Pork slow-braised in milk is a mainstay of several cultures, believe it or not. I’m not sure who the first ancient was who decided tossing a big hunka meat in a pot o’ simmering milk was a good idea, but in retrospect, it was genius. It’s a dish I first became aware of in Italy, hence my title, but I’ve heard that Frenchies, Americanos, and even sexy Spaniards have taken successful stabs at it.
As I am wont to do when I get these hare-brained whims, I decided to sort of go global with my version. For example I reduced the goat milk that remained after the braise down into a cajeta-like caramel sauce, giving it a Mexican flair. Since I used Mangalitsa pig, which is an amazing Hungarian swine bred for fatty succulence (and brought to the US by Heath Putnam of Wooly Pigs), I decided to carry a Hungarian theme through the other aspects of the dish. I poached the apricots in sweet Hungarian Tokaji, and I made a spaetzle accompaniment which is dubious in origin itself. It’s technically called “nokedli” in Hungarian, and since Budapest is one of the greatest cities on the planet, in my head I believe it was them who birthed nokedli/spaetzle- one of the greatest pastas on the planet.
Despite all that globe-trotting, the affair remains rooted in locality. The Mangalitsa pork shoulder I used comes from local purveyor to the stars (The French Laundry and Herbfarm to name a few) Heath Putnam, who sells his Mangalitsa products in Seattle at the University District Farmer’s Market as well as via Bill the Butcher. The apricots are sun-ripened from a friend’s tree. The goat milk comes from Grace Harbor Farms in Custer, WA. Even though this meal takes inspiration from the great culinary traditions of the world, it is one that is easy to recreate using local products in an effort to promote sustainability.
The other problem I have with maiale al latte is that it is typically not the most aesthetically-pleasing of dishes. A giant blob of pork set a simmer in milk for hours on end does not result in a composed plate but rather a gloppy mess. I decided to take it a step further by shredding the resulting softened meat, then compressing it into discs that I ultimately coated in panko and pan-fried. I reduced the remaining pork-infused goat milk along with a little sugar down to a cajeta state that played nicely on the sweet/savory continuum and served as a pretty anchor to the various aspects of the plate. This was my first trial with all-semolina spaetzle; usually I use all-purpose flour instead. Semolina gave it a welcome density and it totally lacked any mushiness that is sometimes a problem with regular spaetzle. It also helps when spaetzle-making to plunge just-done spaetzle into an ice bath to stop cooking, then drain and dry them on towels. The final step with spaetzle is to fry them up for extra crispness, which I did in some of the pork fat I separated off the milk before I reduced it to cajeta.
I should note that I did my “braise” in the sous vide machine- opting for 180° F for 18 hours. Because I don’t have a cryovac, I froze the milk before I put it in the bag with the Mangalitsa shoulder so that I could vacuum seal it without the liquid getting into the sealer element. This is a great way to seal braising liquids, broths, et cetera as it ensures you get an airtight bag. I thought apricots would complement both the cajeta and the pork, so I poached them in Tokaji along with some chamomile from the garden and a vanilla pod. My interpretation of maiale al latte may not be traditional, but it kind of kicked ass. The quality of each individual ingredient added to the greatness of the whole, and despite some technical steps, this really is a showcase of simple combinations working together beautifully to bring out the best in every element.