Since practically the beginning of time — or at least, since life has been worth living — various cuts of pork have been rubbed with salt and hung in cool, dry cellars to cure. Thanks to the widespread charcuterie trend that shows no signs of slowing, Dallas diners are accustomed to eating cured pig products from all over the globe. Prosciutto, chorizo, and even their slightly more esoteric cousins like coppa and guanciale have become fairly commonplace, but one kind of cured pork that's popping up on more and more menus these days doesn't even involve any meat: Lardo is pure, delicious fat.
Lardo has been made in Italy since Roman times, and was traditionally cured in basins made of natural marble that served as a sort of a Mother Nature-made curing cellar. In terms of preparation, it is similar to English fatback, or what Americans in the South would call "salt pork," which is traditionally used to add richness and flavor to collard greens and beans. Lardo has a familiar porky, buttery flavor, but it's the silky texture that is truly seductive.
Lardo can be found on several local menus these days. At Thirteen Pies in Fort Worth, the menu includes a clever lardo-topped pie with spicy Calabrian chiles, garlic, and pecorino cheese that's an updated holdover from the restaurant's previous life as Fireside Pies. John Tesar's Knife also features the cured fat in a few dishes, including dry-aged beef meatballs with lardo melted over the tops. The extensive cured meats selection at Casa Rubia includes the must-try lardo ibérico de bellota, made from acorn-fed pigs; there it's served wrapped around something crisp, such as a pickled sunchoke, for some textural contrast.
At Hibiscus on Henderson Avenue, chef Graham Dodds is curing his own. Dodds buys whole pigs from Falster Farm in Winnsboro, which gives him 250 to 300 pounds of pork that needs to be utilized quickly. Much of the pork will be used for entrees and the restaurant's popular charcuterie board, but Dodds seeks out a pristine patch of the pigs' massive fat cap in order to make lardo. On the largest pigs, this sweet spot on the back of the animal can be as many as four inches deep.
Besides serving it on the restaurant's nightly charcuterie board, Dodds cuts lardo into thick chunks and braises it with white beans for five hours for a decadent cassoulet. "The French probably hate me for bastardizing their dish with an Italian ingredient," says Dodds with a laugh, "But this is America. We can do that here, right?" He's also served it with a white bean bruschetta, and even shaved it over raw oysters for a rich garnish that beats the hell out of a traditional mignonette.
Some calorie-conscious Dallas diners might not be too keen on the idea of eating slices of pure fat, but as Chef Dodds says: Animal fat, especially from properly raised animals, is good for you. Besides, you can always go one of those damn juice cleanses tomorrow.