Over the previous weekend I worked alongside my brother and several of his friends in what has become an annual ritual, now in its fourth year: the "processing" of pigs. By processing, of course, I mean killing, cleaning, scalding, scraping, eviscerating, halving, butchering, wrapping, and labeling. But processing sounds oddly sanitary, doesn't it?
It's a lot of work -- the kind of work once tackled by small communities, without the benefit of artificial refrigeration, with an immediate focus on maximum utilization, in the forms of preservation and consumption. This isn't a post about the whole process of harvesting a pig (although if you're interested please check out my brother's blog entry from a couple of years ago. Warning: graphic images will be found there!). But having done this a few times now, I have been increasingly nagged by our inability to achieve maximum utilization out of the animals we handle. Each year I try to turn the dial up a bit more, producing head cheese, braised hocks, and the like. But the real challenges are with offal -- the internal organs of the animal -- where for most of us I suspect the map of food finds its edge. There be dragons here!
There's a modern interest in offal, with high profile folks like Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson helping to retrain palates for these rich and sometimes challenging foods. But still -- you can't walk into your local Whole Foods and ask for heart kebabs, spleen rolls, or tripe. These are foods and flavors that are rarely encountered. And like other strong foods (remember your first taste of coffee? Or dark chocolate? Or blue cheese? Or scotch?) they may require a bit of a warm up period.
But why do it? Yeah, offal is getting a little bit of culinary buzz these days. And I love connecting with old traditions -- traditions of work, and community, and food. But in this case the driving force is one of obligation. When one of these animals is killed I feel deeply obligated to make the best use of all the resources that animal provides. And that requires me to learn some new skills in the kitchen, and to expand my sense of taste.
I've already tackled, and learned to love, blood sausage, and liver (in the form of mazzafegati, an Italian liver sausage -- thanks Hank Shaw!). Pork heart is pretty accessible, marinated and cooking up almost like beef in the form of kebabs. Jane Grigson's potent little book,Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, provides instructions for a kidney cake - pithiviers aux rognons - which would make any feeling person cry out for more kidney. And I've performed the incantations, involving mostly repetitive, tedious labor and lots of running water, that turn small intestines into sausage casings. What's left? Plenty - this year my journey took me into some lesser known bits: the mesentery, and the spleen. I'll admit, neither word is very appetizing. But I can vouch for the end results -- both are edible, even tasty.
The mesentery, also called "frill" or "crow," is a connective tissue that holds the small intestines together. It's mostly pure white fat, surrounding a few small muscley bits and a bunch of blood vessels. As such, one use is to render it for lard. However, Grigson described another use that seemed more interesting: frying small pieces of the fat and serving over potatoes. That's what I did during the first day of work on the pigs -- a day, incidentally, that was cold to the point of hail and freezing rain, and full of hard manual labor. The stips fried up quickly, curling and browning and crisping. I threw the potatoes, already cooked, on the gridle with them for a few minutes. Then all came off and into a bowl for seasoning -- salt, parsley, and some quatre epices. It was hot, the fatty bits were rich, the potatoes were filling, and it was hard to imagine a food more fitting to the labor of the day. I didn't get any photos this time, but will try to do so in December, when the event will be repeated.
The spleen, called rate in French, has few culinary admirers, I suspect. Grigson spends only a few paragraphs on the organ, and introduces only a couple of approaches to cooking it. I chose an approach based on these two sentences: "Country people in Wiltshire make a good sage and onion stuffing, spread the spleen thickly with it and sew it up. Wrapped in a large piece of caul...it is then roasted in a medium oven for an hour." Caul, for the uninitiated, is a lacy, delicate fat membrane that is often used to wrap items headed for the oven -- pates, crepinettes, or even tenderloins or fish. It bastes while it secures its contents. I skewered rather than sewed my rolls. Traditionally served cold, I waited till next day to try it. Sliced thinly, it's a pretty thing. The flavor is mild, unmistakeably organny, but less challenging than liver. It reminds me of liverwurst, actually, and I think my next tasting will include a good mustard and some nice bread.
I won't be shopping for spleen any time soon. I wouldn't find one if I wanted to. But now I know what to do with one when the need arises -- how to transform the undesireable into the palatable. And having done so -- making the fullest use of an animal that I can -- makes the rest of it taste that much better.
I have to report more findings on the spleen front. I found a serving approach that really does this food justice, inspired by a Sicilian sandwich called "vastedda." Typically made with cow spleen, the organ is fried in lard, then served on a roll with ricotta cheese and grated caciocavallo. My version was an open faced form: a slice of baguette, a smear of ricotta, a slice of spleen, and some grated romano cheese over all. Totally delicious. The fatty, smooth ricotta checks the strong-ish flavor of the spleen. So good, in fact, that I convinced a friend to take one of the spleen rolls and some of the fixings to serve at his Thanksgiving gathering. It went over well, I am told.
Also on the menu: head cheese. Was there ever a more unfortunately named food? The name is a rather literal translation of the French "fromage de tete." Fromage is usually translated as "cheese," but comes from the Latin forma, meaning to shape or mold -- which makes sense given how cheese is often made by being pressed in a form. Head cheese is simply the cooked meat of the head of a pig (typically), formed into a loaf. The body of the loaf is provided by a gelatin made from chilled broth, and is flavored wonderfully with fresh herbs and crushed whole spices. I wonder if more people would try it if it was called "cold meat loaf?" But we're stuck with "head cheese," which almost universally triggers a disgust response. Too bad -- this stuff is both beautiful and delicous, served along with a good crusty baguette and with a small pot of French mustard at the ready. It's like a stained glass window of meat, carrots, spices. My recipe comes from Jennifer McLagan's lovely book Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal.