A dish of chitterlings claims pride of place on the soul food table, along with dishes like corn bread, black-eyed peas and collard greens. Chitterlings are the small intestines of young pigs -- one of many ways in which down-home cooks ensure that little of a butchered animal goes to waste. To mitigate problematic aspects of chitterlings, which include heightened potential for food poisoning, a tough texture and gamy taste, proper preparation and creative cooking is crucial.
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Because the uncooked intestines are a virtual playground for food pathogens, it's important to properly handle both the chitterlings and the equipment used to process them. Always store or thaw refrigerated chitterlings in a well-wrapped package, preferably on a plate or tray to catch drippings. Thoroughly cleaning your hands and kitchen equipment after each stage of working with the intestines is also crucial.
Washing raw chitterlings in several changes of water will get your safe cooking process off to a sanitary start. Follow this up by mixing a large bowl of water with about 2 cups of white vinegar. Some cooks also add large amounts of salt to the soaking mix. After adding the intestines to the water-vinegar solution, soak them for about 30 minutes. The final stage in the cleaning stage involves boiling the chitterlings for 5 to 10 minutes in a large stockpot. After they've drained, you can proceed with your preferred cooking method.
Simmering Soul Food
Stewing chitterlings can either serve as their main cooking method, or as a tenderizing and flavoring stage prior to other cooking methods, such as frying. For every 1 pound of chitterlings you're stewing, figure on using about about 1 quart of water or chicken stock. Aromatics vary according to the recipe, but a basic stew usually involves several handfuls of chopped vegetables such as onions, carrots and celery. Seasonings include bay leaves, peppercorns and salt. These ingredients all simmer together for about 2 hours.
Once the chitterlings have finished simmering, they present several serving options. For the simplest presentation, scoop the stewed chitterlings out of their broth with a slotted spoon and use them as an entree, along with cooked greens, rice or cornbread. Or if you prefer, include a little of the cooking liquid when removing the intestines, and spoon the soupy pieces over a big bowl of noodles. When chopped finely and mixed with sour ingredients like pickles or a vinegar-rich salsa, chitterlings add a Southern twist to tacos.
When you're in the mood for a crispier texture than simple stewed chitterlings can provide, take them from the stew pot to the saute pan. After they've simmered for a couple of hours in stock or water, the intestines are removed from the stockpot, patted dry and seasoned with salt, pepper and the spices of your choice. Then they go into a hot saute pan in which a few spoonfuls of vegetable oil is already heated. The chitterlings will turn brown and crispy after 5 to 8 minutes.
To ensure that fried chitterlings are tender and flavorful under their crust, don't omit the stewing step. After being stewed, cut into bite sized pieces, dipped in a beaten egg and dredged in bread crumbs, chitterlings are ready for the deep-frying pan. Use 1 to 2 inches of vegetable or peanut oil to fry the chitterlings and wait until the oil reaches 370 degrees Fahrenheit before putting the intestines in the pan. They're ready to eat when they turn golden brown.
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