Chef Michael Olson is Living High Off The Hog with his new cookbook of the same name. Before he went out on his book promotional tour, we got some time with Chef Olson and asked him our most pressing pork questions.
What is your favourite cut of pork to create recipes with?
This is a tough question because there are so many choices, each with its own qualities, and it also depends on the time of year (whether I'm grilling or braising) and what I'm craving. I'd have to say though, that the Capicola is my go-to and it's often overlooked so I feel like I'm always encouraging people to try it out. In its whole state, it makes a brilliant roast done simply in the oven, and is the best for a low-slow application on the smoker BBQ, covered with a spice rub and finished off with a tangy sweet sour sauce. It never dries out and has a rich, meaty flavour. You can also cut it into individual servings that can be grilled fairly quickly, pan fried, pounded and breaded as a cutlet, or braised with intense flavours like tomato, garlic and olives.
Why is buying local important to you?
I often shop according to the weather patterns and look for excellent local product to fit into our "fresh is best, local is freshest" approach to cooking at home. I have a variety of outlets for my food shopping but have a favourite independent butcher that I go to weekly (or more often). When I get there, I know where the meat came from, where it was processed, and in some cases, the person who drove the truck from point A to B. Not everyone is that engaged in their grocery shopping but I really am interested in these details. The shop where I go used to be an abattoir but now brings in primals or whole animals so whatever I ask for, they have. The people cutting the meat really know what they're doing, including making their own bacon, ham, salami, cooked and cured sausages and more. I see it as a real treat to get great, nutritious food from such a closed circle. If I want ground pork, I know that it was done in the last hour or two, or they'll do it on demand. If I ask for a particular cut or preparation, they know exactly what I'm looking for. To me, that's as cool as getting a custom made shirt done by a tailor. I also believe in the aspect of supporting community in your weekly household spending. If we never consider the fact that local businesses pay taxes, support community endeavors, live near us, and send their kids to the same schools as us, we're overlooking some pretty basic stuff. A community that has a strong, healthy food supply is a good one.
What is your favourite recipe in this book?
My favourite meal is usually the one I just had. I think my key recipe in the development of this book is one that I put a lot of energy into developing. It's the PORK-A-LEEKIE PIE where I cook a meat filling in pie pastry that is filled with ground pork, spices, diced ham hock, leeks, and hard cooked eggs. I serve it cold with a relish and it is both rustic and elegant. And it looks like a real treat. It certainly isn't the easiest recipe in the book but is ideal for preparing for the holidays, a big gathering at your home, or the dish that breaks the potluck - you know, when you arrive with a dish that everyone loves (and hates you for – Ha! Ha!).
In your opinion, what makes pork such a versatile protein?
There are a number of reasons, and I won't overlook two basic ones, first, it is available across the country in fresh and processed form, and it is really affordable. Also, pork has the ability to take on flavours for a whole range of preparations, and gives home cooks a bit of a blank canvas to work from; want Italian tonight? Or Thai, or BBQ, or German flavours? It all works with pork found in any grocery store. I also like the fact that if I want a bit of a lighter meal, I can get a full protein boost and not have a lot of fat, so I'm not left feeling uncomfortably stuffed. And last is the speed of cooking. If it's a Tuesday evening and I want dinner on the table in a short amount of time, I can buy ground, sausage, fast fry chops or even cut loin or tenderloin into small strips and the cooking time is just around 10 minutes or so. This is fast food done right if you ask me.
Why did you choose to dedicate an entire book to the “whole hog?”
I get a lot of question for advice and tips on buying and cooking meat because I spent a lifetime doing it. I originally pitched the idea of a whole range of meat cooking to the publisher but he asked me to narrow it down to a focus - and I replied "that's easy, we'll do pork". My intention was always to help those who end up buying the same cuts of meat and repeating one or two recipes that they know work for their family. My goal is to give them the base to broaden their cooking abilities and style. My foundation and the way the chapters are laid out is from the point of view of my favourite butcher in Niagara. When I walk in and look around, there's the deli cooler filled with ham and smoked items, then the cooler with ground and diced, next to it is the steaks and chops section, and finally there's the area filled with big cuts like roasts and ribs - the big cuts. These ended up being the chapters of the book.
Finally, what is your top tip for preparing perfect pork?
The question I get asked most often is "how can I cook a pork loin without drying it out?" In a nutshell, I suggest they cook it less. You can explain to people all day about how trichinosis is no longer an issue and how modern pork is leaner than it used to be. However, what I find people do by mistake is they cook pork the way they cook chicken. In other words, they buy and cook on the same day. Then they cook it too much because they think they have to. Even though the CFIA wants me to cook a lean muscle to 160 F, I know that if I use a thermometer and take it to 145 F then let it rest for 5 minutes, I'll end up with a juicy, tender slice of roast. I don't go overboard, if I served my mother-in-law rare roast pork, she wouldn't appreciate it, so I don't push the issue. I still go fully cooked for ground pork and sausage, and even higher for my BBQ shoulder and ribs.
Pick up your copy of Michael Olson’s Living High Off The Hog on September 17, 2019.