Friday, February 26, 2010

You've got the brains, I've got the brawn.

When working in the second restaurant during my stage in France, I had my first experience with fromage de tête, what we Americans call head-cheese, or as I learned later while staging in London, the Brits call brawn. I now see some humor too in the Pet Shop Boys song (Opportunities) that mentions, much like the title here, brains and brawn, but in a much different sense. My Apple dictionary might help explain...

brawn |brôn|
nounphysical strength in contrast to intelligence :commando work required as much brain as brawn.Brit. meat from a pig's or calf's head that is cooked and pressed in a pot with jelly.I will admit that the first bite was quite off-putting many years ago. It was rather indescribable at the time. It was like pork times 100, an unusual pork taste times 100. It was served with a sauce ravigote (mustard, vinegar, shallot and capers). But less than a week later I was found snacking on the scraps every time I had to slice it for service. So when I made my last batch of Bath Chaps I picked the remaining meat morsels and decided to make a mini-brawn.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tough choice in Chicago Charcuterie.

One of the hardest times I tend to have when ordering charcuterie is simply deciding what I want to enjoy. Do I stick with an old favorite like chorizo? Do I try a twist on something I am kinda familiar with like a lamb lomo? Or do I go completely off the path and get something I have never even heard of like a Catalonian vic fuet? If it is affordable and offered I usually opt for a pre-selected collection on a "platter/board" of some sort. But that isn't always an option. Sometimes I might pick one from the first two categories just listed and ask the server to pick a third for me, kinda leaving just a tiny element of surprise.

But then I had to throw all my methods of operation to the wind recently when I was forced to select only one thing from a charcuterie list. I guess the only good point was the fact that instead of ten things to choose from, there were only five. This was made more difficult though by the simple fact that all five offerings were great choices. I had eaten all five before, so going for the one that was new wasn't an option. Another important thing to consider was the fact that I wasn't simply choosing between a type of charcuterie, but rather an entire charcuterie "program" from five of Chicago's best pig-loving hot-spots. I was excited to see this category while I was clicking away on the website for the TimeOut Chicago Eat Out Awards reader's poll. But when I saw the list I was suddenly overwhelmed and felt like a grandparent being asked to choose a favorite grandchild. And it wasn't made easier by having a juvenile delinquent or murderer as an option.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tongue-in-Cheek cuisine.

The English seem to have found a slightly more appealing way to name what some might consider some less-desirable seeming food objects. Brawn fills in for head-cheese, a terrine shaped dish made from the meat of a pigs head that is set in a sort of meat-jelly resulting from the head's cooking process. Or within the same category, take the English term offal, pronounced perhaps without coincidence the same as awful. It is a way of saying variety meatsfifth quarterorgan meats or simply innards. And since I am a little less hesitant than most to try things of this nature, when I was offered some Bath Chaps during a recent stage in a London kitchen, I jumped at the chance to give them a taste. As I learned as I took my first bite, Bath Chaps are a preparation of the pigs jowls, or cheeks, that have been brined, poached, often rolled up with the poached tongue, sliced and pan fried. And let me tell you, they are fabulous. Nice visible layers of fat and lean with a little bit of skin and tongue.

As you can see in the photo, this one from my dinner at Hereford Road in London's Notting Hill neighborhood, that it almost resembles a cross between pancetta and fried bacon, only sliced thicker. Both places I enjoyed this, Hereford Road and St. John Bread & Wine served their version with a small green salad with a mustardy vinaigrette.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Project Revisited: Air Dried Ham

During the Fall after returning home from my second stay in France I decided to get a little more serious about my cooking plans. At a local farmer's market I saw a pig farmer hocking his wares and asked if he'd sell me a half a pig. He did so happily and I picked it up a week later from the slaughterhouse in Chenoa, IL. I wanted it in part to practice some butchery, in part to get a lot of meat for less, and in part because I wanted to try to dry a ham, much like those I saw in that first charcuterie shop I wrote about here.

As I mentioned before, it was my first venture into this, so I wasn't looking for an acorn finished wild breed. This was a standard central IL mix, fed 85% corn and 15% soy, but raised just up the road. It came in at about 90#. I weighed out the main cuts and recorded them at:

Ham: 24.5#
Butt: 15#
Jowl: 1.3#
Belly: 8#
Ribs: 2.5#
Skin: 5.5#

Monday, February 8, 2010

From across the room.

My maternal grandfather was a cook in the US Army. I never really asked him anything about it while he was alive. He'd occasionally make a crack about peeling potatoes, but that was all I really remember about him relating to food except for a few things I knew he loved to eat. He loved the fried catfish at Barney's, the BBQ at the Caboose, Buffalo Wings at Schooners (who doesn't love these?!), the Fried Chicken from the Grand Hotel and fried livers and gizzards, but I don't remember where he got those. But he didn't cook much at home. I do remember loving his huge batches of hamburger hash cooked up in an ancient seeming cast-iron skillet, something I always pictured him cooking for the ranks back during The War. Since I spent a lot of time at their place during the summers, there are two very distinct foods that always accompanied his quart of Busch as he swore at Andre Dawson or cheered on Ryne Sandburg (OK, we all know it was mostly swearing as any die-hard Cubs fan does, a lot). They were salted, roasted-in-the-shell peanuts and pork rinds. If you heard a bag being opened in the kitchen, you knew a small snack was at hand. But unless you were paying attention you didn't know which it was until Charlie took his first bite. And if it was pork rinds, you knew it from across the room.

These bizarrely shaped super-crunchy curls of deliciousness always intrigued me.
"What is a rind?"
"What part does it come from?"
"This can't really be the skin."

These days, when you buy a bag at the store a lot of them come with a small packet of hot-sauce. Clearly an influence of our central American population and their treatment of the "chicharron," though this wasn't the case back when I first started eating them. But as with so many things that once just had its place, the crispy bits of often discarded deliciousness, pork rinds seem to have been moved to a new status. Being seen on pork-centric and gastro-pub menus across the country, they are perhaps almost, chic? But I assure you, that with his white t-shirt and fatigue pants driving down the street in a woody-station-wagon, Charlie was not looking to set any trends!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pulling your leg, err, butt.

Some friends of ours recently made the purchase of their first home. Unfortunately it came with an electric range/oven. So Rebecca came up with the idea that since it won't be installed for two weeks that we make them some food as a house warming gift. They have a lot of work ahead of them, unpacking, putting together 2 trips worth of Ikea furniture, etc. And since they both have full-time gigs, they will be plenty busy. One of the many things we have decided to make was some pulled pork. Henning, the husband, is a German born, French (Alsatian) raised meat lover, so this was my gift for him in a way!

I started with a 7# shoulder piece and split it in half, kinda following the split that was started from removing the bone. I brined it overnight with salt, maple syrup, mixed peppercorns, yellow and black mustard seeds. The next day I made a dry rub of hot italian powdered peppers, sweet paprika, garlic powder, salt, fresh black pepper, ground clove, ground guajillo pepper and onion powder. After patting the shoulder dry I liberally rubbed the spices in and let it hang out for 30 minutes.