point was simple - by removing the fat (a preoccupation with today's chefs) you remove most of the flavour. She was right. Fat equals flavour. That's a fact. Many of us have wrongly become afraid of natural fat. Moderate consumption of animal fat by healthy humans is fine. It makes our food more tasty and our lives more enjoyable.

One of the tastiest of all animal fats is pork fat. It's so tasty, inexpensive and abundant that for centuries we humans have used it to add flavour to seafood, meat and vegetable dishes. Here in Newfoundland, as well as the Southern U.S. (Tennessee for example,) France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Ukraine, China and other countries "fatback" is the pork fat of choice. I love it. Used properly it's a superb way to keep foods moist and add flavour.

Fatback and other ingredients.

Alice Waters is a pioneer of Californian cuisine. It's a way of eating based on fresh, seasonal ingredients and flavour. Recently I heard a quote from Alice Waters. She cautioned chefs about cutting all the fat off legs of lamb, cuts of pork, beef and other meats. Her point was simple - by removing the fat (a preoccupation with today's chefs) you remove most of the flavour. She was right. Fat equals flavour. That's a fact. Many of us have wrongly become afraid of natural fat. Moderate consumption of animal fat by healthy humans is fine. It makes our food more tasty and our lives more enjoyable.

One of the tastiest of all animal fats is pork fat. It's so tasty, inexpensive and abundant that for centuries we humans have used it to add flavour to seafood, meat and vegetable dishes. Here in Newfoundland, as well as the Southern U.S. (Tennessee for example,) France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Ukraine, China and other countries "fatback" is the pork fat of choice. I love it. Used properly it's a superb way to keep foods moist and add flavour.

Fatback is the layer of pure white fat that runs along the back of the pig just underneath the skin. It may be available fresh or salted. Here in Newfoundland we use fatback for scrunchions to accompany fish and brewis and pan-fried cod. Traditionally we've used it in much the same way other cultures have. We put slices of it on roasts, especially game, to help retain tenderness and add flavour. (The French call that barding.) My friend Paul Heffernan told me the other day that his mom would put fatback and onions in her boiled white beans and baked beans for flavour. She would also put it in Jiggs dinner when they couldn't afford salt beef.

Sold on fatback

I was sold on the flavour value of fatback many years ago. I was visiting my late friend Elizabeth Kelly in Gambo. At the time she was 90 years young and still an excellent cook. Elizabeth had just finished cooking dinner on her old wood-burning stove. It smelled wonderful. When I looked in her well-used cast iron fry pan I saw cod steaks and cubes of potato. By steaks I mean she had taken the gutted (skin-on) cod and cut it through the backbone into pieces, as you would for salmon. She offered me some and I happily sat down for a taste of her home-cooked meal.

After a mouthful I knew I was eating something delicious and special. I asked Elizabeth how she had cooked the fish and potatoes and she gave me one of her usual cryptic answers. She didn't share recipes willingly. All she would say was, "I just fried it up with some onions, that's all." Her answer was close to the whole story but she had left out a few important details. I started guessing while Elizabeth, with coy smile, stayed silent, enjoying every minute of my frustration.

Eventually I guessed that her fish dish also contained some flour and a good dollop of ketchup. However, there was something I couldn't put my finger on, something that put Elizabeth's cod and potatoes into a higher realm of flavour development. Was it the fact that the fish was cooked on the bone? Yes, but only partly. There was something else. I knew it by the way she was smiling, like a Cheshire cat. Finally she took pity on me and in her sweet little granny voice whispered, "Fatback." It was a revelation. I had never considered that fatback could be such a magical ingredient.

Pails

When I was a kid I remember we'd sell certain foods in our grocery store from wooden stave barrels (sometimes apples) and plastic pails. In our meat room next to the barrels of salt beef and pork riblets in pickle were plastic pails containing great slabs of fatback. It all seemed rather unappetizing to me at the time. I can see Dad now, stabbing a piece of the fatback, wrapping it in wax paper, then brown paper, tying it up with butcher's twine and marking the price on it with a grease pencil.

Like most youngsters of nine or 10 I had much to learn. I was shamefully ignorant about the importance of fatback to the culinary world. Little did I know that a corner shopkeeper was probably going through the same routine as my father with a slab of fatback in Memphis, Tenn. The only difference was that the Memphis fatback would be used to make cracklings (similar to scrunchions) or, instead of pork toutons, it might find its way into cornbread. And, instead of flavouring baked beans, it might be used to make a pot of black-eyed peas.

Simple and grand kitchens in France were doing similar things with fatback. Their "scrunchions" would be called lardons. The French put fatback in soups, stews and sauces. They also use thin strips of fatback to line moulds for pates, terrines and the like. One of my favourite French stews using fatback is the classic boeuf bourguignon. I made it recently. The extra flavour and richness that it contributed to the dish was extraordinary. It turned a simple, peasant style pot roast into a gastronomic treat.

Fatback was used in cooking in medieval times. People of that era quickly recognized its value. Since then cooks and chefs have continued to find ways of using this valuable ingredient in their recipes. Hopefully those of you who may have forgotten or may not have been acquainted with the pleasures of fatback will try it soon.

Maybe then you'll be singing its praises too. Bon appetit!

Boeuf Bourguignon with Fatback

Ingredients:

1 tbsp. grape seed oil

1 cup cubed fatback

2 cups diced carrots

3 lb. blade roast, cut into quarter inch slices

2 medium onions

2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

2 shallots, roughly chopped

1 lb. sliced mushrooms

Half bottle of Burgundy

One-third cup Cognac

Freshly ground pepper and salt

Method:

Pour oil into a heavy pot. Add half of cubed fatback.

Add carrots and one-third of the beef (layered over.)

Season with salt and pepper. Add half of the onions, garlic, shallots and mushrooms. Cover with more beef.

Add remaining vegetables. Finish with last of the beef topped with remaining fatback.

Pour Burgundy and Cognac over all. Season with extra salt and pepper.

Bring ingredients to a boil.

Cover and cook on low for four hours. Serve with boiled potatoes.

Fatback and other ingredients.

Elizabeth Kelly's

Skillet Cod and Potatoes

Ingredients:

4 cod steaks

4 med. potatoes, peeled and cubed

Half-cup cubed fatback

1 large onion, sliced

Flour for dredging

Salt and pepper

Half-cup ketchup

Half-cup tap water

Method:

Render pork in iron skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onions. Fry until softened.

Add potatoes. Stir while frying for a few minutes.

Cover, lower heat and cook for 10 minutes.

Dredge cod in seasoned flour. Place cod on potato and onion mixture. Cover and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.

Mix ketchup and water.

Drizzle over cod.

Cover and cook for a few more minutes. Serve immediately.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, France, Southern U.S. Tennessee Italy Spain Britain Ukraine China Jiggs Gambo Memphis, Tenn. Memphis

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Recent comments

  • George
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    You lost me at ketchup !

  • George
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    You lost me at ketchup !