Tuesday, August 14, 2012

warm testa with potatoes

Warning: This post comes with recognizable pig parts. If you knew the pig we're dealing with here, it might end up being somewhat upsetting.

Or, if you have an unnatural attraction to the movie Babe, this might not be the post for you.

There will be some photos in here that will make it exceedingly clear that it's a pig we're dealing with. Even moreso than when I wrote about the foot.

OK, did that clear everyone who's not interested?

You were warned.

There was a little bit of irony involved when I went to Nature Delivered in Brooksville, Fla., to buy a half a pig. One of the reasons I went to a farm was because I knew I was going to need a pig head to do this recipe. They hardly ever have those at Whole Foods.

But the process by which my pig was dispatched meant that I couldn't have the head of that pig. At the time, the farm did field kills for people buying pigs for personal use, or USDA plant kills for commercial. I was told the plant kills were more stressful on the animal because they don't want to travel. And if we did the plant kill, I couldn't witness, which was part of why I was doing it. I wanted to better understand my place in the food chain by watching the consequences of it.

But the field kill process they had there at the time leaves the head with a certain degree of, um, lead poisoning. Tends to leave it a bit inedible.

But Rebecca Krassnoski, who raised my pig, told me she would save the next noggin from a USDA processed pig for me.

That wasn't the last issue.

The recipe for Warm Testa with Potatoes in the Babbo cookbook technically calls for a half of a pig's head.

"You can't really have half of one," Rebecca said, struggling to figure out how to explain what was really pretty obvious. "It doesn't really work that way."

So I was going to get a whole pig's head. I would have to figure out how to deal with that.

I figured I had two options: I could double the recipe. Or, I could look in some of my other cookbooks and see if I could find another recipe that called for a half a pig's head.

You laugh. I have several.

When I read David Chang's recipe for pig's head torchon, I was struck by a couple of things. First, it called for a half a pig's head. That seemed like exactly as much as I needed to figure out what to do with. Second, aside from some minor spicing differences, the actual cooking of the head was almost exactly the same as Mario describes in his recipe. (In retrospect, that isn't really all that surprising. There are only so many ways to get the meat off a skull.)

In a perfect world, I would have picked up the star ingredient the day I was going to make it. But I needed to pick it up the day it was available. (That it happened in a parking lot in Pasco County is something you'll have to write your own joke about. I've been very careful with my wording on the subject.) Anyway, I was unable to cook it immediately, so it went into the freezer for awhile. When it came out, this is what it looked like, and this is what I've been warning you about:

Rebecca, if you remember this pig's name, please do not tell anyone.

The head went into the largest pot that I had at the time, a 32-quart turkey frying pot. It was covered with water and joined by some aromatics. This picture makes it look like there is still a chance it could be saved:

Alas, it was in there for about three hours.

I started making this at about 10 p.m. that night. The chivalrous explanation for that is that I didn't want to subject Pam to the carnage. And it worked out that way, so that's the official story. But the truth is, this happened just a few days before I moved to D.C., and that was literally the only time I could do this. It was a busy couple of weeks. Well, it was a busy several months, but those couple of weeks were insane.

Some of the stuff I had in the freezer made the trip up with me. But here's the thing. This head weighed 25 pounds, and took up a lot of room in our auxiliary freezer in Florida. In D.C., we don't have an auxiliary freezer. We barely have the one. So I was up until 4 in the morning doing this dish because I had to, or it was never going to happen.

OK, so the pig visage sat in the cauldron for three hours. Done, right? Ha! At that point, after letting it cool, now somewhere on the order of 2 a.m., it was time to start pulling the meat off the face. It harkened back to Biology II in Mr. Mabie's class as I extracted muscle after muscle after muscle. Neither recipe specifically called for the brain, so I didn't have to cut the skull in half, which was good because by that point I had already given away all my saws. Well, I still had a Dremel, and you can do anything with one of those, but I didn't think of it at the time. I did yank the tongue out, though. From the neck end. It was late.

It wasn't pretty work. I'm sure if you've done it before, you're calling me names and exclaiming how it's no big deal. But for me, it was a lot of yanking and pulling at greasy, cartilage-y, collagen-y gunk. Chang goes into way more detail on how to do this than Mario does, which was helpful. He explained that you want to avoid the glands, and that there is "good fat" that you want to keep, implying that there is bad that you don't. When I write a horror movie screenplay, there will be a scene inspired by this experience.

When it was over, here was what I was left with:

A 25-pound pig head, reduced to 2 pounds of meat. Well, mostly meat.

Oh, there was also the skull, of course.

For the Babbo dish, the meat gets put in a small loaf pan with some of the cooking liquid, which is so full of gelatin by now that it could support the weight of a small island nation. Then it gets refrigerated until it sets up. At which point we have head cheese!

For the Momofuku dish, it's a little more complicated. First, you lay down some plastic wrap. (Frankly, I wish I had covered the whole kitchen in plastic wrap before I started.) On top of the plastic wrap, you lay out some fat and skin to form a thin layer. Then meat goes on top of that. That looks like this: 

Then it's rolled tight in the plastic wrap and refrigerated to let its gelatin do its thing.

Then I went to bed. It was after 4 at that point.

The next day, the log is cut into discs, breaded and fried.

Chang has a recipe for spicy mustard and pickled cherries to go with the torchon, which I'm sure is delicious and all, but I was trying to empty my kitchen, not add to it. I had some Dijon and some cherry preserves. I mixed them up to make a cherry-mustard sauce to go with the pork. It worked out. 

The Babbo head cheese gets served with a quick potato salad and pickled onions. 

I took both dishes over to my pal Laura's house. I had strong questions about how much I would like either dish, so of course, the first thing I did was take it to a food critic. Both dishes were fine. I didn't love either. It was a texture thing. A lot of meaty bits suspended in goo. It's a thing, I know, I just couldn't love it. I gave the bulk of the Babbo dish to my friend Alan. I felt confident if anyone I knew would be into it, it was him. He said he liked it. So I was glad that the effort was appreciated.

The ultimate measure of how much I like something is usually: Would I make it again. And the answer is, to almost a certainty, no. Mostly because I gave away that 32-quart turkey frying pot.

To Alan, I think.

Up next: "papparadelle" bolognese

1 comment:

Alan said...

You did. And thank you!