Chop, chop

Local pork reemerges as the alternative white meat

Cyprus Cafe chef Vera Hansen pulls a pork loin from the grill before placing it on a bed of harissa couscous. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Cyprus Cafe chef Vera Hansen pulls a pork loin from the grill before placing it on a bed of harissa couscous.

Peruse a smattering of menus at Durango’s fine-dining restaurants and you’ll see that a funny thing happened on the way through the Great Recession. Pork – that salty, fatty, smoky and utterly delicious meat – reappeared.

If anyone in town bashes the lingering anti-pork ethos cultivated by some ancient religions and present-day health gurus, it’s Ryan Lowe, chef and general manager of the Ore House. Lowe throws artery-clogging caution to the wind with his pan-fried pork chop filled with chorizo and cornbread stuffing, topped with jalapeño jus and served with bacon macaroni and cheese.

“Pork stuffed with pork, served with mac and cheese with pork – yeah, it’s pretty decadent,” he says proudly.

But this is not your mama’s pork chop, seared in butter then baked with a can of creamed soup and served on a bed of rice, iceberg lettuce salad on the side. That was back in the bad ol’ days of the “pork – the other white meat” campaign, when Americans wanted a less fatty version of the traditional favorite. (In poorer regions such as in the South, pork never stopped being popular and is still the centerpiece of one-meat-three-sides lunch plates.)

No, this is all natural, grain-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free pork raised within an hour’s driving distance of downtown Durango. This is the pig restaurateurs and home cooks are clamoring for.

Denise Stovall, CEO of Local Brands Farm Co-op, attests to the increasing demand for pigs co-op farmers have seen in the last two years. Customers want animals that have been raised outside and fed on grass, apples and grains (not corn), and they’re willing to pay more for it.

Stovall warns, however, that if you’re accustomed to grocery-store pork, you could be in for a surprise. For one, natural pork isn’t salty, and two, it’s juicier, giving the meat a whole different flavor. In case you’re wondering, her favorite dish is an old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs rib roast, cooked slowly and perfect for cool spring nights.

The pork you buy in the grocery store still can suffer from being industrially processed and raised to be a competitor of the leanest of all meats – chicken breast.

“It cooks up lean, dry and tough,” says David Stewart, chef of Season’s Rotisserie & Grill. “Local pork has texture and flavor rather than masquerading as poultry. Yes, it’s fattier, but it’s better for you because it’s all natural.”

And before we lose the point, pork is inexpensive when compared to beef. Chefs hailed the prime cuts such as chops and tenderloins as scene-stealers on beef-heavy menus and the cured portions such as pork belly, pancetta and, of course, sausage, as flavorful components of appetizers, soups and salads, all for less than a comparable cut of beef.

Stewart economizes on the cost of locally raised pork by buying the whole pig and breaking it down at the restaurant. The tenderloin is grilled over an oak fire and served with cheddar spoon bread for an entree. The rest is cured, the belly turned into bacon, shoulders ground into sausage, hind legs yield hams, liver creates pate and the feet go into the acclaimed posole.

But what is true about pork’s inherent healthfulness? Is it the fatty, heart-attack inducing scare meat reviled in the fat-conscious ’90s? Or is it a mild-mannered substitute for beef and chicken that will do your arteries no harm?

Well, let’s compare. Three and a half ounces of pork loin (chops) contain 225 calories, 30 grams of protein and 10.5 grams of fat, while the same amount of top sirloin has 313 calories, 29 grams of protein and eight grams of fat, surprisingly equal on the nutrition scale.

Now let’s look at bacon, for which, well, there is no compare. It possesses 541 calories per 3.5 ounces, 37 grams of protein and – whoa Nelly! – 42 grams of fat. If you’re scarfing down a few BLTs for lunch, you might want to reconsider.

Local nutritionists tend to give pork loin the thumbs up if it is naturally raised, even better if it is from the local area.

“It depends on the quality. If it is pastured and grass fed and not fed a lot of crap, it’s better for you,” says Durango naturopath Nancy Utter.

But they don’t say you can go whole hog, either.

“Eat it sparingly,” says naturopath Jennifer Lettelier. “Turkey, fish and chicken are better.”

Don’t get Dan James started about America’s industrial food-processing industry or you’ll get an earful. James serves as his locally famous family’s artisanal cheese maker and began raising heritage breed pigs to use up its by-product, whey. James believes the commercial pork industry has sullied pork’s reputation and caused large swaths of the population to forgo it altogether.

Not that he blames anyone for bypassing meat from an animal that has led its life caged on concrete slabs and been fed genetically modified corn and injected with artificial hormones and antibiotics.

He takes care to raise his 50 or so head of pigs on open ranch land – rotating them so they don’t ruin a particular field – and feeding them a natural mix of whey and spent grain (he gets his from local breweries). They start at 40 to 50 pounds in the spring and finish at 250 to 300 pounds in November, when they go to market.

Pigs and their life cycle are as sweet to James as any rose, and he reels off the names of his heritage pigs with as much tenderness as past loves – hamworths, old spots, large blacks.

But no matter how famed they are, or ought to be, even heritage pigs will forever take a back seat to plain old cattle in Durango. Local restaurateurs say pork can’t compete with diners’ taste for good beef, especially steak, and comes in behind chicken and fish dishes, too.

They include pork on their menus because it’s affordable, local and a nice change of pace.

“It’s cheaper and you can dress it up and take it out,” says Alison Dance, owner of Cyprus Cafe, which serves its pork loin brined with cloves and oranges, grilled and paired with a fig and orange sauce over couscous.

Feeling in need of an epicurean shake up? Skip dessert and save your fat calories for a sizzling piece of unctuous pork belly or an over-the-top double cut pork chop. I won’t tell.

phasterok@durangoherald.com

Grilled local pork loins provide a succulent and affordable change of pace for patrons at several of Durango’s fine-dining restaurants. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Grilled local pork loins provide a succulent and affordable change of pace for patrons at several of Durango’s fine-dining restaurants.

A grilled pork loin, served with a fig and orange sauce and sauteed greens on a bed of harissa couscous, is a popular option at Cyprus Cafe. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

A grilled pork loin, served with a fig and orange sauce and sauteed greens on a bed of harissa couscous, is a popular option at Cyprus Cafe.

Cyprus Cafe chef Vera Hansen finishes a grilled pork loin with a fig and orange sauce plus sauteed greens, all resting on a bed of harissa couscous. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Cyprus Cafe chef Vera Hansen finishes a grilled pork loin with a fig and orange sauce plus sauteed greens, all resting on a bed of harissa couscous.