I want to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about this post. As I started sharing my adventure into this hands-on, shaving-a-pig kind of cooking, it got people talking. Some of it was good talk and some of it was bad. Don’t get me wrong, I love this kind of conversation. I want people to talk about food. I want people to share in stomach filling moments. If you do, you will always have a place at the table in my life. Just let me say that as someone who promotes offal, eats offal, cooks offal, and seriously believes in the ethics on the topic, I’ve never ever felt more demonized after preparing a dish than this one. Demonized sounds like a hard word, but I was told considerably more disgusting things than compliments – “it’s sick” “why do you do this” “that’s gross” “animals have feeling too” and my personal favourite “you’re like Jeffrey Dahmer”. So while you read on, maybe let this next thought linger in the back of your mind; when did eating only the safe-cuts of an animal become an appropriate norm?
I realize Porchetta di Testa is not your average dish. You are literally taking the face off of a pig, flavouring it, and rolling it together to make one tasty treat. It takes a serious commitment of time – albeit, mostly unattended – and the help of some fancy tools. That’s not to say it’s difficult by any means. It’s actually quite easy. Yet if you are planning on trying to conjure this up at the last minute for your festive evening party, you are seriously mistaken.
So start by finding yourself a nice pig head. They aren’t really that hard to find if you are looking. I mean, it’s not going to be sitting by the side of the Whitemud but you get the point. Call a butcher, a farmer, an abattoir. Somebody at one of these places will help you find a suitable pig head before long. If you are worried about the messy stuff, have a local butcher take off the face for you. Make sure you get the cheek meat and tongue as well. Corey at ACME Meat (where I got my head) threw in some extra cheeks, so I knew this was going to be a sweet treat! And again, if you don’t already purchase some kind of meat from ACME, it is seriously worth a try. I know a butcher shop can be scary, but Corey and his fine staff will hook you up and you’ll leave happy.
Following Chris Cosentino’s recipe, I rubbed the pig in garlic, chili flakes, fresh rosemary, lemon zest, salt, and pepper as my flavour base. Then I covered the pigs face with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for 2 days. The next step is to roll the pig up and tie it closed. I took the trusty guidance of my friend Todd and added the extra security of a mesh ham bag so everything was easier to maneuver into the vacuum sealer.
Setting up a water bath at 85 degrees Celsius, I let the pig cook for 15 hours. I wasn’t shocked by the amount of fat and gelatin that came off the head, but was surprised by the beautiful separation. After dunking the pork into an ice bath, I let it set in the refrigerator for another 3 days. Thinking the ham mesh would also make skimming off the fat easier, I was wrong. Even though the meat was cool from the fridge, the mesh ripped through the gelatin and fat requiring me to remove most of it by hand. Next time I do this dish, I think I’ll wrap it in cheese cloth after it’s tied. The cheese cloth should allow the hot fats to seep through and create an easy removable blanket afterwards.
I was quite nervous before slicing in the porchetta. I literally stared at the cooked meat, counting each step and doing a mental check list. Like asking a pretty girl on a date, I didn’t know if my hard work had paid off. Would the flavour be any good? Would the ear cartilage be soft? The questions and anticipation just built, so I puffed up my chest and slowly sliced into my creation. Thankfully everything looked in place. There was a beautiful separation of cheek and ear and jowl and so forth. It was magical. My apologies for the lack of pictures at this stage as I somehow got my self covered in so much fat that I might as well have jumped into a Vaseline pool. I could have won any slip and slide contest, I know that for sure. As I gorged on hunks of meat, I couldn’t have been happier. I did it. I cooked a pigs face and it was amazing! The rosemary, the garlic, the lemon zest…it all worked. The meat was tender, full of flavour, and rich with fat. Simply stunning.
I tried the porchetta in multiple ways over the last week. As a meat salad, on a Montreal bagel, straight up (I ate a lot of like this), and as a topper on slices of baguette (with capers, pecorino cheese, grainy mustard and arugula). The meat was good no matter how I used it and that is all I can really ask. It’s nice to have some feedback from the 25 or so people who tried it and I’m already making notes for next time. Seriously, you want this porchetta.
One last rant from the soap box; remember that your butcher – if you still have one – can’t break down your entire bovine into rib-eyes, or your entire lamb into chops. It is physically not possible. Killing and butchering an animal should bring out emotions; you are taking a life to feed yours. If you happily consume the same cuts over and over again, or you refuse to think past the Styrofoam packet that your meat comes on, then you should stop. Take a step back and ask yourself what you really know about your food.