Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Pork cooked in milk until it's sweet and tender.
It may not seem like the most intuitive dish, but this recipe from Emilia-Romagna is one that should be part of your repertoire. It's not an elegant, dinner-party dish, but it is a comforting, homely dish, perfect for a family dinner or a night in -- and the leftovers are even better.
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This is a dish that should not be rushed. Give it time but also don't let it out of your sight -- milk has a tendency to reach a point where it evaporates quite quickly. There's nothing worse than burnt milk. So grab a glass of wine and settle in to the kitchen, keeping the pot company while it simmers away in the background. This is slow cooking at its best.
Much like buttermilk chicken or yogurt marinades, cooking meat in milk makes it wonderfully tender. The lactic acid present in milk tenderizes the meat, making it juicy and sweet. As the milk comfortingly bubbles away for hours, it begins to curdle, turning into a ricotta-like mass and becoming nutty and flavorful after all the mingling with the onion, garlic, and prosciutto. It's not the prettiest dish, but it will win you over for all its deliciousness.
All the classics of Italian cuisine include this dish, and there are different ways to make it. Pellegrino Artusi instructs to cook the milk until it boils away completely. Elizabeth David has the milk reduced until there is just “a small cupful of all the delicious little bits of bacon and onion.” David nominates coriander seed, marjoram, basil, or fennel seed as a rub to spice up the pork. Others may use bay leaf, sage, or rosemary. A peeled zest of lemon rind commonly appears. Artusi doesn't even mention any herbs, but keeps his simple: pork and milk accompanied by bread, grilled over a fire, to soak up the saucy bits. Marcella Hazan's Bologna-style maiale al latte is as simple as Artusi's -- no herbs, no garlic. As essential as you can get. She adds the milk bit by bit, allowing it to cook down each time to a nutty, caramel color before adding more.
A must for cooking this dish is a heavy-bottomed cast iron pan or casserole pot for nicely even, slow cooking. Something like this. Avoid nonstick pans. You just won't get the goodness that comes from the onion and ham browning on the bottom of the pan.
Traditional recipes call for loin, but shoulder will result in a more tender end product; these days, loin is usually a very lean cut which will dry out during this long, slow cooking process. On the other hand, too much fat isn't desireable as the fat won't render as much as in a roast; this pork remains essentially pale and ivory-toned. A shoulder cut is perfect, with the rind removed and fat trimmed.
Serve this simply with some sauteed greens or a crunchy salad -- Nigel Slater suggests a raw red cabbage and walnut salad.