Saturday, February 6, 2010

It's stuff like this

A lot of cooks complain about things in the kitchen, but they find ways to reward themselves. Sometimes those rewards are blowing the week’s pay at the strip club, like our saucier did on Friday night. Or having familial relations with as many waitresses/cooks as possible, a favorite pastime among some of our cooks. Or chain smoking a series of cigarettes and downing countless cocktails, like all our cooks do.

For me, though, the reward to working at a fast-paced kitchen is that I get to see and learn all kinds of cool stuff I’d be hard-pressed to see or learn elsewhere. The latest incarnation of this is working with whole pigs.

Exhibit A: We now have a new dish on garde manger, a pork head-cheese roulade wrapped with sardines and garnished pickled onions, radicchio, chives fried prosciutto chips, and onion-preserved lemon relish. The dish isn’t one of my favorites—I’ve never been a big fan of sardines, for one; the roulade is ridiculously big, for another—but the prep work involved is interesting.

Once a week we have to brine pig heads. I’m talking whole pig heads that have been sawed perfectly in half. You see the tongue, the brain, the beady little eyes, the floppy ears. They have different expressions (of the four heads I brined last week, two seemed happy to have been killed, one looked bored, the other terrified). It's like a scene from a Nine Inch Nails music video.

The brine is a mix of about ten gallons of water, mixed with several pounds of sugar, salt, chili flakes, peppercorns, celery seeds, and cloves. A cup of curing salt is added to the mix to add color and prevent botulism. It’s brined for a week, and then braised.

After the meat is fall-off-the face tender, it is separated from the fat and skin, and then the “good” parts of the skin (i.e., the parts without hair) is added back to the meat, along with numerous spices. The braising liquid is reduced to gelatin, poured over the meat/skin, and formed into a terrine, which is then rolled with the sardines. Voila, a head cheese roulade.

The head cheese is tasty, and I’ve learned that apparently the eye socket is the most highly prized cut among chefs. Didn’t get to taste it myself (my garde manger compatriot got one, and the chef de cuisine the other from the initial pig head), but I hope to soon.

Exhibit B: This last Friday I got to see chef butchering a couple of suckling pigs. Seeing him take a knife and carve out the breastbone and ribcage of those beasts made me yearn to learn more about butchering. Not in a gay way, or a psychotic way, but rather in a “I want to be that impressive” way.

It’s stuff like this that pumps me up about going into work, keeps me sane while on the line, and stays with me as I hump my knives back home to Jersey on the PATH train.

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