Like many foods we grew up with and take for granted, I have somehow overlooked until now the humble fried bits of pork used on Kea as general flavoring for eggs, greens, and any vegetable or bean dish.
Kean women prepare it each winter with leftover scraps of pork and fat, after the traditional slaughtering and butchering of the family pig. In the old days, the bits were heavily salted so that they wouldn’t spoil as they were stored in clay jars to be used much like Maggi cubes –a common European food flavoring– throughout the year. Costas calls paspalas ‘the Kea bacon,’ but unlike bacon it is not smoked and it is already fried when you use it to flavor eggs and other dishes.
Read about Pig Slaughtering on Kea as I had described it at the Atlantic.
The importance of this rustic flavoring became apparent when I prepared it in the kitchen of Zaytinya—Jose Andres’ Greek and Middle Eastern restaurant, in Washington DC. During my annual January visit, a few years back, we were trying traditional winter dishes from Kea and other Cycladic islands for a pork and xinomavro wine feast, and Chef Michael Costa was immediately taken by paspalas’ intense and versatile flavor. We made several batches, using pieces of locally grown pork that the chef and his sous-chefs butchered in the kitchen. Besides the Kean scrambled eggs–also called ‘paspalas’ –we filled jars with the pork confit for future use. Bonnie Benwick, the former food editor of Washington Post got enamored with it, as well as with the eponymous scrambled eggs from Kea, and made the dish famous in her column!
HOW TO MAKE PASPALAS:
Scraps, bits and pieces of pork meat, leftover from the more serious butchering of the pork–preferably pieces from the breast– cut into small pieces.
It is important that the pieces have enough fat on them, or that additional pieces of fat will be added. Roughly 50-60 % fat to meat.
Salt, Black pepper, Cumin, All-spice
Plenty of fresh thyme, or winter savory if you happen to be on a Greek island (!)
Place the diced pork in a thick-bottomed sauté pan and add water just to half cover. Bring to a boil in medium heat, add salt, black pepper, a good pinch of cumin, all spice and a few sprigs of fresh thyme –stand in for our very fragrant winter savory.
Cook for about 30 minutes or more, until the meat is cooked through, and very tender. You may need to add a little more water as needed.
Increase the heat to high and cook until all water is evaporated.
At this point, I found that it is easier to transfer part of the pork and its juices to a smaller, truly non-stick sauté pan, or deep skillet and brown in batches.
As the pork fries in its fat it splatters and sticks to the bottom of any ordinary pan. If it does stick, transfer the pieces to a non-stick skillet and de-glaze the pan with some water. Add the flavorful bits to the skillet with the rest of the pork to sizzle in the fat, otherwise you will lose some of the flavor.
Fry the piece of pork (preferably in batches, so that you can have more control and less splattering) until they get a nice brown, adding more thyme and taste correcting the flavor with more salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Fill jars and make sure the meat is covered with fat on top. If when it cools you realize that there is not a layer of fat at the top, melt some lard and pour a thin film over the paspalas.
Refrigerated, the Kean pork confit can be kept for up to 2 months, but you can also freeze it, if you want to keep it longer.
See the Recipe: PASPALAS from Kea: Preserved Pork and Tomato Scrambled Eggs