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Eat this! Chicharron, mighty meaty crunch

Elate’s spinach salad skewer with chicharron, molten egg and creme.

Elate’s spinach salad skewer with chicharron, molten egg and creme.

What it is: Like a meaty version of Cheetos, pork rinds, called chicharron in Spanish, are puffed, crispy, deep-fried pigskins, typically eaten as a snack food. They’re made in a two-step process in which the pork skin is first rendered and dried, and then fried and puffed. High in protein, they contain less fat than potato chips.

Randal Jacobs

Randal Jacobs

Where it comes from: Probably discovered as a byproduct of lard-making, fried pork rinds’ history stretches back into antiquity. The puffed snack food is especially popular in Latin American countries, but Chicago is home to one of the world’s largest commercial manufacturers, Evans Food Products Company, the producer of Mac’s Snacks and others, which has been cooking pork rinds on the South Side since 1947. The city may no longer be hog butcher to the world, but it’s still big in pigskin.

What to do with it: Besides munching with dips, hot sauce or salsa, you can use pork rinds in recipes, anywhere you need a bit of savory flavor and crunch. Crumble them as a replacement for breadcrumbs. Use them as a crispy garnish for soups, vegetables or salads. At Elate restaurant in River North, Chef Randal Jacobs skewers house-made chicharron with spinach leaves for his contemporary take on spinach salad. (Continue reading for his recipe.) You can even put them in desserts.

Elate’s spinach salad skewer
with chicharron, molten egg and creme

Chef Randal Jacobspork rinds

Homemade chicharron
Puffed pork rinds

The chicharron can be finished up to five days in advance, or you can substitute commercial pork rinds.

1 pound pork skin
2 quarts vegetable oil
Salt to taste

In a pan, unravel the pork skin and place it in the vegetable oil. (Tip: Remember always to preheat any liquid that you put into an oven. Taking off the chill of any liquid will cut down on your cooking time.) Place the pan in a 210-degree oven for 4 to 6 hours. Let cool. Remove the skin from the cooled oil and place on cooling rack with a pan below to catch drips; save the oil.

Turn down your oven to 100 degrees, or if you have a convection oven or dehydrator, just use the fan with no temperature (this works best). Dry out the skin for two days in the oven. After the second day, you will notice a fatty side and a skin side. Try to remove the extra fat from the fatty side that is still left on the skin; this will help for quicker drying. Place the skin back in the oven for one more day of drying. Once dried, the skin should be light in color and crispy. Break the skin into nickel-sized pieces. The pork skin can be prepared up to this point and stored in a zippered plastic bag for up to three weeks.

To puff the dried skin, bring the reserved oil to 325 degrees in a large pot or deep-fryer, and drop the dried skin into oil. Be careful to not overcrowd the oil, as the skins will expand. Remove the puffed skins with a slotted spoon and sprinkle with salt. These will last for five days after puffing, stored in a zippered plastic bag. Makes 1 pound.
Spinach salad skewers

Prepare the creme and vinaigrette one day in advance to help build the flavors.

Creme:
3 ounces creme fraiche
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Sherry vinaigrette:
1 small shallot, diced
3 chives, minced
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
6 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Spinach skewers:
4 10-inch wood skewers
1 head radicchio, rinsed clean and dried
1 pound baby spinach, rinsed clean and dried
1 head frisee, rinsed clean and dried
12 pieces chicharron

Molten eggs:
3 quarts water
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 quart ice
6 eggs, preferably organic free-range
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Oil for frying

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Mix the creme: In a bowl, mix the creme fraiche, buttermilk, white truffle oil, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.

Mix the sherry vinaigrette: Place the shallot and chives in a small bowl and cover with sherry vinegar and let macerate for 15 minutes. Add the grapeseed oil and salt and pepper to taste, mix to incorporate. Cover and let stand until serving time.

Assemble the spinach skewers: Using one wooden skewer, pierce the center of a piece of radicchio. Then pierce the center of a spinach leaf and repeat until you’ve built 1 inch of spinach onto the skewer. Next, pierce one piece of torn frisee (through the white portion) onto the skewer, then add a piece of chicharron.

Repeat the layering process until you have four 1-inch spinach stacks on your skewers and three frisee spacers. Do this for each of the four skewers, then trim/remove the spinach stems (use culinary shears or scissors).

Make the molten eggs: Bring 2 quarts water and vinegar to a boil in a saucepan. In a bowl, combine the remaining 1 quart water and ice. Gently place 5 eggs (have the extra one in case one breaks) in boiling water for 5 minutes and 20 seconds; remove immediately and put into ice bath. Once the eggs are cooled, peel and place them in cool water to hold.

Whisk the final egg in a small bowl. Take each peeled egg and dredge it first in flour, then beaten egg mixture and finally panko. Right before serving your salad, deep-fry the dredged egg in 350-degree oil for about 45 seconds

To serve: In each of 4 deep bowls, smear the creme. Take the salad skewers and toss them with the sherry vinaigrette.

Lay a skewer in each bowl, place the egg alongside and finish with a dusting of smoked paprika on the creme. This salad is best served with a steak knife and eaten tossed together after being presented to your guests. 4 servings.
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