A few weeks ago, Chris Cosentino, a meat hero of mine, stopped through Chicago doing publicity for his book. His book is wonderful, focussing more on vegetables than I would have expected, and shows off some terribly exciting beginnings to meals. Our current favorite from the book is a dish of strawberries and favas, but something that we tasted at his dinner at the Publican has stuck with me the most. The dish was a fantastic plate of pasta sauced with capers, olives, and tomato – a simple puttanesca – only the pasta was not made from flour and eggs, but from pork skin.
I had heard of this preparation reading about some of the nose to tail dinners at Incanto, but could not find pork skin noodles anywhere locally. I have more or less sworn off pasta over the past year or so, having last eaten pasta while at Incanto in June of 2011, so it was only fair that the next “pasta” course was from Cosentino. My mind was kind of blown by the dish. Never mind the great sauce, the noodles were tremendous. Now, if you expect a “OO” flour based pasta texture and/or if a little bite is undesirable, this dish might be difficult, but I love the texture of skin, a little like a thick cut tagliatelle with an extra gelatinous touch. I knew immediately that I wanted to try making it right away.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself at The Butcher and Larder with an order of pork skin all wrapped up. While not a frequent user of skin, I would imagine that I use it more frequently than most people. I knew that in order to be able to cut it easily, I would have to cook it for a long time and that if I was going to eat it as is, I’d need to season it assertively. With that in mind, I vacuum sealed the skin with some leaf lard, pork stock, salt and pepper and cooked it in the water bath for 24 hours.
Once it emerged from the waterbath, I chilled it and sliced it. My original plan was to run it through my stand mixer pasta cutter attachment, but was unsuccessful, so I cut the entire batch by hand. Diving headlong into the project after a moderate fail was done with enthusiasm, but had I been more thoughtful, I would have rolled the skin and sliced it like pasta. A few hours later, I had cut the entire batch and was ready to start making the dish.
Not knowing how it would turn out, I held back a serving of cut pork skin noodles, just in case. I simmered the noodles in trotter broth to impart flavor and body once again. Finally as dinner was ready, I tossed the noodles in the sauce and cooked them for another few minutes. Once I tried the noodles, I was hooked. My noodles were slightly less “al dente” than Cosentino’s, but I think that this texture has a broader appeal – a little less distinctively porky, but still has a bite that makes the difference unmistakable.
The puttanesca sauce was a great counter to the richness of the noodles. The acid from the tomato, the brininess of the capers and olives, and the saltiness from the anchovies made for a complete dish. However, once I had tried the noodles simmered in trotter stock, my mind went to a different part of the world. I thought that the simmered, slightly less al dente noodles, would be fantastic in a ramen application.
On Sunday, I threw together a quick ramen based on food picked up at the farmer’s market on Saturday. I had gotten eggs, radishes, and a flowering bitter green called suijo. Suijo has a little broccoli and a little pea tendril to it. I love the flavor from the flowers, so I tossed those in as well. Finally, I added some chicken meatballs to give the soup a meal-like element.
I typically am a hard-boiled egg in soup guy, but I have been working on the Arzak egg technique recently, so I went in that direction with the egg. The runny quality was nice, but in a gelatinous broth with pork noodles, the additional viscosity from the egg yolk went almost unnoticed. The viscosity of the broth, severely enhanced by the gelatin in the skin, was ridiculous. If I had not licked the bowl clean, the broth would have set up like a umami-boosted porcine jello. As impressed as I was by the puttanesca, the ramen was a much more exciting dish. It was salty, sweet, and the battle of textures was simply amazing. Crunchy radish, gelatinously chewy noodles, a crispy edged meatball and a doubly viscous broth.