Downtown developments: From nuisances to delicacy
Nostalgia trip once again. Way back in the '70s and '80s when we were farming, there were a few things we, and other farmers, were trying to eliminate from out fields. Wild onions were a problem, as were cockleburs and Johnson grass. Growing corn presented other worries. If the fungus corn smut ended up on an ear of corn, it could not be processed at the grain elevator. My, how times have changed.
Again it is no secret that I am immersed in the food culture, and I watch Iron Chef America to learn and to marvel, but imagine my utter amazement to see the chefs using corn smut fungus as an edible delicacy - if we had only known. The wild onions that we successfully eliminated are making a comeback in the culinary world, as well. When it comes to the cocklebur, well, the only other use I've seen for it was in the great state of Texas; they are sold in prepackaged plastic containers as porcupine eggs. But hey, people buy them, so why not? Johnson grass is another story all together. You can't use it for hay because it produces cyanide when it dries, but now I see it under other names, botanical names, being sold as ornamental grass for yards. It spreads like wildfire by rhizomes, and unless they have a new breed that doesn't spread, it is best planted like bamboo or left in the nursery.
Older Southerners and younger foodies will know what pork belly is, but for those who don't, it is what bacon is made from. Of course bacon has been cured and cold smoked in some way but it still has the characteristics of its natural state. I have been looking for pork belly in its natural state for quite a while, and finally the meat market at Publix got it for me. After removing the skin, let it sit in a dry rub for 24 hours then braised it for 6 hours. I was hooked. I have also utilized the skin by making pork rinds.
I can already see some of you turning up your nose and going "ewww," but you need to try it. It can be smoked with applewood or hickory, then sliced into ¼-inch slices after being warmed and crusted on the flat top, placed on a ciabatta bun with grilled onions, tomato, lettuce and mayo or deep fried or very thinly sliced on pizza; it is a treat you won't soon forget. In fact, I predict you will become hooked, too. I am aware of a few eateries in town that serve it, and at the moment only two restaurants that I know of have it. If you want a food experience you won't soon forget, try this at Taste or Vinny's. If you think it is not Italian, think again. Cured, unsmoked pork belly is nothing other than pancetta.