Todd Nakashima
Kelly Liken's roasted suckling pig sopes with tangy savoy slaw & harissa salsa.
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...And This Little Piggy?

Jim Poris - September 2008

There are better ways to present a suckling pig than with an apple wedged in its mouth, as these three chefs demonstrate.

Whereas on the madcap TV show Iron Chef, participants draw and quarter food in a race against the clock, Food Arts' Mystery Basket only demands that chefs press the limits of their imaginations for what culinary gem they can wring from a set list of ingredients. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, where a picture of the fitted pieces adorns the box, the Mystery Basket ingredients can be arranged for use in any number of configurations, all valid. That each chef this time around--Corey Lee (The French Laundry, Yountville, CA), Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken, Vail, CO), and Jeff Jackson (The Lodge at Torrey Pines, La Jolla, CA)--snapped the ingredients together into different ways reveals their basic instincts free of the drag that other factors play--food costs, salability, menu placement, etc.--when a new dish is considered.

For the record, they were given 28 ingredients with the requirement that they use 75 percent--or 21--of them, including the featured suckling pig with offal. For how they employed the others--read the results.

Suckling pig with offal, salt and pepper, garlic, cipollini, cider vinegar, Madeira, maple syrup, raw peanuts in the shell, carrots with tops on, plums, shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan or Grana Padano, celery, olive oil, turnips with tops on, savoy cabbage, cornmeal, all-purpose flour, harissa, eggs, oranges, whole milk, and any six of the herbs and spices: bay leaves, mint, marjoram, cilantro, saffron, rosemary, thyme, sage, mustard seeds, juniper berries, parsley, tarragon, basil, hot or sweet paprika, coriander seeds, cloves, nutmeg, and savory.

Kelly Liken
Restaurant Kelly Liken and Rich and Kelly's American Bistro
Vail, Colorado

"This past winter was the snowiest in Vail's recorded history. In fact, I wouldn't have described it as winter but rather as a five month long unrelenting snowstorm. It was, of course, a blessed situation for skiers and snowboarders; some would have called it epic (and it was). April came in like a lion, and by the time the ski mountain closed for the season, my husband, Rick [Colomitz, the restaurant's gm] and I were ready for the sun to shine. We packed up after a busy season and flew off to our second favorite place on earth, the Yucatán Peninsula."

"We've just returned from seven amazing days on a perfect little island off the tip of the peninsula. Now, I'm sitting on my deck in my down parka, gazing at the still snow-covered Rocky Mountains, contemplating how I'm going to attack this Mystery Basket challenge with its random list of ingredients. As I sift through the list given to me, I am consumed by my memories of the flavors of the Yucatán.

"There, breakfast consisted of piping hot pork empanadas, prepared skillfully by the Señoras Corales in their modest home on the beach. The fresh masa had such an intense earthy flavor. These were always accompanied by tangy pickled onions and an almost painfully spicy chile sauce. By day we pulled 10 pound grouper out of the fertile waters of the Gulf of Mexico while our boat captains, Riger and Julio, cheered us on. Back on the beach, they grilled the fish over an open fire, slathering it with meltingly creamy mojo de ajo. The snapper we caught was turned into seviche. Every evening at sunset, Noa served a crunchy, battered local fish beside a smoked chile sauce at her husband Chendo's 10 seat beach bar while we watched the bartenders Hector and Fabian squeeze limes into our Margaritas.

"I always remember a place by what it tastes like, and sitting here in the snow of Colorado, I want to re-create these flavors. It's getting cold, so I'm going to head inside my kitchen with my list of Mystery Basket ingredients and my memories still fresh. I'd like to pay tribute to my Mexican friends by attempting to take you to the Yucatán, a place where the cuisine is a study in extremes and bold contrasts. With any luck, I'll be back on that perfect little island for a few precious days before the snow starts to fall again, cooking, eating, and drinking with my new friends, creating more inspiring memories."

Roasted suckling pig sopes with tangy savoy slaw & harissa salsa. "Place 3 tablespoons harissa paste, 4 garlic cloves, the juice of 2 oranges, 1 teaspoon each toasted mustard seeds and coriander seeds, and 1/2 teaspoon hot paprika in the bowl of a processor; with the motor running, drizzle in enough olive oil to create a loose paste. Put 2 cups each of cider vinegar and water, 3 cups of a mirepoix made with cipollini, carrots, and celery, 1 sliced orange, and a bay leaf in a roasting pan; add a roasting rack; score the skin of a suckling pig; rub it liberally with the harissa salsa, reserving a few tablespoons for plating; season with kosher salt and just a bit of pepper; place the pig on the rack; cover with a heavy lid or aluminum foil; set the roasting pan over high heat until the liquid comes to a boil; place in a 400 degree oven for 3 hours, checking it a few times to ensure that the liquid hasn't evaporated [add a little water to the pan if it starts to reduce too much]. When the pig comes out of the oven, gently pull the meat away from the bones; strain the braising liquid; reserve the meat in the liquid.

"Julienne a head of savoy cabbage; toss 2 cups cabbage, the juice of 1 orange, 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, and 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro; season with kosher salt and pepper.

"Place 1 cup finely ground cornmeal, 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, and 1 egg in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; paddle at low speed, adding enough milk for the dough to come together and attain the consistency of cookie dough; do not overmix. Pat the dough into 2 inch round, half-inch thick patties. Heat a cast-iron skillet set over medium-high heat; cook the patties in the skillet until golden brown on both sides; remove from the skillet; carefully squeeze the edges all the way around so that they look like little round boats.

"To serve, deep fry the sopes [masa boats] until crispy; place a hot sope in the middle of the plate; drizzle a little of the harissa marinade on the sope and around the plate; pile the pork on the sope; top with a little of the slaw; garnish the sope with fresh cilantro leaves and grated Grana Padano. To drink, Bristol Mass Transit amber ale."

Corey Lee
The French Laundry
Yountville, California

"I don't know how Food Arts convinced me to do this. This is a very difficult exercise, and the list of ingredients--most of which I would not use together--is very long. The suckling pig is difficult as well. I enjoy it more as a rustic, whole-roasted preparation than as an elegant composed dish that I would serve at the restaurant. With the notable exception of boudin noir, suckling pigs are not the best choice for charcuterie either. I didn't want to make a dégustation of suckling pig with four different preparations on the same plate; that doesn't excite me the way it used to when I was a young cook. I prefer working with larger pigs that weigh at least 80 pounds, and even that is too light. But at least the flesh would have some marbling and start to have breeding/raising character. And there would be more applications for all of its parts. But I suppose this is all part of the challenge here.

"I decided to work on this dish in the same way we approach the menu at The French Laundry, a conversation after service between me, the sous chefs, and the chefs de partie:

"The French Laundry. Yountville, California. 1:35 a.m., June 1, 2008.

Walter Abrams, sous chef: ‘Let's do a whole roasted prep like we do the Rouen ducks: glaze the skin and oven roast it.'
Louis Maldonado, chef de partie, meat: ‘How about we do a porchetta?'
Anthony Secviar, sous chef: ‘Let's take the skin off and cook the whole thing as a roulade, then put the skin back on.'
Neil Gray, chef de partie, cheese: ‘Bind everything with a mousse and wrap the skin around it.'
Benjamin Thompson, chef de partie, fish: ‘How about doing it flat, with the skin on both sides?'
Sung Ahn, chef de partie, garde-manger: ‘Are we using the offal? Do we have to?'
AS: ‘Put the liver in the mousse.'
WA: ‘OK. Let's serve it with turnips and cabbage.'
LM: ‘How about cornbread to use the milk, flour, eggs, and cornmeal?'
BT: ‘What is the point of all this?'
NF: ‘Let's do the chop as well and crust it with cornbread.'
SA: ‘Puree of cabbage, caramelized cipollini, and turnips, with the cornbread crust. Keep it clean.'
NG: ‘Use paprika in the sauce.'
AS: ‘We got it. Write it down!!'"

Cochon de lait confit entier avec son rôti de côte, légumes d'autumne et sauce au paprika d'Hongrie (Confit of sucking pig with roasted ribs, autumn vegetables & Hungarian paprika sauce). "Remove the liver, kidney, and heart from the suckling pig; soak the liver in ice water. Take off the head and the hind legs; remove the skin from the saddle, flank, and rack in one piece; clean the skin; cut into a uniform rectangle. Separate the front legs, neck, rack, belly, and saddle; reserve the rack; add the belly, front legs, and neck to a brine that includes coriander seeds, rosemary, thyme, savory, salt, pepper, maple syrup, garlic, carrots, celery, and water; brine for 24 hours.

"Cut a four bone rack, removing alternating bones and frenching remaining bones; reserve trimmed meat.

"Remove the glands, tongue, brain, and eyes from the pig's head; make a stock, using the head, carrots, cipollini, parsley stems, thyme, and black peppercorns. Remove the meat from the brine; rinse under cold running water; pat dry; vacuum seal each part separately in a plastic food bag; cook sous-vide in water bath at 68 degrees Celsius [154°F] for 24 hours; allow to cool to room temperature; separate the meat from the bones; chill.

"Remove the meat from the hind legs; coarsely grind the meat; puree in a processor with the liver, milk, eggs, and salt; pass through a tamis; fold in the chilled cooked meat. Line a half sheet pan with plastic wrap; cut the skin into two pieces that match the size of the sheet pan; place one piece of skin on top of the plastic wrap; fill three-quarters inch high with the meat mixture; lay the other piece of skin on top; vacuum seal pig ‘sandwich' in a plastic bag; cook sous-vide in water bath at 64 degrees Celsius [147°F] for 40 minutes; chill. Remove ‘sandwich' from the bag; cut into rectangles.

"Make a glaze for the pork, using half of the gelatinous pig's head stock, maple syrup, and cider vinegar. For the garnish, separate a savoy cabbage into leaves; cook the hearts in maple syrup and water until caramelized and softened; blanch the outer leaves; puree together in a blender so that you have the deep flavor of caramelized cabbage and the bright color of the outer leaves. Blanch turnips; glaze with maple syrup, salt, and toasted mustard seeds. Cook the cipollini with maple syrup and salt sous-vide in a vacuum sealed plastic food bag at 85 degrees Celsius [185°F] for 45 minutes; caramelize in a sauté pan to finish. Make a quick sauce with roasted rack trim, carrots, cabbage, shallots, thyme, bay leaf, sweet paprika, and the remaining pig's head stock.

"Make cornbread using cornmeal, flour, eggs, maple syrup, and salt; when cool, process into crumbs. Roast the rack to medium-well; brush with the glaze; dust with the cornbread crumbs; cut into individual chops. Crisp the skin sides of the ‘sandwiches' in olive oil in a skillet; brush with the glaze. To serve, place a ‘sandwich' on a plate; place a chop in front; arrange cipollini and turnips alongside; place a dollop of cabbage on the plate; drizzle some sauce around. As for wine, either an Old World Rioja, like the 1998 Cuné Gran Reserva or a New World Pinot Noir, such as Bergstom's Dundee Hills 2005 from Oregon's Willamette Valley."

Jeff Jackson
The Lodge at Torrey Pines
La Jolla, California

"The Invite and Its Consequences in the Mind of This Cook"

"I immediately accepted the invitation from the gentleman on the phone. After all, he's an editor at Food Arts and he has a Mystery Basket he wants me to unravel. I'd be a wimp if I didn't accept, an imbecile not worthy of my apron.

"‘I understand you're about to be in the middle of a little thing called The U.S. Open,' he says, referring to the U.S. Open Golf Championship held in June at Torrey Pines. ‘Can you make time"?'

"‘Of course,' is my reply. [Yo soy muy macho.] ‘I'll make time.'

"I, like most cooks, have eyes larger than my stomach when it comes to things like this: an opportunity to be creative, to test my 30-odd years of time devoted to the craft that has consumed me, and, I guess if I'm being completely honest, an opportunity to show my culinary chops to the universe.

"The list arrives a few days later. The day of excitement and the moment that all uncertainties bubble their way to the top. As the pot comes to a boil there is, of course, the inevitable scum that surfaces, the insecurity scum that must be skimmed off before one can be creative. Perusing the list my mind stutters like Billy Bibbit in the presence of Nurse Ratched...

"sssSUCKling ppPIG…..cccCABbage. What is it about the introduction to a challenge that causes us to pucker? Or is it just me? I need McMurphy's girlfriend to settle my nerves and quell my cerebral spasms.

"For me, the creative process isn't something that can be switched on and off. I require my hands to be submerged as well as my brain to facilitate the process. It kind of happens on its own, catalyzed by having practiced this craft for so long. I decide the best way to start is to procure the aforementioned baby swine. I make my purchase and rinse the little creature in the sink. I can't explain my next action other than to say that it happens instantaneously and subconsciously. As I remove the piglet to dry it off, I slap the ham. That's right. I spank the pig, as one would when welcoming a newborn into the world. Huh? What primal urge has come over me? As I ponder this and attempt to justify my actions in my own mind (and look around the kitchen to make sure I haven't been seen by any of those young cooks who, I believe, respect me), a thought occurs. Is this some sort of uniting force, a need to connect, a covenant of some kind? That must be it. In a metaphysical sense I have now bonded in a parental way. I guess I'm the father now, and I have an obligation to raise my porcine child to make it the best it can be. This is the part where the skies open up and a heavenly chorus can be heard over the rumbling of the exhaust hood in my stainless-steel purgatory.

"The Process: What to Do, What to Do?

"Roasted suckling pig, when seasoned and cooked correctly, is a religious experience. It's also the most common preparation of my new best friend. Therefore, I feel the need to be different. Olive oil. What if the child were swathed in olive oil and gently poached? A veritable greased pig. I was raised in Oklahoma, and nothing conjures up picnic like a greased pig. So the idea happens--a Greased Pig Picnic. This is the theme to the exercise.

"Let me see. My mind begins to race again: Picnic, picnic, picnic…pork, barbecue, ham, sausage, coleslaw. Beer! Pickles, hot dogs, watermelon, potato salad, corn on the cob…spice rubs, deviled eggs, celery sticks, and carrot sticks. Celery sticks and carrot sticks? Jesus. What's on that list again?

"Having survived this brief spastic haiku of a thought process, certain ideas begin to emerge. Many parts of the animal are available. The heart, the kidneys, the liver. What about a pâté, a mousse, a forcemeat? The classical French training rears its beautiful ugly head. Head? Head cheese! That's one part of the beastlet taken care of! The liver and one of the shoulders will make a nice pâté or forcemeat. Perhaps something stuffed, reshaped, wrapped, and tied up. After all, what's a family get-together without a little bondage. The Aristocrats! Hmmm, maybe a little plum mustard to go with this. As for cabbage, kimchi comes to mind. Then, of course, there are two hind legs, which, simply poached, then roasted with the maple syrup could be groovy. So after several trials, we're off to our Aristocratic Greased Pig Picnic."

Aristocratic Greased Pig Picnic.
"For the kimchi, cut a head of savoy cabbage into 1 to 1 1/2 inch squares; rinse well; drain; combine with 6 thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, 2 cloves sliced garlic, and 1 tablespoon salt; place in a jar with a tight-fitting lid; place in a cool dark place for at least a week. Next, rinse the soaked cabbage and shave 4 small new turnips into the mixture and combine with a half teaspoon harissa; seal the kimchi in the jar; refrigerate for three to four days. For the plum mustard, pit plums; cut into large dice; cook into ‘preserves' with some maple syrup, cider vinegar, and mustard seeds; season with salt and pepper; pass through a food mill.

"Rinse the suckling pig in cold water, spank it lovingly, and dry it off. Remove the head, the two hind trotters, and one of the front trotters; split the trotters; place in a large pot with the head, 6 cipollini, 3 medium peeled carrots, a bay leaf, 10 peppercorns, a half teaspoon salt; and a half-inch cinnamon stick; cover with cold water by 1 inch; bring this pot of love to a boil; reduce to a slow simmer, skimming off any impurities [this is the insecurity scuma of the head cheese]; partially cover; cook until the meat begins to fall away from the face. Remove the head and trotters from the broth; cool to room temperature; strain the broth through a fine chinois, then through cheesecloth. Reduce the broth by half; strain into a smaller pot; cool slightly. Whisk two egg whites just to combine; temper with some broth; stir into the pot of broth set over low heat; once a raft forms, ladle the broth through cheesecloth into a stainless-steel bowl; season with salt and pepper.

"Remove every bit of meat, tender cartilage, tongue, and tender skin from the head and trotters; dice the tongue; roughly cut the other bits and pieces. Combine with the clarified broth, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, and 15 blanched small carrots; stir in a splash of cider vinegar to sharpen the flavors; place in a terrine lined with plastic wrap; gently press the top pieces down; fold the plastic wrap over the top; refrigerate overnight to set.

"Remove front shoulder that is without a trotter; bone it out completely, which should yield about 1 pound of meat. Pass this meat through the large die of a meat grinder; combine 1/3 of this meat with 4 ounces of the liver, 2 diced cipollini, 4 cloves minced garlic, 1 tablespoon salt, a half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and a half teaspoon ground cloves; pass seasoned mixture through the small die of a meat grinder; place the mixture over a bowl of ice; work together with a wooden spoon until amalgamated. In a separate bowl mix 1 egg, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 tablespoon Madeira, and a quarter cup milk; add this panade to the ground meat mixture; work with a wooden spoon until the forcemeat becomes sticky; stir in 1/4 cup chopped parsley; cover; refrigerate until needed.

"Now it's time for the ‘greased pig,' since you're now left with a headless, three-legged beast. Chop a head of garlic, 10 sage leaves, 2 rosemary sprigs, and 1 tablespoon thyme leaves; combine with a half cup salt and 20 freshly ground black peppercorns; rub this mixture into the interior of the piglet; cover; refrigerate overnight. Bring the piglet up to room temperature. Heat about 1 1/2 gallons to 2 gallons of olive oil to 160 degrees in a roasting pan deep enough to submerge our friend; add the piglet; cover; reduce the heat; poach in 145 degree oil for 14 to 16 hours. This works best in a low temperature oven or Alto-Shaam cook and hold oven. Once tender, carefully remove from the olive oil and drain off any excess olive oil. Place the piglet skin side down on a sheet pan; remove the 2 hind legs; remove the remaining bones except the front leg bone; carefully flatten and shape the meat as evenly as possible into a rectangle; chill for about an hour.

"Heat an oven to 425 degrees. Remove the flattened piglet from the cooler; spread evenly with the forcemeat; roll into a cylindrical shape; tie securely with butcher's twine; rub the outside skin, as well as the 2 poached hams, with maple syrup; place all in the oven; reduce heat to 325 degrees; roast until browned and the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees, basting every so often [this should take about an hour]. To serve, place a little kimchi on a plate; arrange slices of the roasted leg, ballotine, and head cheese around; garnish with a spoonful of plum mustard. Wash it all down with Kalin Cellars Pinot Noir Cuvée DD Sonoma 1997."