Nearly every region accessible by boat has pickled pork in its culinary heritage. Pickled pork made its way around the world thanks in part to the spice trade, which brought this heirloom dish to locales as diverse as the low country in Louisiana, the Hawaiian islands, the gold coast of Australia and Portugal's island of Madeira. For you, that diversity translates to proven cooking methods that take pickled pork any direction you desire.
New Orleans Influences
Cajun and creole dishes teem with complexity -- "bland" doesn't exist in their culinary lexicon -- thanks in part to ingredients such as pickled pork. In fatty dishes where a dose of acidity is needed to cut the richness, or in dishes that benefit from a supplementary seasoning of briny tartness, pickled pork, sometimes called pickle meat, makes its home. Collard greens wilted in bacon fat, starchy red beans and rice and Louisianan caldo all call on pickled pork for its piquancy.
Seasoning with Pickled Pork
To draw on the Cajun influence and use pickled pork as a seasoning agent, add roughly chopped pickled pork to legume-based dishes, such as black-eyed peas or black-bean soup, when you add the beans. Or, add chopped pickled pork to vegetable preparations, such as stir-fried bok choy, in the last 5 minutes of cooking. You can also reserve the pickling liquid and add a few tablespoons of it to the cooking liquid you use for beans and starches. If you cook with the pickling liquid, bring the cooking liquid to a simmer after you add it so it reaches a safe serving temperature.
Peach melba, pavlova and pickled pork -- not exactly dishes you'd expect in the same kitchen, except in Australia. Pickled pork is just as common down under as it is in Louisiana, but it's served in an entirely different way. Pickled pork is usually served as a supplementary protein or as a stand-alone dish in Australia, where, traditionally, it's simmered like corned beef. The corned-beef-and-pickled-pork relationship runs deeper than a shared cooking method, though, as they typically share the same side dishes. Potatoes, cabbage and carrots round out a pickled pork dinner the same way they do corned beef, by adding starch and texture.
Braised Australian-Style Pickled Pork
Saute chopped carrots, onions and celery in a little oil in a heavy-bottom pot. Add whole spices, such as peppercorns and bay leaf, and aromatic herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, and stir to coat them with oil. You can also sear the pork for added flavor if you like. Pour a few cups of stock and a spoonful of tomato paste to the pot and scrape the bottom. Add the pork, cover it with stock or water and gently simmer it until tender, about 1 hour.
Hawaiian Pickled Pork via Portugal
Portugal and Hawaii seem an unlikely pair to share an heirloom dish. On one hand you have Portugal, known for its Madeira, bacalhau and caldo verhe; on the other there's Hawaii, with its reputation for poi, saimin and a plethora of Spam-based dishes. Despite the culinary cleft between them, Portugal and Hawaii have a commonality: vinha d'alhos, or pickled pork cooked in vinegar and white wine along with an array of spices ranging from cinnamon to nutmeg to peppercorns. The spice trade routes, and their accompanying settlers, brought pickled pork to the Hawaiian islands, where it's commonly prepared as it is in Portugal -- seared then braised.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and sear the pickled pork on all sides. Add enough reserved pickling liquid or a combination of white wine and cider vinegar to reach about halfway up the sides of the pork. Add herbs and spices to taste and braise until tender, about 2 hours.
A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.