A recent whole-hog butchery and curing weekend workshop in South Portland made one thing clear: pigs are literally lined with fat. On Saturday, Nate "Iggy" Brimmer led a hands-on demonstration of how to butcher the organic pig (with teeth and lymph nodes intact) he raised at Giant's Belly Farm in Greene. Brimmer emphasized Italian seam butchery's whole-muscle cuts over, say, baby back ribs. Then on Sunday, Resilient Roots' Andrew Lindberg, who makes charcuterie for Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland, got the dozen participants started dry-curing filetto, spalla, coppa (the whole neck, also known as capocollo), lonza, and of course, legs of prosciutto. Local Sprouts Cooperative caterers prepared a pork spleen with apples and sage appetizer (not appetizing), baked stuffed pork heart and surprisingly delicious pork lung tempura (fried in lard), which tasted like exotic mushrooms, with an addictive spongy texture. They'll do another session in April. And every fall, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) also runs a popular nose-to-tail pork processing workshop at its headquarters in Unity that includes the humane slaughter, evisceration, and scalding or skinning of the pig.
So you know by now to think outside the pork tenderloin: the cheapest, often neglected parts can also be the tastiest, as British chef and nose-to-tail champion Fergus Henderson reminds us. When veteran butcher Robert Bisson of Bisson and Sons Meat Market and Farm in Topsham reminisced to me that "the only thing on the pig that you don't take and eat is the squeal," he wasn't kidding. Bisson's mother fed her large family creamy pig brains, pig tongue, and pork liver fried with bacon grease and onions. He laments that the younger generation eats less variety meats — and even the old standby salt pork — these days. But you wouldn't know it in and around Portland. So let's break down the whole hog. Here's a look at the most inventive dishes (plus some old standbys) local chefs are creating, often with those unloved, nasty bits.
Chefs swear boiling down a pig's head (sawed in half, perhaps, to better fit the pot) makes a superior soup stock. The meat and gelatinous collagen make creamy head cheese (really a terrine or meat jelly — dairy products are not involved). Portland's Fore Street features heritage pork brawn (the British term for head cheese) on charcuterie plates. The scrapple that master butcher Jarrod Spangler makes for Rosemont Market is basically head cheese bound together with cornmeal. And Lee Skawinski makes testa (head cheese terrine) with pig ears and pickled tongues for bollito misto served during the Whole Hog Dinners he's hosted at Vignola.
The pig jowl or cheeks are best cured as guanciale, an unsmoked bacon required for pasta all' amatriciana and the best pasta carbonara. Micucci Grocery sometimes sells the imported stuff (and affordable prosciutto and salami, including delicious Tuscan finocchiona, a fennel-flavored one) and Rosemont sells La Quercia acorn-finished guanciale and Spangler's house version. Conley at Gather is also putting up jowls. But it isn't hard to make your own. Participants in Lindberg's curing workshop did so, and I once had a salted jowl hanging from a rack in my fridge for weeks, with great results, thanks to a Mario Batali recipe.
The New York Times just declared crispy pig ears a 2011 bar snack trend that's come and gone. But we're a little behind the times here in Maine, and in fact, we like it that way. I tried cartilaginous ear strips for the first time in Brimmer and Lindberg's workshop and found them pleasantly chewy. Then I saw Gryffon Ridge Farm of Dresden selling ears from their Red Wattle heritage hogs at my Fort Andross farmers' market in Brunswick. I salted them with Chinese five-spice powder and then confited them, as charcuterie guru Michael Ruhlman recommends. Now I understand why pig's ears are for dogs. It was gross to shave them of unappetizing hairs. I hear Pai Men Miyake ramen bar occasionally serves a special pig's ear appetizer. The problem is restaurants are limited to two servings of ear per pig.
BABY GOT (FAT)BACK
Lardo, fatback cured with rosemary and other spices, is a fine incarnation of this waste cut. It's creamy and spreadable like butter. Try Spangler's version at Rosemont Market, or his mortadella that emulsifies the fat with meat. Or make your own, as Andy Lindberg instructed in his curing workshop. This winter, use salt pork for comfort in a pot of baked beans. I'm enjoying the recipes in the Cooking Down East and Dishing UpMaine cookbooks. Or drop in on one of the many mainline churches (with declining congregations, no doubt) that host those true New England baked bean — and chowder — suppers. Salt pork is the base of a good chowder, too. And don't forget chicharrones, a/k/a pork rinds or cracklins. At the French-Canadian Pocket Brunch, Fore Street's Nate Nadeau topped his yellow pea soup with crunchy pork croutons from those Yorkshire hogs from South Berwick his restaurant favors. Cantina El Rayo serves a vegetarian chicharrones de harina bar snack for those who don't eat pork.
FROM THE HEART
The Local Sprouts boys roasted baked, stuffed pig hearts during Lindberg and Brimmer's workshop. What a waste to discard this massive organ. Chicken hearts are delish. Why wouldn't pig ones be so? At tony Primo in Rockland, Melissa Kelly even serves pork heart raw, puttanesca tartare-style for her "La Ringrazio" nose-to-tail feast. Primo is closed for the season, until May, but have heart. Its coppas and prosciuttos (for perennial pork saltimbocca) are drying over winter. Red Wattle piglets arrive on Primo's farm each spring to fatten up for fall slaughter.
The pork lung tempura was a revelation at Brimmer and Lindberg's workshop. Local Sprouts served it with a tangy Japanese shiso-steeped syrup. The squeamish might cringe to watch Brimmer pick tracheal tubes out of the tissue, but the effort is worth it. Unfortunately, you won't find lung on any restaurant menus. The US bans its commercial consumption due to fears of disease and contamination. Lung must be served ultra-fresh. Make friends with a butcher or farmer.