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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After spending a number of hours in Mado’s kitchen shooting an upcoming Sky Full of Bacon, I finally ate there last night with a few others involved in the production. (The following is just a standard meal review, but trust me, the precise subject of the podcast will be much more exotic.)

For me, Mado is the place that people were looking for in a place like Bonsoiree, which got a lot of hype last year for its (increasingly pricey) underground dinners but largely underwhelmed me— but does so at the price point that makes experimentation and hits-or-misses an acceptable part of the journey. All over town now entrees start with a 3, and at that price they damn well better come off perfectly. At Mado, I think every entree (or at least nearly so) started with a 1— a price at which one can happily go for the ride with a couple of chefs who are making their menu up new, constantly, based on what’s in the markets. Rapid-response cooking like that is going to be better some times than others, by its nature, but rooted in classic skills, you should be able to keep that average pretty high– and that’s exactly what I think Mado has done. Superior ingredients and some classic techniques produced an outstanding value for the price (barely $20 per person before tip) and compared favorably with any meal I’ve had lately— Sepia, Graham Elliott, Mercat a la Planxa, etc.

The in-house charcuterie is certainly one of the big reasons to go. We tried three different head cheeses, including the pork which will star in the podcast, although I think my favorite (don’t tell Triska) was lamb, just a subtle lamb flavor shining through the texture of head cheese (which, at least the way they make it, isn’t a gooey gelatinous loaf but somewhat akin to chunks of leftover Thanksgiving turkey bound with a little cold gravy). Even better than any of them, though, was the copa, cured pork shoulder somewhat like prosciutto, which had the beautiful deep red color and winey complexity of the best charcuterie anywhere I’ve had it.

Antipasti consisted of a number of simply dressed plates, mostly fresh vegetables, and a selection of pickled items. I really liked the pickled watermelon slices and zucchini bits (there’s what to do with all your zucchini!), a beet salad with pistachios and a slightly spicy yogurt dressing was superbly fresh and bright, and a little tuna and potato dish poached in olive oil was like a great, simple tapas. I was less wild about uncooked brussel sprouts tossed with shaved parmesan, I would have liked them both softer and warmer, I think.

Although I liked the housemade pasta itself, I agree with those who find the pasta dishes a little too minimalist, even by authentic-Italian standards. But two entrees were really great. One, which chef/co-owner Rob Levitt had urged us to try, was calves’ liver in a reduction with bits of their homemade bacon— this was surprisingly easy to love even for someone who’s not wild about liver, the preparation gave the liver a steak-like richness. And a dish of little fried perch on top of a cauliflower puree with a saffron sauce was wonderfully light and fresh.

Mado has instantly climbed onto my recommend-to-people list for offering really well-made and interesting food in a comfortable setting at comfortable prices. I asked Rob during the shoot why he thought that some people had a negative perception of the value and the portion size and he said some of them seem to expect to leave with a big bag of leftover food. If that’s so, then they should be eating at Rosebud or something; the value here, of extremely high quality meat that’s raised and used in a responsible way, and served at a reasonable size for a reasonable price, seems like a very good deal to me. You get what you’re paying for here on the plate, not in a bag afterwards.

1647 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647

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