Sunday, January 10, 2010
Things that make you go "ewwww."
What you may ask, is that? The meat feature above is none other than lengua, or beef tongue for those of you that don't speak Spanish. Below is smoked neckbones, from pork. Both are discoveries from our recent Great Lard Quest of 2009. As you may recollect if you were reading in December, I demanded lard for homemade biscochitos. The search for lard was more challenging than you would expect.
You see, we needed fresh lard. Not the hydrogenated stuff sold shelf stable in the shortening aisle of the standard grocery store. So we went searching. First, Sam brought home a tub of manteca, or lard, from the La Fiesta grocery near his work. La Fiestas are some of the only non-HEB stores in San Antonio, and they are much smaller and tend to cater to a Hispanic clientele, so naturally we thought their lard would suffice. But the lard was sort of brown in color, runny in texture, and in general not as immaculate as I imagine. So that night we went on a long quest to find more lard.
First, we went to another La Fiesta. This store did have lard similar to the liquid brown lard Sam had brought home. Only this time it was labeled as derived from pork skin, which means it is a bi-product of making chicharrons, or fried pork skin for your northerners. That explained the color and consistency of the stuff already in my fridge. But I wanted snow white leaf lard, of a quality for baking, so our quest continued.
Next we headed down the street to the Culebra Meat Market, which felt like stepping into another time and place. The Meat Market smelled like, well, like a meat market. It did not have the bright, astringent Clorox smell of my local grocery's meat section. Rather, it smelled like raw meat. Not dirty or unclean, but certainly not as sanitary as my usual experience. And there was so much meat in the place, with different cuts and and names than what I am accustom to ordering. No one at the meat counter spoke English, so when I tried to order two cups of lard, I receive two tubs of manteca from the back. Then, in trying to return one, I was misunderstood and brought a third tub. After all of the confusion I felt I had to buy at least one tub, even though I was still unsure about the product. While it was more "lardy" looking that the stuff from the La Fiesta, it was still more liquid, and slightly darker in color, than the lard I had researched on the Internet. Also, it came in a totally unlabeled container. I am used to my nutritional information and expiration dates on all products, so fair or not, I was suspicious of the Culebra Meat Market lard. But for only $2.50 I become the proud owner of a second 20 oz. tub of manteca, and off we went with a clean conscious about using the employee's time.
With still no perfect lard in our possession, we headed to the last and biggest bastion of Hispanic shopping that we thought might be open at 8:30 on a Wednesday night, the HEB El Mercado market on Culebra (not to be confused with the Culebra meat market, not actually on Culebra but on Blanco). The El Mercado caters to a specific audience craving the more traditional open air Mexican market from Mexico, and the first thing that makes this HEB different is the fact that there is a huge circus tent covering the entire front driveway of the store. Under this tent are spaces for raspa vendors selling Mexican snow cones, vending machines and picnic tables
Walking into the meat area, the first thing I saw was a full cooler of frozen pig heads, at least 25 of them shrink wrapped and frozen and waiting for some amazing roasting or cooking process at the hands of an authentic cook. Along the meat wall, halogen lights highlighted an array of different and somewhat ghastly shrink-wrapped organs, like tubs stuffed with chicken livers by the pound. I sighted familiar yellow Styrofoam shrink wrapped trays, but loaded with the unfamiliar sight of chicken feet. There were tough smoked pigs ears for chewing, and even some hoofs for I am not sure what.
We found packages of giant beef tongues, as you can see. I couldn't resist, I had to pick it up. Sam and I have each eaten lengua before, and it is tender and flavorful, but it was still a sight to see it raw and whole. If you look closely at the tongue in the photo, then behind it, that little white sign says "Fresh Beef Cheek Meat." That cheek meat is probably used for barbacoa. The white packages directly behind the lengua, well, that's tripe, otherwise known as stomach lining. It is used to make menudo, a classic hangover remedy sold in taco joints all over San Antonio on Sundays. I have never worked up the nerve to try menudo. Maybe someday.
Would you believe it though, the El Mercado did not carry lard. None. Nada. So we purchased a package of the hydrogenated shelf stuff, despite my better judgment, and I went home to assess my 60+ oz. of various lard products and decide what to bake with.
The good news is that the Great Lard Quest of 2009 finishes with a happy ending. I ended up using the manteca from the Culebra meat market, straight out of the unmarked tub, with good results. The next time I need lard, I plan to work ahead and place a special order from a local butcher, so I can request the pristine fat from the kidney area. It means rendering it myself, but I am certain to get what I need. And if ever I become curious about offal and uncommon meat cuts, I now know not to look to my usual butcher, but a bit further down the road to the Hispanic markets that do not have lard.