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Recently, a friend called me up and ruined my day. He had just returned from a trip to Corsica, and described in great detail the salted pork cheeks he had smuggled back with him. "It's all fat," he said, "with just a little meat in the center. It's like lardo. You slice it thin and it becomes translucent on a piece of toast. It's heaven!"
Then he threw in the fact that he had already finished it all, and laughed. Evil. I sat back in my very un-Corsica-esque beige cubicle and wept. Well, not quite, but I wanted some pork fat and I wanted it bad. I always do, but he had stirred my lard lust into an absolute craving.
Lardo, one of the great joys in life, can be had in New York, but I was jealous of his discovery. I wanted a brave new fat of my own.
When you step off the Q train in Brighton Beach, the slightly fishy ocean air may be striking, but when you step into M & I International Food, a sprawling market on Brighton Beach Avenue, the smell of pork in endless forms is like music to your nose. The store carries baked goods, smoked fish, pickles of all kinds (try the watermelon), and lots of beer, but the long sausage counter is the most impressive.
The Russian women who work in the store have a look that's hard to place. Their hair is dyed in different solid colorssome orange, some dark brown, some yellow. They wear white aprons, blue vests and serious expressions.
The smoked sausages are mouth-watering, but something else catches my eye: A tray piled with snow-white rectangular hunks sitting by the register. "What's this?" I ask. The orange-haired woman looks a little bewildered. "Fat." What am I, an idiot? Next to that is a similar product, but the smoked version, with a mahogany shell and the same pure ivory center. I take samples of each, plus a kind of bacon encrusted with pepper and caraway seeds.
At home, my first experiment is a direct rebuttal to my friend's description of toast with melting pork cheek fat. I rinse the copious salt off the smoked and un-smoked blocks and cut off a few slices, as thin as I can. The end result does not resemble the delicate sheets of lardo I have known, as I do not own a deli slicer, and the fat is not cold enough to be very firm. Nevertheless, I lay it on some rye bread and pop it in the oven, turning on the light, eager to watch it melt. A lot of the fat does liquefy and is absorbed by the bread, resulting in a deliciously salty, fatty toast experience. But the thicker parts of the fat curl up in the heat and are not so appealing.
Perhaps this fat will be best for cooking. That's what I do with the bacon. I cut it into lardons and let it crisp up in a cast iron skillet, rendering lots of tasty fat at the same time, and then drop in some bitter greens. Now I've gone from France and Italy to Russia, to the American South, all on the fat of pigs.