Alanna Hale
Chris Cosentino cuts loose on a pig’s head.
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Head Case

Jim Poris - September 2013

We hear grumbling. That could only mean another round of Mystery Basket. This time, three chefs demystify pig’s head. Check it out.

Go have yourself a listen to one of the unsung yet swingiest of the hairy British blues-rock bands of the late 1960s: Blodwyn Pig. Yes, that was the name of this short-lived quartet fronted by Jethro Tull’s original guitarist, Mick Abrahams. But before you load Ahead Rings Out, their first of only two 33-rpms, onto the turntable, check out the album cover art. The image is indelible: a pig’s head adorned with nose ring, shades, and earphones with a ciggie butt stuck in its lips, its porkiness poking out of a Looney Tunes target of colored concentric circles. Awriiiight! Pig’s head!

Just as tasty as Blodwyn Pig’s jive and as full of as many riffs for chefs as Abrahams and his mates turned out on disk is a real pig’s head—the part that accounts for the nose in the nose-to-tail liturgy invoked by chefs like a rosary. That’s why Mystery Basket turned its head to that head. Plus, there’s a lot of stuff inside a pig’s head that can be turned into a lot of stuff for the plate. Just takes a chef using his/her noggin to think of all the possibilities. For that, we called upon Chris Cosentino of Incanto and Boccalone in San Francisco, no stranger to strange things; Paul Kahan of Blackbird and numerous other restaurants in Chicago, and Beard’s 2013 outstanding chef; and chef/pig farmer Cassie Parsons of Harvest Moon Grille and the soon-to-open Farmer•Baker•Sausage Maker in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Of course, Mystery Basket wouldn’t be worthy of its tradition of goading chefs into paroxysms of profanity without a list of vexing ingredients more constricting than a straitjacket. What caused such venting this time? Well, these: pig’s head; salt and pepper; garlic; fresh herring; extra-virgin olive oil; malt syrup; pecorino (stagionato); tamarind paste; Marsala wine; eggs; maitake mushrooms; fennel; white eggplant; shallots; pistachios; Japanese sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo); red wine vinegar; rye berries; tomatoes; yogurt; huckleberries; rice flour; Swiss chard; Dijon mustard; and use of no more than six of the following herbs and spices: bay leaves; mint; marjoram; cilantro; saffron; rosemary; thyme; sage; mustard seeds; juniper berries; parsley; tarragon; basil; hot or sweet paprika; coriander seeds; cloves; nutmeg; savory; curry powder; and cayenne.

And now, the heads:

Chris Cosentino
Incanto and Boccalone
San Francisco

Mystery Basket has always been a fun read, so when Food Arts asked me to do it, I figured why not. I’ve cooked in lots of strange, unfamiliar surroundings, but with this I’d be able to work things out in my own kitchen without ridiculous time constraints. How hard could cooking from a basket of odd ingredients be, especially with the main ingredient being pig’s head? Then I saw the oddball list of mandatory ingredients, with barely a leafy green vegetable or bit of citrus in the bunch to cut through the richness of the pig’s head. I had to really think how this would work so that it could be a dish I would serve at Incanto.

Lately, I’ve been doing large format dishes for two to four diners, which turn out to be a perfect way to showcase the head in as many ways as possible. I work with pig’s head all the time—curing it for porchetta di testa at Boccalone and taking it apart to make many different preparations at Incanto. But this was a different task altogether, as I was limited to the ingredients available. There are a lot of steps in getting to this whole slew of preparations that comprise this one giant shared dish. But in the end it’s a lot of fun, and a very tasty dish, for sure.

Pig’s head surprise. “A pig’s head, being a perfect mix of meat, fat, skin, and natural gelatin, lends itself to so many different dishes. Heads vary in size; here, I use a 35-pound square cut head from a large black hog.

“To begin, debone the head and remove the tongue; saw the skull apart; pull out the brain, which will be poached later; roast the skull; reserve for pork sauce. Make a brine of 300 grams salt to five liters of water, a bunch of thyme, parsley stems, two tablespoons black peppercorns, one split head garlic, two tablespoons toasted coriander seeds, one bunch mint stems, one bunch tarragon stems, six large sliced shallots, the stalks from one bulb fennel, and, instead of sugar, 6 1/2 ounces of wet tamarind paste and five tablespoons malt syrup. Bring the mixture to a simmer to dissolve the tamarind and salt, then quickly chill before plunging the head meat and tongue into this brine for 36 hours.

“Remove the jowls; dry them; place each one in a separate vacuum-sealable plastic food bag with a bunch of thyme, three bay leaves, and one tablespoon each of coriander seeds and black peppercorns; vacuum-seal at 100 percent; cook sous-vide at 79.5 degrees Celsius for 12 hours; remove from the circulator; chill in an ice water bath. Bring the pork tongue and a pickling liquid of red wine vinegar, water, shallots, salt, peppercorns, bay leaves, and coriander seeds to a simmer in a nonreactive pot; simmer until tender, about one hour; remove the tongue; peel the tongue; strain the pickling liquid over the tongue; cool in the liquid. This pickling liquid will be used later to make the vinaigrette for the tongue salad.

“Braise the ears and separated snout and face meat 45 minutes in a pressure cooker with water, whole shallots, thyme stems, bay leaves, a split garlic head, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and a fennel bulb; release the pressure; place the head meat in a bowl to season and the ears and snout on a tray to cool for frying later. Add the roasted pig’s head bones to the braising liquid in the pressure cooker; add some roasted shallots, fennel, and more water; cook at full pressure for 45 minutes to make a flavorful sauce base.

“Season the head meat and its skin in the mixing bowl with salt and pepper; add toasted pistachios and coarsely chopped parsley and tarragon; pack tightly into a terrine mold; refrigerate overnight.

“Poach the brain until firm in a modified court bouillon of water, salt, red wine vinegar, tarragon and thyme stems, shallots, fennel, bay leaf, and salt; remove the brain; chill; discard the bouillon. Emulsify egg yolks, Dijon mustard, garlic cloves, salt, and black pepper in a processor; add the poached brain; blend until smooth: now, you have brainaise! Refrigerate until needed.

“To obtain perfect runny egg yolks, cook five eggs in salted boiling water for six minutes; shock the eggs in an ice water bath; peel the eggs; reserve in salted water. Cut peeled white eggplant into two-inch dice; salt for one hour; rinse; sauté over high heat in extra-virgin olive oil until golden brown; add julienned shallots; place in a bowl with halved cherry tomatoes, fennel fronds, parsley, shaved fennel, and shaved pickled pig’s tongue; season with salt and pepper; dress with a vinaigrette made with the reduced braising liquid from the tongue and extra-virgin olive oil.

“Remove the jowls from the plastic bags; score the skin; roast skin-side up in a 375 degree oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Dust the ears and snout with seasoned rice flour; fry in olive oil until crispy; reserve. With five minutes remaining in the roasting time, add maitake mushrooms and mint. In a small sauté pan, sweat diced shallots and coarsely cracked black pepper in a little olive oil; add the pork sauce made in the pressure cooker; reduce to sauce consistency; season with red wine vinegar.

“To build this dish takes a bit of work. Start by putting the fried snout at the front of a large cutting board, then follow with the pickled tongue caponata; top with shaved curls of pecorino, four of the eggs, seasoned with coarse salt and black pepper, with a smear of the brainaise. Remove the head/pistachio terrine from its mold; shave it on a meat slicer; drape over the eggs; top with red wine pickled shallots, picked tarragon, and toasted pistachios. Pull the jowl from the oven; put the maitake down on the board; top with crispy mint leaves and coarse sea salt; place the jowls next to the maitake; top with the fried ears to re-create the head; finish the jowls with a small spoonful of the black peppercorn/shallot sauce; place the rest of the sauce in a cruet on the table. Wash all this down with a crisp beer, like Saison Dupont from Belgium.”

Paul Kahan
Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Big Star, The Violet Hour, and Publican Quality Meats

Normally, I would have said no to Food Arts when they called with the preposterous assignment of creating a recipe from unrelated ingredients. After all, for me, cooking is about relationships between myself and farmers, myself and my garden, myself and the land. That being said, Food Arts caught me while I was still running on fumes from the craze surrounding the James Beard Awards, where I shared an outstanding chef medal with David Chang. I had spiraled into a vortex, which momentarily made me a yes-man. It’s a good thing I didn’t get a call from some crazy cooking show because just about now, Gordon Ramsay would probably be a few inches from my face spitting and yelling at me about how big of an idiot I am.

“This was my fifth James Beard nomination for outstanding chef. It was an honor to win the award, but in no way, shape, or form did it mark the apex of my career or life.

“The outstanding chef announcement is the last one made at the awards, and after sitting through the five hour ceremony for five years, I was starting to feel like Susan Lucci.

“I also hate putting on a suit. In fact, I loathe putting on a suit. Once I get out of the shower and put the suit on the bed, with the air conditioning set at 68 degrees, I start to sweat. Literally, just looking at it makes me sweat profusely. Suits never fit right. I lose weight, I gain weight, I lose weight again. I put the thing on, and I think I look like an idiot.

“When they announced a tie, time froze. I would have been proud to share that moment with anyone, but it was really fun to share it with David. We’ve gotten drunk together a few times, and he has stuffed me to the gills with food—to the point beyond being able to walk. I have tons of respect for him. Straight from the awards, we went to a party at Del Posto, which was great because I got to catch up with my old buddy Wylie Dufresne, who received a long overdue James Beard Award [as best chef in New York City]. I had a feeling he was going to win, so I told him that if he didn’t win, I would crush my balls in a vice. After returning to his seat, following his win, he texted me: ‘balls intact.’

“I tend to shy away from the spotlight. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but they aren’t just mine. They also belong to my partners, Donnie Madia, Eduard Seitan, Terry Alexander, and Peter Garfield, as well as to our chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs, line cooks, and dishwashers out back, our gms, hosts, and servers out front, and, most importantly, the farmers and purveyors.

“I’ve never done the whole celebrity chef reality TV thing, even though I’ve been asked to do nearly every cooking show out there. Instead, I’ve said no, because that’s just not who I am. I believe, and preach to our staff, that other things in life are the key to success in the kitchen and restaurant. When approached, I always think of what I’d rather do: sit in the yard with my lovely wife on a beautiful summer’s night, drinking rosé and listening to music, or be thrown into a room with a bunch of chefs to engage in a Roman gladiator–style battle to prove our culinary prowess. To me, the choice is pretty clear.

Anyway, Jim Poris from Food Arts called and said, ‘Chris Cosentino threw your name into the hat for this Mystery Basket deal. It’s 30 ingredients, and you have to do a dish with ‘x’ number of ingredients and…’ I agreed and embarked on this assignment, striving to compose a dish with just the required minimum. You’d be hard-pressed to find a dish, in any of our restaurants—omitting salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice—that has more than eight ingredients. At Blackbird, chef de cuisine David Posey and I work to use singular ingredients in multiple ways, i.e., raw fennel, cooked fennel, fennel seeds, fennel pollen, fennel fronds, et cetera. Truly, less is more.

“This Mystery Basket was inspired by the Piedmontese dish vitello tonnato (veal in tuna sauce). I worked on the dish with Cosmo Goss, one of our sous chefs at The Publican, whom I affectionately refer to as boy genius. Our ‘vitello’ is a cured, rolled, and cooked pig’s head, and our ‘tonnato’ is made from fresh herring; the rest is just trying to make sense of a bunch of ingredients that don’t make sense to me.”

Porchetta di testa with herring. “Using a sharp boning knife, skin a large suckling pig’s head from a 40- to 60-pound animal; start under the cheek on one side and move up and over, from front to back, down toward the other cheek. Be careful to keep the skin intact, and leave as much meat attached to the skin as possible. Go through and clean the glands and excess fat from the pig’s head. Peel and mince tomatoes that have been roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Next, season the flesh side of the pig’s head with the tomatoes, powdered pistachios, shallots, red wine vin­e­gar, thyme, juniper berries, and coriander. Liberally season with salt and pepper; let sit for two days.

“After two days, rinse the pig’s head and discard the other ingredients. Using butcher’s twine, tie the head into a uniform cylinder. Next, seal the head in Cryovac and cook sous-vide at 180 degrees for 24 hours. Remove from the water bath, let cool for an hour; submerge in ice water until completely cool.

“For the ‘tonnato’ sauce, pour the Marsala wine into a pot; reduce by 75 percent; set aside. Sweat garlic in a little olive oil; deglaze with red wine vinegar; add bay leaves, parsley stems, and thyme. Mix in the reduced Marsala wine for sweetness; season with salt and pepper. Let the liquid come to a light simmer.

“While the liquid is coming to a simmer, season the herring with salt and pepper. Dredge the fish in rice flour, making sure to knock off excess flour. In a hot sauté pan, with a little bit of olive oil, sear the herring on both sides, until the rice flour starts to brown. Place into a small glass container; set aside.

“Once the liquid comes to a simmer, remove from the stove; let cool to 142 degrees; pour over the seared herring; let cool; refrigerate overnight. Remove the herring from the fridge the following day; strain the liquid. Flake the fish into small pieces.

“Using a processor, mix red wine vinegar, egg yolks, hot paprika, and Dijon mustard. Slowly incorporate olive oil until the mixture starts to thicken. Be sure that it doesn’t thicken too much, as this can break the sauce. Add water, if necessary, to thin. Once the ‘tonnato’ reaches the consistency of aïoli, add herring, a dash of red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. Taste the ‘tonnato’; if it needs more acid, add a touch of the liquid used to cook the herring. The sauce will hold four to six days in the fridge.

“For the salad, cut white eggplants into small cubes; lightly season. Deep-fry in olive oil at 375 degrees, cooking until golden brown. Remove the eggplant from the fryer; drain excess oil. Toss with the herring cooking liquid; set aside.

“Heat a sauté pan with olive oil. While the pan warms up, clean and tear maitake mushrooms into small pieces. Sear the mushrooms in the oil; turn the heat down slightly. As the mushrooms cook, little bubbles will form in the pan. When bubbling subsides and the mushrooms are coated, season with salt and pepper. Place them on a paper towel to drain the excess oil; set aside. If this is done correctly, the mushrooms should be crispy like potato chips.

“Cut, clean, and core a fennel bulb. Julienne the fennel halves and pick through fennel fronds. Toss the eggplant, juices included, with the fennel and mushrooms; season with salt and pepper.

“We suggest serving the dish on a long oval plate. For assembly, slice the porchetta di testa thinly. Spoon a thin layer of the tonnato sauce on the plate, and shingle the sliced porchetta on top of the tonnato. Dance the salad over the entire plate. Garnish with fennel fronds; peel thin slices of pecorino cheese on top. Serve immediately with Brasserie Duyck’s Jenlain Ambrée to drink.

Cassie Parsons
Harvest Moon Grille and Farmer•Baker•Sausage Maker
Charlotte, North Carolina

“When presented with the mission to undertake this Mystery Basket, I immediately thought about my grandfather, Peter Tihy, the son of a Romanian immigrant. I can still smell the complex blend of aromas in his house: cigarette smoke, percolating coffee, beer, bread fresh from the oven, and a pig’s head simmering on the stove. My childhood memories are full of Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table enjoying aspic soup. He loved cold gelled soup. The perfect way to eat this dish was with a slice of that fresh bread and some mustard. That taste lingers on the palate of my memory, begging to be replicated in my own way. I got that chance here with this Mystery Basket.

“Since I am a pig farmer as well as a chef, this was a great assignment for me. I’m struck by how my history and present slide together sometimes. In fact, I think that, as chefs, we can’t help but play out our past in what we create every day. Our experience shapes every creation. So, my Romanian roots and my pig farming present collide. Imagine a small farm full of beautiful heritage breed pigs run by two women. The animals play tag on the hill or loll in the shade of big oak trees. My partner, Natalie Veres, and I have been in Denver, North Carolina, raising these incredible Tamworth hogs since 2005. Running this farm has really helped me as a chef by showing me every day where our food comes from. And knowing food has made me a better farmer, too. We chose Tamworths based on how well they do in the kitchen as well as in the field.

“This dish began with a stroll past the big red barn. Out in the pasture, Natalie picked out a candidate for me—a four month old intact boar. Generally, we castrate male piglets when they’re about a week old. This prevents imparting ‘boar taint’ to the meat, an aroma incompatible with American sensibilities. When this one was born, he had some physiological defects that made it dangerous to castrate him. He grew out of the problem but grew too big for the operation. We needed to harvest him before his pheromones matured to the point where the meat would smell nasty when cooked. He is a full-blood Tamworth, long, lean, and spunky. The appointment at the abbatoir was made. We took him to Caldwell’s Meat Processing, a short drive from our farm. Kevin, the second generation of Caldwells to perform this service for area farmers, runs a no-frills, squeaky clean, state-inspected facility where he kills and processes cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. He’s proud to be carrying on his family’s tradition, and his young sons love to pitch in where they can. There is hope for the future.

“So now that I knew where my pig was coming from, who raised it, and who killed it, I readied myself to come up with a worthy dish.

I generally collaborate with my team on dishes, but suggestions were offered, I listened intently but often rejected them out of hand because they were too simplistic or ill-fitting for this assignment. I think some of my staff were beginning to think of me as the head case! As I was thinking through this, I relied on my instincts, but also tried to stretch beyond how I typically make use of some these ingredients. After many middle-of-the-night revelations and de­bates, I settled on this arrangement, calling it the licking plate.”

The licking plate. “This is so cool! What I did was take a pig’s head and turn it into three creations—a traditional dish with contemporary whimsy. Rarely does anyone get to try pig’s head, much less pig’s head in three incarnations.

“To begin, remove the tongue from a six-pound pig’s head; split the head in half. I save the brains for my neighbor, who says he could use all he can get (and can’t we all?). And I also save some fat from the jowls for rendering. One half of the head is for the headcheese and aspic, the other half cooked for the pressed head.

“First, I make a traditional headcheese: Simmer the head 90 minutes with shallots, garlic, salt, Japanese sweet potatoes, and parsley; strain and save the liquid; remove all the meat from the head; pack the meat into a small mold; splash in some of the reserved liquid; refrigerate to set. To accompany the headcheese, I make huckleberry fruit leather cones: simmer one cup huckleberries, one-half cup water, and a bit of tamarind paste for 20 minutes; strain; spread the coulis on a sheet pan coated with olive oil cooking spray; bake one hour at 200 degrees; cool; cut into strips; form into cones. Once the head cheese firms, use a small ice cream scoop to put the headcheese inside the huckleberry leather cone. Top with a sabayon made with an egg yolk and some Marsala wine, micro basil, micro cilantro, and crushed pistachios.

“Next, boil the tongue; skin it; scrap it; coat it with Dijon mustard and mustard seeds; dry-cure it at 45 degrees for five days; then smoke for two hours over hickory. Pour the strained liquid from the simmered pig’s head into a mold, and, as the aspic begins to set, lay one-half inch slices of tongue inside it; refrigerate to set. Cut it into half-inch cubes; place over hot mashed Japanese sweet potatoes spiked with cayenne. For crunch, add a sprinkle of popped rye berries.

“For the pressed head, make a brine of water, salt, fennel, bay leaves, tomatoes, and parsley; brine the half pig’s head for 24 hours; rinse the head; place it in the pot; cover with water; add fennel tops, Japanese sweet potato peels, and crushed toasted juniper berries; simmer two hours. Strain and save the cooking liquid; remove the skin, keep it intact; remove all the meat from the head. Lay out the skin; place the meat in the center of the skin while still hot; roll up; wrap tightly weaved cheesecloth around the roll; tie off at both ends; place in a hotel pan; pour the cooking liquid over the roll; refrigerate until firm. To serve, slice into thin rounds; arrange on a plate; top with small quenelle of whole-grain Dijon mustard, micro basil, and micro cilantro.

“I thought it would be fun to have a basket of rice flour/pecorino chips and a fried hard-boiled egg to complement these three preparations. For the chips: Shred the cheese; toss lightly with rice flour; form into silver dollar–sized disks; place on a baking sheet; bake until done; top with dried pistachios, dried maitake mushrooms, dried white eggplant, and popped rye berries. Hard-boil the egg; peel it; fry it in the fat rendered from the jowls; slice it; top with bits of fried pig’s ear.

“A woodworker friend, Drew Shay, handcrafted a wooden hickory board specifically for this dish. It’s a beautiful blonde nine-inch square table board elevated on one-inch legs with a slightly off centered dime-sized circular cutout for the huckleberry leather cone. From an aerial perspective, visualize the five separate elements in a connected way. In the upper left hand portion of the platter are three one-quarter-inch by one-quarter-inch tongue aspics perpendicular to a sweet potato smear. Just below the aspics are four pecorino crackers, one each of pistachio, popped rye berries, mushroom powder, and eggplant power stacked in a tiered fashion. Along the bottom portion of the board are slices of the fried hard-boiled egg overlaying each other to create a towering trotter effect, topped with the bits of fried pig’s ear. Along the right side of the board is the pressed pig’s head log with a single sliced medallion displaying the skin casing juxtaposed against the encased meat. And centrally placed in the circular cutout is the huckleberry leather cone with the single scoop of the headcheese glazed with the Marsala sabayon.

“A lickable plate deserves a great accompanying beverage. I teamed up with local craft brewers Jason and Jeff Alexander at Free Range Brewing to devise a beer that used a few ingredients from the basket. He created a red farmhouse ale using regionally grown red wheat and rye. It was then racked onto the huckleberries for the secondary fermentation. The result was a clean and very refreshing beer with a delicate aroma of huckleberry.”