So a few weeks ago, I went to The Meat Hook to pick up a beef roast for Christmas dinner. Brent helped me pick out a nice 8 lb. roast (which he then layered with fat and tied nicely — something I don’t think I quite fully appreciated until the roast came out of the oven), and then we got down to business. I’ve been following The Meat Hook on Twitter for a while now, and these guys aren’t just dealing with your ordinary bits. They’re cranking out stuff like chorizo-stuffed duck hearts, goose rillettes, lamb belly and bahn mi dogs. That’s right, they took a Vietnamese sandwich and turned it into a sausage. HOT.
Compared to these guys, I’m clearly Mr. Amateur Newbie, so I gave Brent my 10 second charcuterie resume, and asked him to surprise me with whatever he’s got in the meat locker. He came out first with some pig’s skin, rolled it up, wrapped it up and handed it to me. I thought that might be all, but then he went back in the locker and emerged with a pig’s head.
Yup, a whole head. They had already taken the cheeks out to make guanciale, but there was still plenty of meat left, so I headed for the checkout with a beef roast in one hand and a pig’s head in the other. It was going to be an interesting weekend.
I’d never cooked a pig’s head before, so I figured I’d play it safe and start with the basics, namely head cheese, which isn’t really cheese at all, more like a meat jelly terrine. I used the recipe in my copy of Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. And since it’s not every day that you get a whole pig’s head, I also decided to make the Crispy Pig Ear salad from the book. Both the head cheese and the crispy ears turned out pretty good considering it was my first attempt making them, but what really turned out amazing was the recipe I made with the roll of pig’s skin.
Brent told me how you could slow cook thin ribbons of pig skin in a tomato sauce and after a few hours just before the skin completely falls apart, you end up with the most delicious porky ragu you could ever want. So I gave that a shot, and it turned out awesome. Here’s a pic of the final three dishes, and below is the recipe I hacked together for the ragu.
Pigskin Ragu (if the name weirds you out, you can also call it Football Ragu)
- 1 fennel bulb
- 2-3 medium sized leeks
- 1 large can (28 oz.) of whole, peeled tomatoes
- 1 roll of pigskin (about 1/2 lb.)
- olive oil
- salt, pepper and whatever other fresh green italian herbs you have on hand (e.g. parsley, thyme, rosemary)
Thinly slice the pig’s skin into strips about 1/8″ wide and 1″ long. Saute in a pan with a little olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes just to heat them through and to brown the outside a little. Now open the can of tomatoes and strain off all of the tomato juice into the pan with the pig’s skin. Add a little bit more water if the pigskin isn’t fully covered. Turn the heat down to low and let this simmer for about an hour.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the fennel bulb and leeks. Saute in a stock pot with a little bit of olive oil on medium heat for about 5 minutes until they’ve sweated some. Coarsely chop the canned tomatoes, and then add them to the pot. Turn the heat down to very low and let simmer. You don’t want the pigskin or the tomato mixture to boil, so just keep them low and slow for the next hour.
After an hour of simmering, pour the pigskin/tomato juice mixture into the pot with the leeks, fennel and tomato. Add whatever fresh herbs you want and stir everything together. Continue to simmer for another hour, tasting and seasoning as you like, just be careful that if you simmer the sauce much longer the pig skin will start to completely melt. Personally, I stopped cooking the ragu just before this melting point so that there was still some texture to the finished ragu. But if you don’t like that, just keep simmering and the texture will melt away, but the flavor will remain.
Once the ragu is done, serve with your favorite pasta. In my case, I just threw together some handmade pappardelle using the 3:2 Pasta Dough from the Ratio iPhone App. Delicious.