Though finding whole pigs to cut up yourself still takes a bit of work, Southern California is a terrific place to explore the wide world of pig parts, thanks to the wealth of Asian and Latino groceries.
You can find just about any cut of pork you might want, from nose (stewed, it becomes deliciously gelatinous) to tails (braised, breadcrumbed and roasted, it's profoundly porky) and anything in between, including a few parts you might not know that you want. (What exactly is one to do with pig's spleen?) Even better, rather than paying $9 or $10 a pound for that dry, bland chop, almost all of these more interesting cuts are priced at $3 a pound or less. That makes experimenting a lot easier.
Probably the surest first step would be to try pork belly, simply because there is no one who doesn't like it. (If someone still seems a little squeamish, try the old trick of telling them it's "fresh bacon.")
Usually it's cooked by a combination of braising to make it tender and then broiling or roasting to crisp the surface. But ever since "Charcuterie" came out, I've been tempted by a confit of pork belly based on a recipe by chef Jim Drohman.
Just think about it: little chunks of meltingly tender spiced pork belly stored in its own fat that you can pull from the fridge whenever you're ready. Just a little browning in the skillet to crisp the surface and a tart green salad to cut the richness and you're good to go.
The only problem was that Ruhlman's recipe calls for 2 pounds of lard and oddly enough, given the number of other pork products available, I have yet to find a source for good lard. Not to worry, Ruhlman told me, the fat doesn't make that much of a difference, use olive oil. I did, and he was right. And my refrigerator is now stocked.
That went so well, I decided to try something a little more out there. I really liked the pig ear salad that Church & State used to serve, so I talked the procedure out of Manzke. It's simple, really: Braise the pig ears until they're tender, chill them until they're firm, and then slice them as thin as you can. Finish by tossing them into a skillet with nearly crisped bacon (Pig ears have great texture — kind of soft and a little chewy with a crisp center — but their flavor is subtle.)
In Manzke's salad, the pig ears and bacon are served with frisee and poached eggs — a glorified salade Lyonnaise. I wanted to focus more on the texture of the ears, so I paired them with crisp, slightly bitter celery cut in matchsticks and dressed it with a tart, shallot-spiked vinaigrette before topping it with crunchy toasted walnuts.
It's a terrific dish and even better, it leaves you with a really unctuous pork broth left over from braising the ears that will be perfect for cooking beans. And because the recipe makes more ears than you need for one salad, you'll also have a few goodies for the freezer to turn into future salads, or maybe to fold into that pot of beans. Can you imagine a big pot of white beans cooked in a hearty pork broth and studded with chunks of crisped confit and little slivers of chewy ear?
On the other hand, in "The River Cottage Cookbook," the British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall serves pig ears two ways: searing the whole pig ear in a cast-iron skillet and serving it like a steak, and rolling thinly sliced ears in mustard and bread crumbs and baking until they crisp.
Let's face it, the pig is one generous animal, and we've only begun to explore its possibilities.