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Lard Almighty

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As a long-distance runner (and consequently a pretty good calorie burner), I've never had to be overly concerned with my weight or cholesterol level...until recently, that is. What an unfortunate coincidence that my next Tasting & Testing journey would be yummy, can't-get-enough Summer Fruit Pies--just wait for August!

Nick Fauchald, my editor—and a true youngster with a metabolism to match (curse him!)—insists that pie crusts made with pork lard are the best. But when it comes to pastry, I've always been a butter gal (it's more feminine, I think), sometimes throwing in a bit of vegetable shortening when I'm feeling a little trashy. But I thought I'd take Nick's challenge.

First of all, I had a bear of a time finding real lard, not the stuff in the green and white box you find in any supermarket. That stuff is totally unnatural and is just as bad for you as partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening.

My search yielded nada—even from my go-to pork store, Esposito's-so I bought solid leaf lard (the fatty stuff surrounding the kidneys—apparently it's the best...mmmm!) from a vendor at the Union Square Greenmarket and rendered it myself. Here's how easy it is:

In a large saucepan, combine two pounds leaf lard that's been chilled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes with 1/4 cup water and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered and the pork bits are crispy and golden (they're called cracklings—sprinkle 'em with salt and add to a salad dressed with ranch dressing —oh God, is that good!). Don't let the solids get too dark, or the lard will be gamey. Strain the melted lard into a glass measure, through an ultra-fine sieve, and refrigerate until chilled. Wrap and freeze any lard you don't use right away. Makes 4 cups.

I'm not sure if I agree with Nick—I still love my all-butter crusts. But lard crusts ARE delicious, especially when made with fresh lard. They have a deep, not-quite-meaty flavor, but a savory richness that butter alone doesn't lend. And because lard is pure, 100-percent fat (butter has some milk solids) the result is a flaky, tender crust that melts in your mouth (not mine...sadly).

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

Run with chefs and wine experts in the Celebrity Chef 5K and dance all night at Gail Simmons’ Last Bite Dessert Party during the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, June 20-22.