Sky Full of Bacon

With the 800-lb. gorilla of Chicago restaurant cookbooks just hitting stores and an exquisitely rarefied seafood tasting menu earning the title of best new restaurant in America, it’s easy to see ours as a restaurant scene dominated by artifice, weird science, and great-brain chefs. But I think last night’s mulefoot pig dinner, initiated by the Reader as part of Mike Sula’s writings about this heritage breed and planned by Paul Kahan at Blackbird with the aid of five other chefs, ought to stand as an equally momentous occasion— the moment when a movement devoted to cooking rooted in the flavors of midwestern products reached a critical mass and a level of comprehensive achievement that needs no excuses or significant ringers from outside to make a good meal. Obviously there have been restaurants cooking midwestern products for a long time, and given that four of the chefs came from within Kahan’s company and a fifth was a longtime employee who went off on his own, you could argue how widespread the movement is on our scene— but on the other hand, given that those restaurants represent a pretty significant chunk of the most-admired restaurants in town, if they have a movement, there’s a movement.

More significant to me, and on a practical basis, isn’t the names of the chefs involved but of the farmers whose names I kept hearing as Mike Sula and I followed the progress of the dinner.* Gunthorp, Green Acres, Rasmussen, Nichols— this is where the critical mass has been reached, that the chefs support the quality farmers enough to keep them going, and the quality farmers produce consistently enough to keep the chefs supplied and satisfied with the level of their product. What we saw last night was that given a great ingredient— the clean, lushly fatty meat of the mulefoot pig— as a focus for the meal, these six chefs (actually more across all six restaurants) could produce a coherent meal reflective of a similar approach to showcasing the inherent flavors of the midwest’s products at their most heightened and refined, without artifice or gilded pork-lilies, but with plenty of good midwestern stuff like bacon or pickled onions.

And by “coherent” I mean “spectacularly good.” Around me I heard comments like “I feel like I’ve never tasted pork before,” and that more than once in relation to different dishes. The chefs had divvied up the meat to give different chefs different opportunities and places to focus, and so each course brought us a different view of what pork, that “wonderful, magical animal,” could be, from the organy funk of Vie’s cotechino (not as organy-funky as hoped, thanks to the USDA inspector flunking most of the offal at the processor, alas), to the simple clean flavor of a ham chop from Blackbird’s Mike Sheerin. For me there were two particular standouts: Vie’s cotechino, salty and strong, but leavened by the sweet note of a pickled plum, and the headcheese ravioli in a pork consomme from Avec’s Justin Large, the broth a marvelous, slightly lemony shot of concentrated pork savoriness. But there was revelation throughout the meal— I heard others say they were blown away by Lula’s pork belly, amazed at how delectable a cube of almost pure fat could be, or by the snow-white pork rinds that made up part of Blackbird’s cheese course, or the deeply comfy rosemary-scented roast-pork satisfaction of The Publican’s porchetta.

There was one spectacular dud, not a course but a wine pairing— an Indian (!) sirah which, evoking comparisons like “burnt soup” and “V-8 juice,” did not suggest that India will be replacing Chile or Australia just yet. But otherwise wine pairings (and in The Publican’s case, Goose Island Harvest Ale) were well-chosen and enjoyable, service was impeccable at a level of crowding even beyond the likely norm for Blackbird, and all in all, it was a wonderful, magical dinner, basking in the waves of enjoyment which outstanding pork provided, and knowing that just a few seats away were, for once, the farmers who had made our exquisite cityfied pleasures possible. Tremendous thanks to them and to Paul Kahan and all his team for creating an occasion which showcased and honored them and their contributions in so spectacular a fashion (and not least of the heartening aspects of the meal was getting to watch such a bunch of heavyhitters in the kitchen working together side by side and without ego).

* He will post reports on the Reader’s Food Chain blog, and eventually have a lengthy piece in the Reader, while I’ll have a Sky Full of Bacon podcast about the event at the same time.

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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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