Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Porchetta di Testa

Our ingredients.

Not too long ago, there was a Pig's Head at Spro. Some of you may have been wondering why a pig's head would be at a coffee bar - well, here's why.

During my trip to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association show, I had the opportunity to view a demonstration by Chris Cosentino of San Francisco's Incanto restaurant. Chris is an avid devotee of all things offal and awful - those nasty bits that most people fear. Pancreas, brains and whatever assorted oddity that usually gets lopped off at the meat factory - if it's considered offensive by the mainstream, he's ready to prepare and eat it.

Midway through deboning the head.

Chris was giving a demonstration on how to make a porchetta from a pig's head. I was thrilled. I was fascinated. In our little world of Baltimore, I only hear or read about things such as this. I rarely get to taste this kind of cuisine and I certainly never get to see it prepared. Chris was at the show giving a quick and dirty demo on just how to do it and I paid rapt attention.

It was my mission to make it at home and prepare it with an eye towards including it in our repertoire at project hampden. Sure, I could bring it to The Spro in Towson, but once our friendly suburban clientele heard they were eating pig's head with tongue, they'd be running for the nearest Starbucks.

Ah, lovely cheek meat and skin!

Fully seasoned and ready to roll.

As soon as I returned from Chicago, I gave David Smith at Springfield Farm a call. Order me a pig's head from the abbatoir as soon as possible, please. That Thursday, along with our usual order of eggs, came a pig's head in a plastic bag. I left it sitting on the back bar of The Spro as our proud testament of exciting things to come.

The results were expected and amusing. Our customer, who by now are getting used to certain strange antics with coffee, were a mixture of surprise, shock, disgust and intrigue. They wanted to know why? Why was there a pig's head sitting on the counter? What were we doing with it? Those who knew our penchant for going outside the box with coffee drinks tentatively asked (with great concern) if the pig's head was somehow going to be an ingredient in some coffee concoction.

Rest assured, I told them, this pig's head was destined for other things than your demitasse cup.

Mariano assists in the wrapping and rolling of the porchetta.

With the pig's head slung over one shoulder and my knife roll tucked under the other arm, I headed over to Woodberry Kitchen to use their prep kitchen and their supply of curing salt (since I didn't have any of my own). Making the porchetta is pretty straightforward - simply take the pig's head, slice it down the center from the tip of lower mouth and start cutting the skin and flesh away from the skull. In anticipation of this, I had spent part of my afternoon at The Spro sharpening my boning knife with an assortment of Japanese wet stones. Razor sharp knives are an essential necessity.

The tricky parts of the skinning process is to keep as much of the cheek meat intact and not to puncture the skin. The butcher already has removed parts of the skin around the eyes to check for disease so holes are to be expected. You also want to keep the ears attached and the snout intact as it will be an integral part of the porchetta.

Six hours of sous vide.

Trimming around the skull isn't as difficult as it may sound. In fact, it's pretty easy. Just make sure to keep as much meat intact as possible. Then, once the skull has been deboned, pull the mouth open and start cutting out the tongue from the base of the throat. I should also note that you should check the end of the skull (where it has been severed from the body) for the glands - remove them if they are still there and discard.

Did I mention that you should have made sure to shave or burn off any and all hairs that may be remaining on the animal? Or that you need to remove the "skin" of the tongue? Be sure to do so unless you like the feeling of stubble in your charcuterie.

The pig's head finished, cured and chilled for three days.

A great way to judge the suitability of a girl is their reaction to the pig's head - especially in these moments of extreme disembowelment. Some girls can't stand the sight of it, others are interested and even a few are excited by the prospects - we call these girls "keepers." Amy S. is one of those girls who just wanted to hang out and watch it all being done. Sexy.

From there, simply layout the head, skin side down and flap the ears under to cover the open gaps in the skin where the eyes once were. Sprinkle with curing salt then season with salt, black pepper, aleppo pepper, crushed garlic and rosemary (or whatever else you fancy). Now's the time for the challenge.

Unwrapped and ready to slice.

It seems that nothing excites an Italian cook more than the making of traditional Italian cuisine. I don't know how traditional this porchetta really is but once Mariano laid his eyes on the beast he was very excited and wanted to be a part of it. Hailing from Argentina and working at a Michelin one star in Italy, Mariano is as die hard as any Italian. To him, cooks just don't "know" pasta. He's even got some roe laden fish salted, hanging and drying somewhere around Woodberry - just in case.

Place the tongue, with the thick side tucked into the snout, in the center of the head and roll the whole thing together from one side. You're approximating the look of the head with the roll but it will still be a roll that just has a snout. Chris Cosentino recommends tying the roll with twine or running it through a butcher's netting machine but Mariano had a better idea: just roll the sucker with plastic wrap.

The detail of the gelatin is amazing.

After some careful moments (and quite a bit of plastic wrap), the pig's head was rolled and formed. And big. The sucker was pretty large. Too large, in fact, to fit in any of the vacuum bags in Woodberry's inventory. I had to take it home.

Back at the house, with a custom cut FoodSaver bag at the ready, I vacuum sealed the head inside the bag and let it cure in the refrigerator overnight. By Friday afternoon, it would be time to cook.

At three o'clock on Friday, I filled up a large Cambro with water and got the circulator from PolyScience working. 85C for six hours. By the time I came back at eleven that night, the porchetta was done and the waiting begins.

Slicing it thin.

Once the porchetta has been cured and cooked, it needs to be chilled quickly in an ice water bath and then cured in the refrigerator for at least two days. I opted for three days rest before calling some friends to invite them to sample the new porchetta and since my slicer is at Woodberry, it would have to be done there.

As the head came out of the bag and was unwrapped, I was a bit thrown off. What looked like plastic wrap fused onto the porchetta was actually the gelatin taking the shape of the wrap. The gelatin was beautiful. Amazing. I stared at it in wonder for ten minutes.

Meat Ready to Eat.

A small plating for some special guests.

Into the slicer it went and I went to town slicing off thin slices of porchetta for all to try. Cooks, servers, diswashers, bussers and runners all got samples to taste. Mariano, after tasting some of the slices, grabbed a 9pan to take a stash home. It was delicious, delicate, slightly salty and deliciously fatty. I plated up some for my friends to try at the bar. They devoured it and I sent another plate. A hit.

By the end of the evening, we had eaten a third of the porchetta. A victory. I bagged the rest to save for later.

In retrospect, if we can recreate these results on a consistent basis, I think some very exciting possibilities lie in store for project hampden once we get the prep kitchen there built and installed. Some nice charcuterie cold plates and cheeses. Could be beautiful.

The cross section of the porchetta - notice the ear. Exciting!

Vac bagged and ready for another day.