By Jon Letman
Hawai‘i’s chefs turn back the clock
Dietary trends can be such fickle creatures. Yesterday’s celebrated eats (comfort food, the paleo diet, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) may well be tomorrow’s culinary villain. In the modern kitchen what you grew up eating because you were told it was good for you may later be proven to be, in fact, just the opposite.
Now halfway through the 2010s, it’s clear one unlikely ingredient that has for decades been relegated to the fringes of popular cooking is making a comeback: the utterly unpretentious pig fat we call lard.
For hundreds of years lard was the cooking lipid of choice. Until the early 20th century Americans used lard the way most of us use butter, processed shortening or vegetable oils today. In the 1870s a relatively new soap and candle firm, Procter & Gamble, was also producing a food it called “family lard.”
But shortly after P&G introduced a new product called Crisco® in 1911, lard began its long descent into the culinary backwaters. As reported by NPR’s Planet Money in 2012, lard didn’t just fade away, it was effectively pushed out the door as processed food manufacturers promoted hydrogenated vegetable shortening as a “better” alternative to lard.
Before long lard was not only sidelined, but redefined as something just plain gross. The name alone—lard—became a term of abuse, and a rather bad one at that. These days, however, lard is increasingly seen in a new light and more than a few of Hawai‘i’s chefs are embracing it (ahem) whole hog.
In Honolulu, chef and restaurateur Ed Kenney believes in lard. He buys at least 50 swine a year (hybrids like Yorkshire-landrace and Berkshire/kurobuta hogs) from Shinsato Farm on windward O‘ahu. An ardent local supporter of local ag, Kenney says lard has gotten a bum rap. He points out the irony of how, in the pursuit of low-fat diets, people have spurned lard, only to later learn that artificial alternatives are no better, and may be worse, than natural fats.
Lard — simply rendered pig fat — is around 40 percent saturated fat and just over 50 percent unsaturated fat. Its appearance is pure white and it comes in several forms: the thick, white opaque backfat (or ‘fatback’), a hind leg fat and the leaf lard which is a drier fat taken from around the pig’s belly.
Kenney renders lard in a pot on a stove using a small amount of water over low heat. After straining the lard, he Vacu-Seals it in half-pound blocks which he sells at his Kaimuki Superette. He says his leaf lard “flies off the shelves” as more customers become familiar with the product.
For Kenney, cooking with lard is about staying true to local, natural ingredients when he makes luganica, sanguinaccio and wild boar sausages. Rather than dismissing pig fat, Kenney exclaims, “praise the lard!”
On Maui, Chris Kulis, chef de cuisine at Capische? at Hotel Wailea buys around ten hogs a year from Mālama Farm in Ha‘iku. He prizes lard for making his salami and sausages more flavorful and because it doesn’t melt away. Rendered lightly, it makes for a savory internal garnish in blood sausage and, treated with salt, sugar, herbs, Kulis cures it into lardo which can be sliced and eaten with sweet and spicy foods.
Having first tried lardo with walnuts and honey in Italy, Kulis has done the same in Hawai‘i, using macadamia nuts, pairing it with honey or guava mustard. Before searing lean white fish like onaga and opaka, Kulis wraps the filets in paper-thin sheets of lardo for a crispy texture outside and deep flavor inside.
He reminds us that the fat from a pig, which is what lard is, makes imu-cooked pork so flavorful, tender and moist.
If you want to incorporate lard into your own kitchen, Kulis suggests using it to season a pasta dish instead of pancetta or guanciale.
“People shouldn’t be scared of lard. It’s just a seasoning… another way to cook.”