Sky Full of Bacon

If you have 19 minutes, this is a great video on making a headcheese from Michael Gebert, especially as we see the pig’s head from the point of purchase at the market, through to the finished dish.  A great reminder of using the whole animal. —Michael Ruhlman

Could eating head cheese be a moral act? In “A Head’s Tale,” I follow a piece of meat most of us would avoid, a whole pig’s head, from organic farm to restaurant table. It’s a thought-provoking, and only slightly gross, journey. And trust me, it was tasty!

Sky Full of Bacon 04: A Head’s Tale from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

We’ve gotten so used to only eating anonymous squares of meat that it’s shocking to encounter a piece of meat with a face. Yet traditional cultures have always used every part of the animal, and there are sound environmental and moral reasons for doing so… not to mention the culinary ones for not letting some of the most delicious meat go uneaten. In this Sky Full of Bacon, I follow the progress of an organically-raised pig’s head acquired by locavore blogger Rob Gardner, from the farmer to a restaurant, Mado, where chefs Rob and Allison Levitt turn it into testa, Italian head cheese, and make a strong case for restaurants taking on the responsibility of using the whole animal. It’s a thought-provoking piece about what we owe to farmers and the animals we eat, and while it does contain some in-your-face pictures of a real live dead pig head, there’s a lot more on the Sky Full of Bacon mind here than just grossing you out.

Presented in association with The Local Beet; running time 19:19.


Rob Gardner blogs at Vital Information and at The Local Beet.

Dennis Wettstein can be found Saturday mornings at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market, held in the parking lot of Pilgrim Church, 460 Lake Street, Oak Park.

1647 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL

And Special Guest Headcheese Taster Helen Rosner blogs at Menu Pages Chicago.

The Paul Bertolli book Rob Levitt talks about is Cooking By Hand. For a home cook-level book about Charcuterie, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie is a good choice; I learned to make bacon there.


Recipe for Mado’s Testa

Making head cheese should be within the ability of any reasonably good home chef.  It does require adjusting seasoning to the amount of meat you have, so precise amounts are not given and I assume you can season to taste reasonably well.  But the other techniques should be easily achievable for most cooks.

1. Place head in a large stock pot with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, a head of garlic, and a couple of onions.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to simmer and skim any scum that rises.  Simmer for about 12 hours, until very tender.

2. Remove head from pot, reserving stock.  Let cool to the point where it’s comfortable to work with, but still warm enough to pick meat off the bones easily.  Go over the entire head, removing meat from every nook and cranny and separating fat or other stuff from meat by hand, but keeping the meat in fairly good-sized pieces.  Discard any glands, eyeballs, etc.  Carefully peel the skin off the tongue to remove the thick, bumpy skin which you do not want to run across in your finished testa, and chop into half inch or inch-sized chunks.

3. Meanwhile, in a mortar, grind a couple of tablespoons of fennel and mustard seed and a couple of teaspoons of allspice and clove, along with a couple of chilis.  Add this to a quart of the reserved stock, and reduce until fairly rich and dark.

4. Place the meat in a bowl.  Salt it fairly strongly—since it will be served cold, the seasoning will be somewhat muted.  Squeeze the garlic bulb into the meat as well.  Mix thoroughly, but don’t break up the chunks of meat.

5. The easiest way to make a testa is to put a layer of meat in a terrine, pour some of the reduced stock over it, and repeat until you have two or three alternating layers.  (This is what I call the French style in the video.)  Place in refrigerator and it should set overnight and keep at least a week.

To make the Italian style loaf, roll out a length of plastic wrap, spoon the meat onto it, and pour the reduced stock over it.  Roll it into a slightly loose “sushi roll” and set aside.  Roll out a second length of wrap, place the “sushi roll on it, poke holes in the roll, and then roll it up inside the second piece of wrap, squeezing air out of the roll as you tighten up its shape.  (Watch the video for a better sense of the techniques here.)

When you’ve done as much as you can by hand, tie the ends with kitchen twine, leaving a fair amount of extra plastic at each end.  Then twirl the roll as shown in the video, gradually squeezing the meat into a tighter roll.  Tie this shape off again and place in the refrigerator to set overnight.  Slice cold.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

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You would think it would be impossible for a place on the hot Clark Street strip in Andersonville to go unnoticed on LTHForum or, indeed, in local food media generally. Well, except maybe for that little Asian-run pizza hole next to the McDonald’s. But you would be wrong; an Italian deli called Piatto Pronto has managed the feat. Only Yelpers have yipped about it.

It looks promising. Lots of deli meats of what I would call the higher supermarket brands in the cases— Columbus sopressata, Hilshire Farms ham, etc. Cuisine de France bread is baked on premises, which is a sign, I guess, of slightly misplaced ambition (there’s D’Amato foccacia in the store, why not their bread for subs?)

I ordered a Napolitano, which had some of the funkier meats on it, and a Tuscan white bean salad looked pretty good.

Alas, looks were, if not deceiving, at least somewhat cagey. I wish the $3.99 sub cost $4.99 and had more stuff on it. I wish while they were putting more stuff on it, they put less oil on it. With the soft Kleenex de France bread and all that gloop on it, the pretty good meats were done a disservice, buried in the mix. The sandwich needed more cowbell.

Even more disserved was the bean salad, by an excess of oil— it was really gloopy— and refrigeration, which killed the flavor of the visible herbs. Call it heresy, but for dine-in orders, I’d stick a salad like this in the microwave for 30 seconds or something.

I liked the look of Piatto Pronto enough that I’m inclined to give it another shot. There’s all kinds of interesting things, seafood salads, whatnot. But it just didn’t happen for me today.

And for all that the commercial product is fairly well chosen, it still makes me wonder, where’s the housemade salume shop in Chicago to rival Armandino’s Salumi in Seattle, etc.?

Piatto Pronto
5624 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60660
(773) 334-5688

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