Cleaning out my Cabinets: Smoked Hock Rice

Last winter when I made the cassoulet for a holiday dinner, Kristi had to scour multiple grocery stores helping me find the right ingredients.  Oddly, after seeing them in my neighborhood grocery store on pretty much every visit in the previous 3 years, finding pork hocks was nearly impossible.  After a couple days of searching in a moment of desperation (because I needed to start cooking that night), I asked Kristi to purchase a package of smoked hocks she found at a store because it looked like the only option.  Later that day, I ended up finding the raw hocks I needed, so the package of smoked pig ankles headed into the freezer for use god knows when.

I don’t have skeletons in my closet, but I have lots of animal parts in my freezer, and they haunt me every night.  Then I remember all the currants in my cupboard and the nightmares really kick into overdrive.

Anyhoo, I got sick of staring at a pink package of ankles in my freezer but refused to throw them out despite having no idea what to do with them.  So, on a Sunday with no other posts in sight, I pulled the package out of the freezer and thawed it on the countertop.

This seems like a phenomenal business model: smoke a meat that costs $.50 a pound and sell for $2.50.  It's like alchemy.  And yes, I recognize the absurdity of me refusing to throw away a $5 package of smoked skin and bone

This seems like a phenomenal business model: smoke a meat that costs $.50 a pound and sell for $2.50.  It’s like alchemy.  And yes, I recognize the absurdity of me refusing to throw away a $5 package of smoked skin and bone

I knew enough about hocks to expect minimal edible meat to come off of these when I was finished cooking them.  They really have nothing to offer.  With that in mind, I decided to use the hocks to flavor a rice dish and mix the meat into the rice.  As usual, it all started with mirepoix.

Not m' best mire poix since I was just using whatever was in the fridge including baby carrots and minimal onion.  I wasn't particularly concerned with "ruining" the final product

Not m’ best mirepoix since I was just using whatever was in the fridge including baby carrots, limp celery, minced garlic, and onion powder.  And dried bay leaves.  I really shouldn’t even be calling it mirepoix.  I wasn’t particularly concerned with “ruining” the main ingredient

Sh*tty mirepoix soon to be sh*tty mirepete (when the salty ankles went in).  First, I deglazed with a quarter bottle of white wine once the vegetables had become translucent.  After a few minutes of the wine reducing, I added the smoked hocks to the pot.

The really looked so much more promising than they actually are.  There's just no meat on these things

If you don’t imediately recognize them as wrinkly ankles, they really looked much more promising than hocks actually are.  There’s just no meat on these things

I covered the hocks with a few cups of water and added a little salt and pepper to flavor the broth.

Dece start, at least it looked like a broth right away instead of just water and hocks

Dece start I think, at least the liquid looked like a broth right away instead of just water and hocks.  Really struggled to build any momentum while making this meal and that is carrying over to this post.   I guess this was just a very straightforward meal with not too many interesting steps

Once the broth got to a low boil, I reduced the heat to low and put the lid on.  Since I wanted it to simmer for a while, we headed out for a couple of hours to enjoy the summer and hit the playground.

No pacing this time around; this was a very low concern-level meal for me.  I figured it was trash or mouth so if it ended up edible it was really just a bonus.  I was possibly a little too under-concerned since I kinda forgot about the funk of a cooking pork hock until we re-entered the apartment.  It’s not an awful smell, but it is pretty strong and porky and not exactly what you want your whole apartment smelling like when the AC is blasting and it’s too hot to open windows.  Oh, and it looked super sketchy too.

Welp, did not see this one coming.  What the hell made it white?  And cloudy?  The liquid from the head cheese with feet, hocks, and necks looked nothing like this.  It looked like a giant pot of pork half and half

Welp, did not see this one coming.  What the hell made it white?  And cloudy?  The liquid from the head cheese with feet, hocks, and necks looked nothing like this.  This looked like a giant pot of creamed pork soup

I shut the heat off of the burner and let it cool a bit so the fat would be easier to skim off the top and the hocks would cool enough to pick the meat from.  After about an hour of cooling, I strained out the mirepoix and bay leaves, reserving the cooking liquid, then put it back on the stovetop to reduce it a bit.  The hocks headed to the windowsill to see if there was any way to photograph them in an appetizing light.

The answer, no.  No, there isn't a good light for hocks.  They just look like bones and skin.  Plus the layer of congealed cooking liquid didn't help

The answer: no.  No, there isn’t a good light for hocks.  They just look like bones and skin.  Like Madonna recently.  Has anyone seen Madonna?  Good lord, and she doesn’t even have a sheen of gelatinous cooking liquid covering her like the hocks.  Which I think gives them the upper hand.  Let’s move on

After the foto sesh, I started peeling apart the hocks to mine for meat.  The amount of gelatin from the bones and tendons in the hock plus the fat and collagen from the skin makes it a pretty messy process.  Plus, I am consistently amazed by how little meat actually can be found on a hock and how you can find a decent amount of meat on some but almost none on others.  The one definite is that it will be a horrible mess.

That's a difficult meat to bone/fat/skin ratio.  Not really a pile of meat to build a meal for a family around.  Again, who wants to get in on the smoked hock business with me??? We can keep all the meat for ourselves and just smoke the leftover parts!  We'll make hundreds!!!

That’s a difficult meat to bone/fat/skin ratio.  Not really a pile of meat to build a meal for a family around.  Again, who wants to get in on the smoked hock business with me???  We can keep all the meat for ourselves and just smoke the leftover parts!  No one will know because they expect nothing!  We’ll make hundreds!!!

With the cooking liquid reduced, I transferred it to a Pyrex and cooled to room temperature in an ice bath.  I tasted a bit to see if I definitely wanted to use it and I would describe the flavor as nearly identical to the smell in our apartment when we got home.  Questionable, but had to barrel ahead.

I measured out a half cup of white rice and combined it in a pot with a little over a cup of the cooking liquid and a splash of apple cider vinegar.  The idea was that the liquid would give the rice a rich flavor and have the flavors from the mirepoix and smoked hocks.  Didn’t make it look less dodgy.

Any idea on why the white?  I am assuming it has something to do with the smoking of the hocks or the freezer, or just the hocks?  I really have no ideas, it was completely bizarre

Any ideas on why the white liquid?  Anyone?  I am assuming it has something to do with the smoking of the hocks or the freezer, or just the hocks?  I really have no ideas, it was completely bizarre

After 20 minutes with the lid on I fluffed up the rice a bit and stirred in all of the meat which left me with this kinda delicious looking pot of food.

It looked good then and it looks good now.  Any time you cook rice in a craising liquid or stock it comes out looking delicious

It looked good then and it looks good now.  Any time you cook rice in a braising liquid or stock it comes out looking delicious

Not going to overdo this one, but this was decently tasty (to me) and definitely edible (for anyone else).  This was good to eat as-is, but a few shakes of Cholula hot sauce made it very enjoyable.  The rice was sticky from the fat and collagen in the pork stock and very rich, most similar to the texture of rice cooked in coconut milk.  The bits of pork were tender and tasty with a lot of good smoky barbeque flavor, like bits of smoked pork rib meat.  Pretty tasty, despite the funky smells, funky meat, and sticky coating on my hands that has yet to go away.

Right now I have a hogs head thawing in a cooler somewhere in Maine, and all I can think about is whether anyone remembered to put ice on it.  If the answer is yes and I remember to take pictures, you got yer next post right there.

Weird Crap I Cook: Ponce

I’m not sure whether this is a good thing, but unlike the usual 72 hours from “that sounds interesting” to research & cooking, I planned to cook this meal a few weeks in advance.  The logic actually worked backwards: I had to be in NYC for a fantasy baseball draft Sunday, so we decided to hang in NJ with Tim’s smoker (and some people) Saturday, and THEN I found something to cook at the grocery store.  Good old fashioned pork maws.

“Maw is a much more appealing term than stomach!” – savvy pork advertiser.  These were coming out of the butcher’s area chopped in half and I had to ask for a whole one.  I got my usual perplexed look from the folks in white coats

I’d recently seen the Bizarre Foods New Orleans episode that showed a sausage stuffed hog stomach that was smoked, braised and carved like a roast.  Sign me up!  It was the first thing I thought of when I saw the stomach and after finding minimal documentation online for how to make it at home, I was hooked on the idea of making it.

After purchase, the stomach spent a couple months in a vacuum sealed bag in the freezer before heading into a cooler with a half pork shoulder for the drive to NJ.  Plan was to wake up Saturday, grind up the shoulder with garlic and onions, mix in some spices, prep the stomach, stuff it, and cook it.  At least that’s how I thought of it; I clearly didn’t understand how big a step “prep the stomach” would be.

A big welcome to the newest blog villain, Tim’s awful digital camera!  That knife was participating in it’s second grossest food preparation after previously cutting off the finger tip of Hub Hollow lead singer, and benefactor of Janet’s awesome wardrobe, Jill.  I guess that wasn’t really food preparation, just way too much knife for a soft brie and tiny Greek woman

From there the meat, garlic, and onions were cut into cubes and, with Tim’s instruction (he helped too much this time to earn his usual mean spirited remarks) headed into the grinder.  We used the handy meat grinder attachment for his new Kitchenaid mixer, an item I’ve also owned for a few years but have been too scared to use.

I did half the meat coarse grind and half fine grind.  My guess is I exclusively use the coarse grind moving forward since it’s a little more what you expect from sausage and ground meat in general

Once the meat, onion and garlic were all ground together, we stirred in a lot of salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and paprika along with some chopped arugala from Tim’s garden.

Probably between 3 and 4 pounds of sausage.  The arugala was a last second call when I realized there needed to be some contrasting herb flavor that was missing from the current mix.  Plus, I will put arugala in anything if given the opportunity

To test for flavor I pulled a bit out of the bowl and fried it in a pan.  It was pretty freaking tasty, but I added a little more seasoning to be safe.

Welp, with all those pleasantries out of the way, let’s get down to the main event and check out that stomach!

There she is!  Note the whitish area on the top right that must be where they cut an opening to empty the contents and clean the inside of the stomach thoroughly. It was a lot larger than it looked in the package

I’m not sure if it was feeling inadequate surrounded by such enormous stomachs and increased in size overnight, but this hog maw was way bigger than expected.  Since the goal with ponce is to have the meat tightly packed into the stomach, I needed to make sure that it wasn’t going to be too big for the sausage we’d made.  First step was stitching closed that large cut used to clean the stomach.

What to stitch with was definitely a hot topic at the Tim Ryan household for a solid hour, but we ended up going with whatever Kristi could find on her usual morning coffee/hog-stomach-stitching-material run.  The final materials ended up being a standard thick sewing needle and some unflavored dental floss.

I felt like a field medic or a fugitive from the law who needs to do some quick triage in order to keep on his quest to clear his name.  Neither of those analogies pressure tests too well since I was probably in pajamas, toasty warm, and full from a nice breakfast

After finishing the stitch on the large cut, I found the other entry point to the stomach (yes, there are two of course) and attached it to Tim’s faucet.  The questions I wanted to answer were how watertight the stitching was and how large it got when fully inflated.  And the answers were, “holy MOLY!!!”

This wasn’t even close to fully inflated but it was huge.  It looked like the hot air balloon that the most annoying character in movie history built in Waterworld.  Anyone who has seen that movie just slapped their head in an, “Ohhh! Thank god he told me what that reminded me of, that was going to keep me up at night!” reaction

It was immediately obvious that the stomach was too large for the amount of sausage we’d made.  So, using the same lethal paring knife, I made an unscientific judgement on where to cut, and stitched it up all over again.  This go-round was 10x more infuriating since the outside was getting greasy as it warmed up and my fingers were full of holes from errant stitching.  Meals like this are less a labor of love than a labor of stupidity.

Much more manageable, and yes, it did make me reconsider stomach stapling as a good fallback if I can’t get in shape on my own at some point.  The new fallback is that Olestra stuff, seems like a total no-brainer

With the stomach prepped, a quick change in attachments turned the Kitchenaid from a meat grinder to a sausage stuffer.  Albeit a somewhat frustrating one that made sounds like a boot stuck in mud.

I kept asking Tim if he wanted to switch roles and be the stomach holder but he kept saying, “nah, I’m good”.  Weirdo

After a lot of shifting the meat inside the casing and moving the spout around to continue stretching the stomach, we finally got all of the sausage in.  Quick stitch on the opening, and we were ready to go.

The stitched side made it oddly resemble some sort of stuffed animal, which it kinda was, but not the type I’d let Janet play with

Well, I was glad the grossest part was over, though it really wasn’t too bad while we were in process since there were no funky smells.  At one point the fully inflated ponce slipped out of my hands and slowly wandered across the counter away from me, moving further away with each botched grab.  Offered a good mix of angered frustration and laughing hysterically at my own stupidity.

After a quick rub with some salt, pepper, and paprika the stomach joined the four racks of ribs that Tim had cooking in the smoker.

Godspeed, little doodle.  Always hard to know you are shutting the door for a few hours with no peaking allowed, but I’ve become pretty good at it.  Janet hiding her face in every ultrasound for 6 straight months taught me that one

While that smoked, Kristi and I visited John and Julie’s place to find them in the midst of planting 36 trees around the property with the rusty backhoe that John bought on Craigslist and fixed up.  While it was amazing how much they were getting done, let’s just say that we choose to spend our weekends a little differently.

My guess is she is slightly more competent than her father behind the wheel of this thing

Back at the other Ryan ranch, two hours into the four hour smoke, I found Tim pacing outside the smoker anxiously waiting to open it.  For someone who preaches the patience of good BBQ cooking, he was remarkably antsy.

This was after we flipped the ponce.  We could see liquid bubbling inside the ponce and I couldn’t believe the stitching was holding without leaking.  Second proudest I have been of my sewing after the work I did to keep together the awful vendor sample backpack I used throughout Europe.  That thing consisted entirely of paperclips, duct tape, and hotel sewing kits by the end of my two month trip

The lid went back down for another two hours of smoking in the 200F-225F range (total of just over four hours), before we finally had this:

Starting to look more like a large kielbasa or sausage, right?  Mildly intriguing at least?

From there the ponce headed into a beer braise.  Well, not actually a beer braise, but a braise in the six pack of Odouls Amber that Tim had been trying to find a use for since our baby shower last May.  Ended up working out pretty well since I would have hated wasting 6 dark beers on this.

Threw the bone from the pork shoulder in the braise along with some crushed cloves of garlic.  As usual, this was all guesswork, but at least my excuse this time was a complete lack of documentation online instead of a pseudo-manly disdain for outside advice

The lid went on and the ponce braised for about 2 hours in a 300F oven.  Despite not having a recipe to work with, I knew it should have braised for longer than that, but there was a mass of toddlers and the adults responsible for said toddlers arriving at the house.

At first they were tided over with a smorgasbord of kielbasa and Italian sausage along with some chicken liver crostini from Tim (just in case you needed a reminder of how much Ryans love liver).  But, eventually we had to feed everyone dinner and that’s how the ponce ended up on the cutting board, even if we didn’t expect anyone to eat it.

It was around this point that we realized Tim’s camera would only take an in-focus shot with a flash and a perfectly steady hand. Tim’s Camera, like a Terminator sent from the future to infuriate me on a day when it’s owner decided to be helpful for once.  Friggin’ jerk camera, I’ll show him

While the ponce rested, I (over)cooked some white rice in chicken stock and reduced the braising liquid on the stovetop.  Once it had reduced by half, I whisked in a couple tablespoons of roux to thicken it and we had a nice dark gravy to go with the ponce and rice.  Speaking of the ponce, here’s some action shots of the carving from our crew of queasy photographers.

Looked about how I wanted from a texture perspective, but I wanted some more pink color from the smoke.  Just looked less like smoked sausage than I had hoped it would

Still smiling the same way when photographed cooking.  Note Tim’s pointing gesture to disown the meal in photo documented form

There were no funky smells, just smoked meat and what looked like a pork meatloaf.  I was excited to try it, I just didn’t know who else would be.  To my surprise, some friends started serving themselves slices of ponce so I made myself a plate and went to hide so I wouldn’t have to look anyone in the eye.

Collard greens-style kale from Tim’s garden, Erin’s slaw, Tim’s Greek ribs and the ponce/rice/gravy.  Pretty dece plate actually, the ponce looked totally innocuous when separated from it’s original context

The ponce was interesting.  It had far less flavor than I expected based on the piece of sausage that we test fried earlier in the day.  The sausage was moist and had the consistency of meat loaf without any odd flavors coming in from the stomach, which basically acted as a gigantic sausage casing.  The stomach itself could have used a couple more hours of braising since it was pretty chewy.

I was a little bummed out since I wanted a super dense sausage with lots of smokiness, but the gravy added some smoke and beer flavors and the rice was a solid bed for the meat.  OK first run overall, but I need to put some time into improving my sausage making ability back in JP.  As usual, Tim’s ribs and Erin’s slaw were both awesome.

The most surprising part was that most of the ponce ended up eaten (or partially eaten).  I think the idea of it sounds a lot grosser than the actual final presentation, but generally I feel that way about most things I make.  Thanks to the Tim for the hospitality and the Peapack/Far Hills/B’ville crew for their tolerance of my endeavor.  Next week will either be more or less gross, I promise.