I get the strangest emails. Not too long ago, I received one from a reader in Berkeley named Taryn who, rather sheepishly, said she was in possession of a pig’s head, plus some of its nasty bits, and would I like to take a crack at cooking with them?
Well, I dunno…Then she said it was a Mangalitsa pig. That sealed it. You see, a Mangalitsa pig is a special thing: They are an old European breed of lard pig, meaning the animals have been bred to lay on the fat, which the farmers then used to cook with for the rest of the year. Taryn said this Mangalitsa was raised by a friend of hers, a farmer named Kylan Hoover who raises his pigs in the hills between Patterson and Livermore. This was a serious pig, raised for more than a year and finished on acorns — just like the famed jamon iberico of Spain.
These pigs are not cheap. Hoover and the handful of other Mangalitsa producers in the United States are determined to raise the perfect pig, and the investment of a 15- to 20-month-old hog, finished on acorns, is borderline psychotic when compared to a typical pig farmer. This is why hams from similar pigs in Spain can run $100 a pound. Would this be worth it?
So a few days later, Holly and I found ourselves crawling through the warren that is the Berkeley hills in search of Taryn and her pig’s head. When we found her place, the goods were in a cooler in her garage. The house was otherwise dark; it felt like a drug deal. Until her friends all came out to see the freak who wanted a pig’s head, the trotters, heart, kidneys, liver and tail. Then it just felt silly, in a good way. Life is good.
So pig bits in hand, we returned to Interstate 80 and headed toward San Francisco, where we had reservations at Chris Cosentino’s restaurant Incanto. But the traffic was appalling, and we were sure to miss our reservation. I called the restaurant and explained, “OK, tell the chef it’s Hank (we’ve spoken several times) and that I’m late because I needed to pick up a Mangalitsa pig head in Berkeley.” The hostess laughed and said they’d hold our table. Phew!
Dinner was of course fantastic. Chris Cosentino and I share a lot of the same values, and I always seek out his more daring experiments. Cured tuna heart Sardinian style served with with pasta was salty and fishy and yummy. Roasted pork bones with chile and herbs was alarmingly good for such humble ingredients. An acorn soup with a seared duck’s liver was a little monotone in color, but the work involved put me to shame: Cosentino says it take several days to leach out the tannins in the acorns.
Toward the end of the meal, Chris came out and said hello and presented us with what proved to be relevatory — shavings of salt-cured pork liver, served atop crusty bread with a fried, sunnyside-up egg and a few green things. Now as I have written before, I have a tough time with the texture of liver, although I love the flavor. I wrote about this in an Edible Sacramento article I interviewed Cosentino for, and I wonder if he remembered it and served this cured liver on purpose? If so, I am duly impressed. Minerally, powerful, a little chewy, but great weeping Jesus on the Cross this was good!
Now my original plan with the Mangalitsa pig liver was to make mazzafegati sausages out of it. Screw that, now I’d make salt-cured pork liver! Cosentino didn’t give me his exact recipe, as he sells his version at his salami shop Boccalone here, He did say he cures his livers for a long, long time. I am working on my own version now and will report on it in a few months.
Chris also warned me about Mangalitsa pigs, as he cooked a whole one for a special event in Napa last month. “You know, they’re really fatty. I mean really fatty.” Hmmm…when a guy like Chris Cosentino says this, I listen.
So back at the ranch (so to speak), I laid out my various piggie parts. Heart looked pretty normal, if a bit sclerotic. Liver was the same way. Kidneys looked normal, too. Then I noticed the tail. Look at the base of it in the picture above. See that square of fat? That was my first clue.
This was my second. The fat on the head of this animal was un-fucking-believable. My primary reason for this whole adventure was to make guanciale, which is a kind of bacon made from hog jowls that the Romans prefer. Guanciale is typically a few pounds per pig; these topped five pounds, mostly fat.
This will be some goooood guanciale, I tell ya. More on them when they’re cured in a few weeks.
I sliced off the ears, because I wanted to make a recipe from Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating for crispy fried pig ears with sorrel, as I have sorrel growing in my yard. I’d also planned to crispy fry the tail — another Fergus recipe. So I got a big pot together and simmered the ear, tail and trotters with herbs and veggies for three hours. It made a gallon of the most wonderful stock I have made in years; the body was so bold that the broth was nearly solid at room temperature. Gotta love collagen!
Unfortunately the crispy frying was not to be. I have no idea how Fergus does it, but the “spitting” he talks about when frying previously braised pig ears and tail are actually volcanic explosions of white-hot oil sent high into the air above my stove. This is no bueno. I was worried enough to call off the experiment. If anyone has any ideas on how to do this, I’m, um, all ears.
On to happier things. After I cut off the jowls to make guanciale, I trimmed meat from the head, added it to the kidneys and ground it fine to use as a base for a Portuguese version of feijoada, a rich, filling, fantabulous pork and beans stew. (Here is the recipe). I also added braised meat I had left over from the head after I’d simmered it, which made another gallon of lusty pork stock.
As for the trotters, I picked the meat, skin and ooey stuff from the braised feet and chopped it fine. This I used as a base for a Pheasant and Pork Pie inspired from Henderson’s Nose to Tail cookbook.
On to the heart. I love hearts, as I have mentioned before, and I love nothing more than to pound them thin, sear them rare and eat them fresh. Heart is just a closely grained muscle and has none of the textural issues that, say, liver or kidneys do. And as these are rough days economically, might I suggest a trip to a butcher for a beef heart, which will cost you all of about $1 a pound?
I served the heart cutlets with some peppers from the garden and an onion, with some oregano from the garden and freshly ground pepper. Simple and delicious. Here is the recipe.
Last but not least is the tongue. You didn’t think I’d forget that, did you? Tongue is an even closer grained meat than heart, so some people have issues with it. This is easily solved by slicing it thin. So I braised the tongue along with the trotters, tail, ears et al, then peeled it, which is always a fun job…
After that, I just heated some pork fat in a pan and seared the hell out of the edges of the braised tongue to get them crispy — the end result is indistinguishable from carnitas. Really. Trust me on this one.
How to serve? Simply, with some homemade mustard and fleur de sel, although any good mustard and sea salt will do.
All in all, this has been quite the adventure. I’ve been eating — and eating well — off this pig for the better part of two weeks, and remember all I got was the head and offal. And I will be enjoying cured guanciale and liver for months to come. I’m sure glad I answered that email. Thanks, Taryn.