Ever eat a whole pig? All of it? Every little bit, from the rooter to the tooter, as they say? I highly recommend it – though certainly not by yourself. I also highly recommend cultivating a group of friends that know how to cook it and will do so for you. I am lucky to have such a group of talented wonderful people in my life. And they’re funny too – always a bonus.
Nose-to-tail eating has really taken off in recent years and judging by how often I see it popping up on menus around here, it appears to have a receptive audience. Many of the chefs I know seek out high quality, sustainable, humanely and locally raised meat, fish, cheese and produce. It not only tastes better but they’re passionate about supporting the local farmers. In fact, I see a regular parade of local chefs at The Green City Market every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Yes, it’s pricey but it’s something to which they are strongly committed. I admire this and choose to support them as my budget will allow. I also eat very very well.
Rather than order select cuts of meat and fish, many chefs are now buying whole farm raised animals, mainly pigs, lambs and goats. The other day, my pal Chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol had a whole 60lb halibut on his worktable. It was quite impressive. When you buy a whole animal, you need to have conviction in your beliefs because a whole animal is a lot to handle both from a cost perspective and in terms of sheer space and the hard work required. Seek out these folks and eat in their restaurants. They should be supported and encouraged. When was the last time you actually saw a real butcher in your local grocery store? Think about it. When? It’s a disappearing skill and it’s frightening. Avoid factory produced food and support the little guys when you can. Sure they’ll have the usual dishes like steaks and such but it’s what they do with the other bits that are really of interest. House made salumi, pates and other charcuterie. Crispy pig tail, fried golden brown served with house made pickles. Cured meats like pastrami, country hams and prosciutto. Sausages of unbelievable variety. Oh, and my new favorite … house made fried pork rinds, still warm from the fryer. ooooohhhhh.
And the offal! Oh the offal! Wonderful sweetbreads, bits of pork liver terrine, grilled slices of heart, achingly good broths and stews. I know, I know. It certainly takes a leap of faith but trust me that in the hands of a talented caring chef, what may be completely foreign and seemingly foul to you can be turned into delicious tasty bits. I have some very cautious dining companions who have given me the stink eye at various suggestions but with a little gentle prodding and a lot of trust (and a healthy dose of booze), they dove right in and are now fans of the tasty bits too.
I’m no expert on the matter but I’m pretty sure London’s Chef Fergus Henderson of St. John Restaurant is more than party responsible for this surge. He of the offal cuts or “pieces parts” as I like to call them. You don’t necessarily see a pork chop on his menu, rather Pig’s Tongue & Butterbeans, Crispy Pig Tail Salad or Braised Ox Kidney, Bacon & Mash. And I think it’s clear to say that he’s responsible for a dish of Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad, something that’s become a bit cultish and I’ve enjoyed in several restaurants across the US (the aforementioned Bristol does a lovely version.)
I’ve been lucky enough to dine at this St. John and it’s fabulous. The bone marrow is reason alone to fly across the pond. I ordered the Grilled Ox Heart, something I’d never even considered eating before but figured, what the hell? If you’re in a place famed for the offal, order the offal idiot. It was the most fantastic, rich, flavorful piece of meat I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating and I was delighted. Like the best steak x 10. Really. Sometimes you just have to put your notions aside and take that leap. The rewards are infinite. Have I convinced you in the least? C’mon! Come to the offal side!
So back to cultivating those friends … recently four of them organized a Head to Tail Sunday Dinner. We all used to work together not so long ago on a large hotel project which was a tad challenging, shall we say. They are all immensely talented and now have their own places. I just love to see my friends succeed. From Chicago, we had Sam Burman of bluprint, Chris Pandel of The Bristol, Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social and from Indianapolis we had Chris Eley of Goose the Market.
I should also point out that Sam’s sous chef, Melissa Koehnen, pitched in and was responsible for the delicious dessert among a zillion other things. I mean, c’mon, bacon ice cream?!? Yuuuuuummmmm! And as the only woman in the kitchen that night (I think), she gets special props. In attendance were a lot of our old colleagues, friends, family and quite a lot of the farmers they support. With the exception of just a few items, everything we ate was sourced from local farmers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. It was a wonderful meal and a wonderful night.
So what was the menu? A whole lot of deliciousness, I tell you! Bear with me because I took some crapola pictures of the meal on my iPhone. If you’d like to see some really good shots, check out bluprint’s facebook page of the event. Obviously taken by a professional, of which I clearly am not.
Full disclosure: I really stink at taking pictures in restaurants. I never remember and am usually half way through my meal before it dawns on me to take the shot. This dinner was no exception. Some blogger I am. Good god.
My dining companions and I really enjoyed the whole meal but our favorite was the first course – the charcuterie platter. Everything was amazing but the tasty little pickled things – pea pods, onions, raspberries, wax beans and on an on – really kicked it up quite a few notches. I could eat this course each and every day of my life. And die fat and happy with shockingly high cholesterol. Yippee! Who’s in?
COURSE 1 – CHARCUTERIE
Tongue & Cheek Terrine, Cold Smoked Lomo, Salami Tartufo, Mild Coppa, Finocchiona, Soppressata, Mortadella, Lonza Stagionata, Pickled Vegetables, Mustardos & Conserva
COURSE 2 – SALAD
Beets, Pancetta, Goat Cheese, Pistachio, Honey Truffle Vinaigrette
Melon, Cracklings, Feta, Basil, Mint, Pickled Musk Melon, Gaeta Olive Vinaigrette
Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, Arugula, Balsamic Cream
COURSE 3 – PASTA
Ragu of Pork Shoulder, Pappardella, Wisconsin Parmesan
Mazzafegati Tortellini, Pine Nuts, Gremolata
Cotechino Stuffed Squid, Puttanesca, Preserved Tomatoes
COURSE 4 – MAIN
Saddle of Pork Roasted in “La Caja” (check out that facebook link – this contraption is cool as hell)
Maple & Bourbon Glazed Ham
Braised Greens, Irish Bacon
Creamy Polenta, Heart & Brain
Roasted Turnips, Guanciale
COURSE 5 – DESSERT
Sticky Banana Cake, Rum Toffee, Bacon Ice Cream
If you’re in Chicago or Indianapolis, I highly highly recommend going to any if not all of their places. And be sure to order the tasty bits. Trust me on this one.
bluprint: Sam Burman, chef; 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, 312/410-9800 (note: CLOSED)
The Bristol: Chris Pandel, chef; 2152 N. Damen Avenue, 773/862-5555
Old Town Social: Jared Van Camp, chef; 455 W North Avenue , 312/266-2277
Goose the Market: Christopher Eley, chef; 2503 N Delaware Street, 317/924-4944