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Recipe Tuesday: Crispy Pork Skin with Green Salsa

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The CuttingBoard.com Kitchen warmly welcomes Chef David Harold as our guest food blogger. David is an accomplished cook that specializes in authentic, latin inspired recipes stemming from his residence in the bustling city of Mexico City.

Being fortunate enough to have someone cook great meals for you as a kid – the kind that often prompted me to ditch my friends on the playground – is a blessing. If it hadn’t been for one extra-special grandmother growing up, I may not have been exposed to quality, home cooked meals until I had already “eaten out of a box” too many times and decided that chicken nuggets were the tastiest treat for a growing boy.

My cooking story begins in the early 80s with that personal influence, and blossomed in my mid-20s when Grandma had passed on and left me hungering for rustic style meals – literally. The on-the-go lifestyle of going to school had slowly but surely led me into the default eating habits of most young men of my age. Eating became more of a necessity in between work tasks than something that was enjoyed. Deep down I missed the nutritious meals I had enjoyed as a kid, but had other priorities that I considered equally as important. When a friend of mine became a franchise owner and asked if I would be interested in working in the restaurant business, I took a job as a 24-hour restaurant manager in South Central Texas (Port Lavaca) and began my cooking career not as a short order cook or dishwasher like so many, but at the top of the proverbial chain. Embarrassed by my lack of skills at the time, it wasn’t too long until I was training new hires on the nuances of chopping onions and how to serve up those perfect sunny-side up breakfast dishes. However, all of our goods were purchased from a big chain food distributor. The menu was preset due to franchising requirements and there was absolutely no room for creativity.

Years later, thousands of miles away from where I grew up, I found myself doing a three week work stint in Costa Rica in which I constantly devoured take out, rubbery proteins, and frozen fried dishes that finally sent me over the edge. When you’ve been exposed to food that has been prepared with time and love, it is easy to identify store bought food no matter how many spices get mixed in with breading before something is unceremoniously dumped into a deep fryer. The run-of-the-mill restaurant depends heavily on pre-cooked sides that are refrigerated and served up to the day of their expiration date (something you can taste immediately with enough experience). Most food distributors that deliver to “California Style” eateries preserve their food to last longer; meaning it must be served piping hot in order to bring out any of the spices (or artificial flavors) that have been added. Proteins served under these conditions usually become extremely tough or bland after spending only a couple of minutes under a heat lamp, and to-go meals generally serve as sustenance rather than actual nutrition. When all is said and done, dining out is a sure-fire way to an unhealthy lifestyle… and my body had begun telling me that it was time to make nutrition a higher priority. It was during my final meal in Costa Rica that consisted of three-day-old chili with stale bread that motivated me to make a change as soon as I got back home.

When I did finally get back to the place I now call home (Mexico City since 1997), I spent the next six months cooking every meal for myself without exception. Sure, there were a few throwaways and failed experiments, but through practice and desire I quickly found that the key to putting “beauty on a plate” (a term used in Mexico to describe well-cooked meals) depended much less on natural skill and much more on one’s willingness to allocate time and love; transforming that into meals similar to what I had grown up with. Those meals were appetizing, delicious and left guests asking when they could return for more home-cooked goodness.

This is my food story.

Recipe: Chicaroon en Salsa Verde (Pork Skin with Green Tomato Sauce)

Growing up in a Southern border state where being bilingual is a coveted asset, the rise in popularity of Tex-Mex dishes comes as no surprise. I definitely had my share of the ground-beef dominant main courses that are smothered in cheese with “meat gravy” and accompanied by rice and beans – a real treat if you’ve never been exposed to such food. However, true Mexican cuisine is not what many people who live in the states say it is. Here in the Central region of the country of Mexico where I’ve lived for over 16 years, the local meal times are vastly different from what we’re used to as Americans, no one takes “siestas” anymore, and proteins are typically used as a food to complete a meal rather than dominate it.

In this article, I’d like to share my recipe for Chicharron en Salsa Verde, otherwise known as Pork Skins in Green Tomato Sauce. For this dish, I’m using the old stand-by of rice and beans and showing how this dish can be enjoyed on its own or as a hearty soup.

To begin with, pork skins are commonly sold in local markets and basically come in two different presentations, con carnitas or sin carnitas (with or without meat on the skin). A good place to find pork skins (usually sold in sheets that are at least 12” x 12”) is in a specialty market located in areas that have large Latin American populations. One of my favorite places to go shopping as a kid was Market Square in San Antonio. When purchasing pork skins that are ready to consume (meaning pre-fried), you’ll notice that the pork skin portion on one side has squares of meaty goodness that are attached while the other does not. When it comes to Latin America, one’s preference for con carnitas or sin carnitas is as highly debated as his or her favorite soccer team. Personally, I prefer the salty taste of having the “meat attached” but typically will mix the two together in order to achieve a balance that fits my palate.

INGREDIENTS (MEAL FOR SIX)

1/2 lb. Fried Pork Skins
1/2 lb. SMALL Green Tomatoes (called “tomatillos” in Spanish)
1 Cup Fresh Cilantro
3 Serrano Chiles
1 Garlic Clove
1/4 Onion
2 Cups Water
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 lb. Corn Tortillas

Note: Salt should not be added as an ingredient due to the high salt content of the pork skins.

Step 1: Grilling the green tomatoes, chiles, garlic (last two minutes) and onion. In Mexico, the proper way of grilling vegetables is with a shallow pan called a “Comal.” If you don’t have a Comal handy, don’t fret, a non-stick frying pan will work as a substitute. Do not put any oil into the pan – as we’re aiming for a slightly blackened end result. This process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes as long as your cooking surface is adequately hot. Feel free to rotate your produce when one side begins to blacken. In this step, we’re looking to add a flavor profile to our “chile sauce” that will be used to soften the pork skins in. Remember that your garlic should only be added at the very end so it doesn’t burn.

Step 2: Begin heating up an appropriately sized sauce pot. Take chiles, garlic, onion, and raw cilantro. Blend all four together with 1 cup of water. Place liquefied produce in the sauce pot on medium heat. Since we’re cooking a sauce with high water content on moderate to low heat and subsequently adding the pre-fried, oily pork skins, it isn’t necessary to add any oil.

Step 3: Blend Green Tomatoes with 1 Cup of Water. When mixture is liquefied, strain out the seeds using a wire mesh colander and then pour into the sauce pot (from Step 2) together with the other mixture. Add 1 Cup of Chicken Stock. Cook at soft boil for 10 minutes.

Step 4: Place pork skins in the sauce. Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until pork skins have the desired texture (I prefer mine slightly crunchy – that way the meat part of the pork skin is slightly crunchy and naturally very salty while the base of the pork skins is extremely soft).

Step 5: Once finished, plate (in this case I cooked rice and beans to accompany). Warm the corn tortillas up on the comal and then serve in taco form or simply use the tortillas as you dine.

From start to finish, this meal took 30 minutes to cook and plate. I served six people (myself and my neighbors) and the spice was extremely mild… milder than I had anticipated since I put in three Serrano peppers. Of course, you can adjust the ingredients to your liking. The feedback on the meal was overwhelmingly positive, but when I prodded for more information and critique, I was told that I should have used more chiles. I would still recommend using three or less Serrano chiles if your palette is not accustomed to the spicy heat produced from grilled chiles.

Observations

Refried beans likely won’t be a good fit for this dish because of the textures involved, but you can easily serve the whole beans along with the pork skins in a bowl with the rice on the side for a more “hearty” experience – just remember to include broth from both the beans and chicharron.

Traditionally speaking, spice is an integral part of Mexican dishes (we can cover the different variations of chile in a later article). My preference is for a mild spice profile but there are other popular preparations such as mole that may not be particularly spicy but have so many other combinations of spices that it can be harsh on an untrained stomach.

For my version of chicharron, the best method is medium to medium-low heat in a medium-sized sauce pan. This will give you a reasonable amount of control over the blending of spices while allowing you to taste whether or not the spice is too strong. I purposely made the rice and beans a little “blander” that I normally would since I knew I would be blending the three into taco form. I also had a nice wedge of homemade queso panela enchilado (panela cheese with chile flakes) that I decided to grab at the last minute to give the taco a different overall flavor profile as well as a little extra salt.

Some of our readers may not be fans of dairy products, but I find that balancing out a nice spicy dish with fresh milk does wonders – to each his/her own.

That’s it for this recipe and write-up. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about a very popular, traditional Mexican dish and I look forward to providing more of my insight and recipes in the future. Feel free to leave a comment any time and be sure to let me know your version of Chicharron en Salsa Verde.

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