Long Beach, Calif. — Buying meat is a frustrating business for most people these days. Chicken and turkey are still affordable, but all those erstwhile budget-stretchers such as fish, liver, heart, and stew meat are far from the great bargains that they once were. Lamb and most cuts of beef are reserved for special occasions. Even our old standby, hamburger, is rapidly creeping into the luxury class.
Pork, however, is in good supply, and if you think big, it can be every bit as wise a buy as chicken or turkey. By buying a large cut of pork and cutting it up yourself, you not only save money but gain the freedom of deciding exactly how large a roast you want or exactly how many pork cutlets to slice.
One of the greatest money savers is the fresh picnic shoulder, which is the foreleg of the pig with a portion of the shoulder. It's usually priced at 99 cents a pound but is often a "special" at 79 cents a pound, and that's when I stock up. You will be able to cut this meat into other pork cuts, all of which sell at a higher price.
Pork pieces for chop suey were selling for $2.19 a pound at my supermarket this week so if you should decide to cut all of your pork into cubes, you'd be more than doubling the worth of your meat dollar. That's a very tidy savings when you consider the amount of work involved.
First, you must have a sharp knife. Other than that, no special talent is required even if you are not handy with a knife. It took me almost half an hour to bone my first fresh picnic, but I can now do it in ten minutes.
The first step is to remove the hock. Locate the joint and disjoint, exactly as you would remove a chicken leg. Everybody has a favorite way of cooking pork hocks. You can cook it with lentils or sauerkraut, or cook up an old- fashioned pot of greens and potatoes.
I like mine for beans. The last one I had served as the basis for the famous Senate navy bean soup. Augmented with a tossed salad and hot biscuits, it was a meal to remember.
There's only one bone left to remove and you can begin at either end. Cut slowly all around it and proceed to work your way carefully all the way down. I found it easier, by far, than carving a cooked shoulder roast and a lot more fun. There will be some meat clinging to the bone so cook it along with the hock for extra flavor.
Now comes the hardest part of the entire operation, deciding exactly what you want to do with this boneless, beautiful piece of meat, weighing approximately 6 pounds. I usually slice enough cutlets for dinner from the largest end. Slice them as thinly as possible and, if you have an electric knife, now's the time to use it. What's left can be cut in half, rolled and tied for two roasts. You may decide to have only one roast and cube or grind the rest. Use the ground pork for patties, meat loaf, or sausage.
There is no meat more versatile than pork cubes. They can be threaded on skewers for barbecued kabobs or marinated for pork teriyaki. Add to egg foo yung or mince and make spring rolls.
Perhaps the best idea of all is to set aside a Saturday morning for a tamalemaking session. It takes time and work, but it's fun for the entire family. Even the youngest member will revel in his task of cooking and drying corn husks. An older child can mix the masa, literally child's play now that instant masa is available in almost every market. The homemade tamale is in a class by itself, nothing at all like the ones sold frozen or canned. There's no better way to stretch your meat dollar so make several dozen while you're at it.
There are thousands of recipes from all over the world that feature cubes of pork. Don't forget chop suey or our perennial favorite, sweet and sour pork. Pork fried rice is a quickly prepared main dish that everyone seems to relish, and pork adobo and sate become more popular each day.
When there are cuts such as the fresh picnic waiting in your butcher's meat case, you can see that there are still bargains available at the meat counter, but only if you're as sharp as your knife.