Wednesday, August 3, 2011

PORK CUTS - Pernil (Fresh Ham)

A big social event in Brazil, be it a wedding reception, Christmas Eve dinner for the entire family including Great-Aunt Joana, or a young girl's 15th-birthday coming-out party, the main course for the meal might be turkey, but it's much more likely that it will be type of roast pork eminently suitable for serving a crowd. Something called pernil. This pork roast is cut from the animal's rear haunches and in the English-speaking world, it's known as fresh ham.

It's called fresh ham because the same cut of meat, smoked or cured, already has the "rights" to the word ham. When people think of ham the first thing that comes to mind is not a fresh cut of meat but rather a cured, aged or smoked one that goes into a ham 'n' cheese sandwich, or is roasted on Easter sunday decorated with canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. It's odd, actually. One would think that the generic term ham would refer to the natural, untreated cut, and that we'd say something like cured ham, or smoked ham when talking about the processed variety. But it's the other way around in English. The processed variety gets the generic name, and the natural product has to be described in detail to differentiate it.

Portuguese doesn't have this problem at all. The fresh cut of meat is called pernil, and the smoked or cured presunto. Clean, simple and straightforward.

Depending on the size of the pig that is slaughtered, a fresh ham can be a very large piece of meat - part of the reason why it works so well in serving a multitude. A full ham averages about 10-12 lbs (4.5-5 kg) boneless, and up to 20 lbs (9 kg) with the bone in. As the main course for a substantial meal, or as part of a buffet, a single ham can serve up to 30 people.

Pernil is a very popular cut of meat in Brazil. Part of its popularity is due to the fact that it's a very tasty cut of meat, but I'm sure that it's very low price point bumps up its popularity by a notch or two. Meat is normally much cheaper in Brazil than in North America or Europe, and this is especially true with almost any cut of pork. A check this week at a local butcher shop here in Fortaleza indicated a per-pound price for whole pernil of R$3.00 or USD$1.80.

Brazilians eat a lot of cured ham too, but mostly in the form of processed deli meats - sliced for sandwiches or cold-cut plates. A baked ham is rarely spotted at the dining table. It's pernil that shows up there, though it's often marinaded for a day or so before cooking to season it a bit and to firm up the meat. Next time round on Flavors of Brazil, we'll detail how to marinade and roast an entire fresh ham Brazilian-style. It's a spectacular cut of meat for a banquet, a real crowd-pleaser. And it needn't break the bank.

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