Friday, August 9, 2013

Pig Tales

 This is how optimistic I was about the project.  The menu board says: "Spanish inspired meal.  Pig if comes out, if not - Chinese"

It all started two years ago when I got a smoker for my birthday… In their selfish wisdom my friends correctly decided to get me a very large one, I am sure it was all with intent on getting fed.  As I used it over the next two summers to smoke Cornish hens, ducks, ribs and fish, I felt like the size of that thing is going to waste.  I need to do something bigger… something delicious and preferably difficult so I can claim the bragging rights… I wanted to BBQ a whole suckling pig.  I talked about it all spring and most of the summer, doing my homework, researching how to buy and cook the creature.  I ignored dirty looks from my bulldog when I measured him (he is the size and girth of an average piglet),and then the surface of the smoker, to make sure I have a good fit.  I prepared mentally for having to deal with a whole animal and I watched the weather….   I really didn’t want to watch the grill for 8 hrs in the rain…
Finally, the forecast was favorable, no other plans in sight and I went piggy shopping.  Let me tell you, nothing on those BBQ Master blogs said anything about the guilt I would feel when a happy, floppy eared piglet was horsing around with his buddy and making funny noises and nosing up to me and I knew he was dinner… Nothing… I just pointed and ran and let my husband take care of the dirty work of having to witness the slaughter.   Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well for a few nights. 
Once home the still floppy eared, no longer happy piglet had to be brined.  Technically suckling pigs are those that do not yet have teeth, but anything fewer than 40 pounds is considered a very young pig and is easy to cook at home. 
Mine came right down to the wire at 39 pounds and at “way too big for my refrigerator” length.  I needed to submerge it in the brine for at least 24 hrs prior to smoking and upon reviewing every option available we decided to give the porky a sit-in bath.  I cannot describe the surrealism of opening you fridge door to have a pig sitting on his ass in a bath of brine staring right into your eyes…  Bone chilling, especially at night…  We had to turn it over the next day so that the head and shoulders can get brined, so were now subjected to the ass view every time was opened the fridge door… Really, I don’t know what is more sobering…head or … ass?
Finally the cooking day was here, we were armed with at least 8 hrs worth of lump coal and enough wood chips to smoke out a fox.  I got up early to have a quiet cup of coffee before I had to deal with any large animals dead or alive, and it is at that time, I realized that I must have pissed off either swine gods or some kind of Jewish ancestor… it was pouring…  The TV weather announcer smirked as he announced that the whole Saturday is a wash, and I drank my coffee in despair contemplating changing my career to weather forecaster, after all, they get paid rain or shine regardless of what is foretold.
That’s the thing with cooking something so demanding, you can’t back out.  It’s not a chicken or a few steaks that you can throw back in the fridge.  It is not like seafood, that you can’t throw back in the fridge, but you are still reasonably sure that you can finish it off with just your family.  Buying and brining a pig is like cooking the entire Thanksgiving dinner for a large crowd and then have no one show up… you are stuck, it has to get cooked… and it had to be today…

I am going to skip over the fire pit straggles in the rain and the practice runs of positioning the porky on the grill grate.  Let’s just say that my huge smoker was not big enough for this sucker.  The only way that pig was going to fit if we curled it up like a napping dog and propped up with bricks.  When the final position was chosen I stuffed the cavity with apples, fennel, ginger, garlic and rosemary and sewed it right up.  The stuffing cannot be eaten as it never reaches the safe temperature, but it flavors the meat and keeps everything moist.  It is not necessary by any means as whole pig is a self-basting roast and really adds up to an hour to the cooking time.

  I chose to stuff, because I had to get the meat juicy and delicious as it was becoming apparent that I have to forget about crackling crispy skin which is one of the best parts of the whole roasted pig.  The smoker was just not big enough, the air was not going to circulate properly and the position was just too awkward…. I had a glass of sangria and just decided to go with a flow…

Rubbed with smoked paprika, brown sugar and a bit of salt, propped up with bricks, ears and snout covered with foil, this was the ugliest thing to hit my grill.  Another glass of sangria and I decided not to worry about the final presentation, just getting the thing cooked and most importantly taking it off grill somehow. 
Six anxious hours and countless glasses of sangria later, the sun was out and the pig reached the magical internal temperature of 165F at the ham.  I decided that I cannot make everyone eat at midnight, so the quest for 190F pulled pork state had to be abandoned and Porky was taken off. 

It looked even uglier now than before it cooked, I really did try to do something about the presentation.  I stuck half an apple in it’s mouth ( a whole would not fit), I gave him cherry tomato eyes, well…Freddy would be proud.  But the meat was delicious, juicy, and full of that undeniable pork flavor.  I was surprised that a 40 pound pig didn’t yield that much meat, the head and the bones were quite a waste. 
 To compensate for the ugliness of the swine, a friend brought a beautiful cabbage pie, that was as delicious as it was pretty.  So at least I had something decent looking to photograph.

Another glass of sangria to honor the floppy eared Porky who gave up his life for a delicious dinner and the “Pig Tales” came to an end.  Not sure if I will ever do it again, but I did spot a baby goat at the farm… maybe worth looking into spit roasting!
I am not sure if anyone reading this blog will ever attempt to roast a whole piglet, but just in case, here are the cooking notes:
1.        When choosing the pig, make sure it is less than 40 lbs… anything larger will be more difficult to cook as the muscle group start to develop.
2.       If the pig is alive when you are choosing it… apologize profusely!
3.       Choose the pig that can fit in your grill comfortably if butterflied
4.       A 40 lbs pig will yield about 13-15 lbs of meat, maybe a little more if you are a skilled carver
5.       Make sure the butcher cleans the cavity, burns off all the hair from the skin and takes out the eyes – they pop during cooking – gross!
6.       Brine the pig for at least 24 hrs, make sure it stays cold during brining, if it doesn’t fit in the fridge, you can brine it in a large cooler with unopened bags of ice.  The brine should be simple so that you don’t mask the pork flavor, I used water, salt, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, black pepper, a splash of apple cider and orange juice.
7.       When ready to cook you can either stuff the cavity or not its up to you, stuffing adds one hour to cooking time and it is not safe to eat.
8.       Score the skin all over with a sharp knife or a razor, run smoked paprika, brown sugar and a little salt all over. 
9.       Cover the ears and the snout with foil or they will burn ( mine did anyway), take the foil off the last hour of cooking
10.   Roast over indirect heat, low and slow at no more than 250F.  At that temperature you can figure it will take 1 hr per 10 lbs of meat, but the pig will be ready when it is ready so start checking about an hour before you think it should be done. 
11.   Check for internal temperature at the ham and shoulder, making sure your thermometer does not hit the bone.  The pork is cooked at 165F and is pullable at 190F.  If you are cooking a young piglet, the meat will be juicy, soft and delicious at 165F so spare yourself hours of waiting
12.   To get the skin crispy, you need to increase the temperature to 450F for 10-15 minutes, but I it is very hard to do on the BBQ and transferring that monster into the oven was not an option in my case, so I am not sure if this step works.
13.   Let the pig rest for 20-30 minutes before carving
14.   If all goes terribly wrong… order Chinese food…

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pan Seared Tile fish with Summer Corn salad and Basil Tarragon Pesto.

Officially I go shopping for groceries once a week.  This is when I stock up on things like cereal and paper towels and dog chew toys.  On all other days of the week I just pick up the rest of what I need… eggs on the farm near my house, fruits from market number 1, vegetables from a market number 2,  because I don’t like the selection at the first, sea food depending on the type from either an Italian or an Asian fishmonger( sometimes both), crusty bread from the old-world Italian store ( and not the one that houses the fishmonger), bagels freshly baked from only one shop, ricotta from another Italian store that make their own…meat from a slaughter farm….God forbid I need some specialty ingredients … I am surprised I don’t fly to Mexico for chili peppers.  You get the point.  I am driving in opposite directions wasting gas and not to mention time just to assemble dinner… because I can’t compromise on the quality of ingredients, timing of when they are freshest and because I am insane.  
I also shop for too many meals at the time which makes things even more complicated.  Say I want to make Spicy Spanish style muscles on Sunday, first I would have to make the stock and chorizo the weekend before (each requires its own shopping spree to different continents of suburban New Jersey).   I will buy some of the vegetables on Thursday except the peppers because they didn’t look good that day and not basil, because who buys basil in advance? So Friday I would go hunting for peppers and white wine but buy no muscles or bread, because who buys these things in advance?  Saturday, I will go get bread, because I need day old bread for charring, not two day bread, not same day bread…. One day old it must be.  Finally on Sunday, I get around to buying the muscles (no more than 2 hrs in advance of cooking to assure ultimate freshness or most likely because I have no space in the fridge) only to get home and realize I forgot the basil after all.   “Honey, can you go and pick up some basil for me, please, please?  And not from the 20 nearest shops, go to the Italian store on the other side of the world, they have the BEST Basil!”  Now time that story by ten or so dishes I cook in a week and you might just feel sorry for me.  But this is not how I like to shop… I like to shop for one meal, one star ingredient that I can build a plate around.
Take last weekend, with fridge fully stocked with kid’s weekday meals I was free to go hunting just for Sunday dinner.  With no ideas I just wanted to be inspired by something, and I was.  The freshest local corn was too good to pass up and tarragon looked amazing….idea complete. I am going to make a summer corn salad and some kind of fish, whatever looks good in either this store or the next one… A simple meal with few in season ingredients, no extensive driving required (well, a little bit)…
For the Tile fish.
 4 Tile fish filets, skin scored and pin bones removed
½ cup corn meal
3 tbs olive oil
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400F.  Heat the olive oil in an oven safe pan until almost smoking.  Season the fish with salt, black and cayenne pepper.  Dip the skin side into corn meal and pan sear skin side down weighting down with another heavy pan.  Sear for a minute or two or until the fish unsticks itself.  Turn skin side up and transfer to the oven for 7-8 minutes.

Summer corn salad
5 ears of corn
1 cup cherry tomatoes halved
1.5 cups of roughly chopped frisee lettuce
1.5 tbs of chopped fresh tarragon + 1 tsp
1 tsp olive oil
1.5 tbs lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat a shallow skillet with olive oil.  Cut the kernels of the corn and sauté on low for 3-4 minute tossing often.  Add the tomatoes, tarragon, salt and pepper.  Saute for a few more minutes than let cool to room temperature.  Toss the corn and tomatoes with frisee lettuce and reserved tarragon, dress with lemon juice and salt and pepper if needed. 
Tarragon and Basil Pesto.
I used this pesto as sauce for my orzo pasta and fish.
¼ cup fresh tarragon leaves
2 cups of fresh basil leaves
¼ cup pine nuts toasted
3 garlic cloves minced
Zest of ½ the lemon
2 tsp of lemon juice
Salt and pepper
¼ cup Parmesan cheese (I omit the cheese if serving with fish or sea food… greatest cooking sin every Italian will attest to is mixing fish and cheese)
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients and pulse until smooth.  If your pest is coming out to thick, just add a little more olive oil or even a little water.
Serve tossed with pasta or as sauce for meat, fish, flat bread, bread dipping sauce, fried eggs topper or whatever you would normally put herbs on.
Summer on a plate, colorful and delicious!  Now you have to excuse me, I have to go food shopping….