Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pig's Head

Pig's Head with Torch

Crispy Pig's Ear with Salt and Cornmeal

Last night was a night I had been looking forward to for some time; the chance to cook a bit of simple English countryside fare, the boiled pig's head. It's not actually boiled, of course, but rather simmered in water seasoned with two onions, two carrots, two stalks of celery, two leeks, the zest of two lemons, a handful of black peppercorns contained in a bit of cheesecloth, two bay leaves, and a handful of fresh herbs. This is the standard method as favored by Chef Fergus Henderson. My good friend Josh was along for the ride, just as excited as I.

Our pig's head came already shaved by the butchers at La Esquinita, saving me some time. I touched up a few spots they missed, and singed the rest of the hairs with a quick blast of a blow torch. The butchers had already opened up and shaved the ears, which was nice, and I cut them off and cooked them along with the head. The ears were simmered for an hour, while the rest of the head was simmered for about 2.5 hours, or until the cheeks began to separate from the skull.

After the first hour, I carefully removed and dried the ears. I julienned them and deep fried them at 375ºF. Be very careful if you attempt this as the oil WILL splatter. My best advice is to drop them in the oil, stir them quickly, and cover with a lid to keep the oil at bay. Definitely keep a fire extinguisher handy, because this can get out of control. Fry them for a minute or so, and remove to an oil wicking rig (I like newspaper, but many people frown on that). Salt immediately. Be careful not to fry them too crispy. I fried the first batch a little too much, and they became rather chewy (they will, of course, be a little chewy, but that's part of the charm).

Crispy Pig Ears are 100% delicious. They make an excellent snack or garnish for a variety of foods. Pig's ears can be found frozen at Alwan's if anybody is interested. I strongly urge you to try these, and I plan to pick some up next time I get over there. Really, they are very tasty, and even if you're grossed out by any of the other meats, try the ears. Just do it.

An hour and a half later, the rest of the pig's head came out. Believe me, this is no easy feat. It was quite humorous to see Josh struggling with this pig's head trying not to rip the skin, drop it, or burn himself. He accomplished two of the three goals. As I began to carve the head, we came across many different meats, fats, organs, and other delicacies. I say "other" because I'm not sure how to classify the snout. It's not really fat, but it's not meat either; just really sticky, like so many other parts of the head.

You might want to make a nice vinaigrette and coat some decent greens, as well as the meat, to make a lovely salad. Top with the crispy pig ears to add a contrast in texture. If you don't want to eat all the extra fat (and I don't blame you), render it down and make lard. It's really easy, and lard has much less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter! Believe me, I had to look it up (lard, however, has a few more calories).

Eating this pig's head was an experience I'll never forget, and will definitely do again. The richness is almost over the top, and I definitely wouldn't consume this before getting your cholesterol checked. There wasn't as much meat on the head as I had imagined, but Josh and I were very full by the end of the night. Josh's favorite portion was the cheek meat, and mine was probably the meat just under eyes on the side of the snout. I don't think there was anything that we didn't try. We even ate the roof of the pig's mouth after Josh jokingly suggested we do so. The ultimate epiphany of the night, however: eyeball trumps tonsils, hands down.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Braised Beef Shanks

Beef Shanks were had for $2.69/# at Alwan's in Peoria; not a bad deal, I thought. I can't actually take complete credit for this recipe, as I used a demi-glace made by Chef Kevin. His sauce included dried cherries, wild mushrooms, Westphalian Ham, and cherry brandy. I was fortunate enough to obtain some of this sauce that was leftover from an event, and I thought it would make a great braising liquid. It did. Nice work, Kevin!

First, I dredged the beef shanks in some properly seasoned flour, and browned them on all sides. I placed them in my pre-heated crock pot, and sautéed some carrots, onions, and garlic in the pan. I deglazed with a touch of Merlot, reduced, and added the leftover sauce. That was brought to a boil and added to the awaiting beef shanks. The sauce nearly covered them. I lidded up the crock pot, set it on high, and braised for about 2 hours.

Fortunately, most of the marrow remained in the bone and I was able to slather it on some crusty bread. Absolutely divine. I served the beef shanks over a "Risotto ala Milanese", made from Trader Joe's Saffron and some Asiago Cheese from Walnut, Illinois (also available at Alwan's). So it wasn't exactly traditional risotto, but it was a damn good substitute.

In any case, I could die a very happy man having never consumed another filet mignon. Braise, Baby, Braise!

Monday, February 9, 2009

(Insert your favorite offal joke here)

Ragù of Beef Cheeks with Whole Wheat Penne, and Bruchetta with Anchovy Butter

My good friend Josh and I had the pleasure of cooking together this weekend, which is always loads of fun. Josh, who also happens to be a chef, got a great deal on some beef cheeks, so we decided to put together a nice ragù.

Step One: Trim the cheeks. Render some pancetta in a Dutch Oven or other braising vessel, reserving the meat. Add some extra lard to the pan if available.

Step Two: Dredge the cheeks in well seasoned flour and sauté until browned. Remove the meat from the pan. Add a soffritto of celery, carrots, onions, garlic, and sliced crimini mushrooms. Be careful not to burn the garlic! Deglaze with a liberal amount of dry red wine (Italian would be a nice touch). Add a can of San Marzano Tomatos.

Step Three: Place the meat back in the pan, and add enough beef stock or demi-glace to mostly cover the meat. Season with black pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook in a 325ºF oven for about three hours. Add some fresh thyme during the last 30 minutes of cooking.

Step Four: Remove the meat and roughly chop (remove the bay leaf). Reduce the braising liquid, if necessary, to sauce consistency. Add the meat back into the sauce. Season. Serve over pasta. Garnish with a quality Parmesan Cheese.

For the Bruchetta: In a mortar and pestle, mash one anchovy fillet and a pinch of salt into a paste. Add three ounces of cold fresh butter and the smallest bit of finely ground black pepper. Work into a spreadable mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate for about an hour. Place on the counter to warm. Dry toast a few slices of bread under the broiler, and rub with a clove of garlic. Spread a thin layer of the butter on the bread. Garnish with a pinch of good sea salt and a few capers.