Chefs like pigs. If you have watched any food shows on any of the food show networks, you know this, and have most likely seen the tattoos outlining the primal cuts of these animals adorning their forearms. The pig is king in terms of versatility, ease of butchery, and nose to tail eating that many chefs and home cooks are geared towards.
The excitement of buying a whole pig was, for Webster’s kitchen crew and myself, like the childhood excitement of waiting for a Christmas present you suddenly realized you had to have. We dreamed of what we would do with it, how we could make the most of it, and most importantly, how we could get our hands on one. It was our Red Ryder BB gun.
There was no waiting once we made up our minds, we made a few calls and decided that we would go with our friend Henry Graber. Henry is an Amish farmer from LaGrange, IN. There, he owns The Old Home Place Farm, selling pork, chicken, and beef. He was kind enough to sell us one of his freshly harvested pigs, a cross between Duroc and Berkshire breed, at a reasonable rate. One week later, he pulled up and we unloaded 168 pounds of opportunity onto the biggest cart we could find. There are certain looks given when unloading that much dead weight wrapped in plastic and ice from the back of a station wagon piloted by an elderly gentleman and his Amish passenger, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. The pig was home safely and we would begin our butchering that night.
After service, we cleaned the kitchen, moved to a larger prep area, and began setting up our workspace. Tables were wrapped with plastic, cutting boards were laid out end-to-end, sharp knives and bone saw, and classic rock in the background. We were ready. We had different containers for scraps of meat for grinding, fat for rendering, and skin for crisping. I am not sure if all butchering is as ritualistic and careful as our first experience, but I imagine it should be to make it as enjoyable, safe, and successful as possible.
Now we get graphic. The pig was halved lengthwise for ease of transportation and butchering, its basketball sized head still whole and attached to one of the halves. First task was head removal, it is exactly what it sounds like, a few swipes with the bone saw and into a large pot of cold water for cleaning it went. The next task was removing the front leg and shoulder (picnic ham and Boston butt). Easily done, pork shoulder being an extremely versatile cut, perfect for slow braising or grinding into sausage (fat to meat ratio is almost perfect for most sausages). The picnic ham will most likely be cured and smoked. Next is the midsection, containing the most popular grocery store cuts, the loin, tenderloin, ribs, and belly. After counting ribs, making a couple well-placed cuts with the saw and a sharp chefs knife, we have all these wonderful parts separated and ready for their next journey. Then comes the ham, the big, powerful thigh muscle and its leg, separated from the hip at a massive joint, it looks amazing, a prosciutto or country ham in waiting is looking right back at us. Skin is removed (and saved!) from large cuts where it is not needed, bones are cut for making a thick, deep, gelatinous pork stock, and fat is reserved for making that clarified, solid mass we call lard (biscuits anyone?). After wrapping the large cuts, vacuum sealing the smaller ones, and being on our way for the night, we had our vision and our homework, figure out how we can sell it to our guests, and make them as excited about it as we are.
Bacon tastes better when you know the belly it came from, when you have it in your refrigerator for 6 days under salt, pepper, and a little curing salt, and when you can slice the pieces as thick as you wish. The aroma of fresh bacon and ham coming out of the smoker is something everyone should experience once in their lives. We will have the world’s best BLT in our lounge on certain nights with that thick cut bacon, local hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes, and the magical condiment we call Kewpie mayo on house-made, grilled sourdough bread.
We also will be featuring some of the odd bits of the animal, after all, no pig is made entirely of belly and pork chops. Take for instance a dish named Porchetta di Testa (literally translated as “pork of the head”). I will credit this idea to our Executive Chef Stefan, who referred us to a video of Chris Cosentino (chef) breaking down an entire head into one cohesive piece of meat, skin, and fat. We were fascinated. One of our cooks, Joe Pearson, decided that this was his type of challenge and off to work he went. After thoroughly cleaning the head, and with the precision and steady hand of a brain surgeon, Joe removed all of the wonderful meat from the head (in one piece, think Halloween mask), seasoned it heavily with garlic, rosemary, lemon, salt and pepper, and rolled the creation into a pancetta-like roll. This roll was then tied, vacuum-sealed, and poached slowly to 190 degrees, ensuring that the fat and natural gelatin had time to seal any gaps and naturally bond the roll. After a quick chill and a couple days rest, we unwrapped this incredible creation and sliced it very thin, tasted, and were introduced to a new world of pork flavor. Milder than we had anticipated, clean flavored, just the right amount of salt and herbs. This will be served with fresh arugula, shaved radishes, Pecorino, cranberry coulis, and olive oil, a must try for the semi-adventurous eater.
Last but not least, we will have fresh fried Chicharrones (pork rinds). First, the pork skin is boiled to soften the fat which is attached, this fat is then scraped off very carefully, the skins are dehydrated overnight, then fried quickly, puffing to about four times their original size. These little guys are incredible seasoned with a little salt, pepper, and cayenne, and something that if you have not tried, I suggest stopping by to give them a shot before they are gone. Check out pork rinds in action below!
For our first time butchering our own pig, I would say it was as fun and rewarding as it could be. If you have the time, the space, and a family to feed for the winter (or just really like pork) then I would say that whole or half hog butchery could make for a rewarding afternoon. Make friends with your local farmer at the farmers market, search for local pig farms who sell half hogs, if you are serious about knowing where your food comes from and how it was raised, then it is well worth your time. Do some Googling on the subject, maybe even pick up one of the many excellent books on the subject of butchering and charcuterie, and be proud the next time you serve pork chops and kraut for dinner, grind and stuff your own sausage for tailgating, or cure and smoke home made bacon for breakfast.