After over seven months preparing, early October brought my first marathon. Without going into too much detail, it went well, very well for a first marathon, but coming out on the other side, I knew that I would need a break, and more importantly, L would need a break. She was the one caring for the girls during my training runs. With that in mind, a few months back, we scheduled a kid-free weekend in the Northwoods of Wisconsin for the weekend following my race.
A fall weekend in the woods away from kids meant that we will both do our favorite things, L will sleep and read and I will cook and read. Our plans were only bolstered by the weather – it was cold and sunny on day one, but cold and rainy the next two days. It was perfect. We moved from couch to couch reading. I would get up to tinker with my new Aeropress coffee maker or grab a bite of cheese or feed the fire in the fireplace. As meal time approached, I would move my tinker from coffee to food.
After tasting what has been, so far this year, the best bite of food I have had in Chicago this year in Mark Mendez’s cochinillo at Vera, I wanted to give cooking a suckling pig a shot. As I researched the process, it seemed that cooking cochon au lait, or suckling pig, was as easy as it was intimidating.
And it is intimidating. Unwrapping the baby Berkshire hog, I had a brief moment of “Can I do this?” I have cooked a lot of flesh in my time and worked with whole animals before, but there have been no other pauses like this for me. The piggy was cute. It had ears, snout, feet, tail, and eyes. The fortunate part is that the “this” of “Can I do this?” is merely minutes of work and then you allow the oven to do what it does. By the time action is required, it looks more like food than one of my girls’ stuffed animals.
That sounds like a bit of the famous food blogging “It is so easy …”, but after peeling garlic, stemming rosemary, adding both to salt and olive oil and mashing the whole thing with the bottom end of an old Hamburgler/Grimace glass from the 80s, all that I did was wait for the suckling pig to come to room temp, rub the mixture on it and put it in a 300 degree oven.
This was the first day that it had rained. We were “stuck” inside. Plowing through books and firewood, the house was like a giant nest. Adding the amazing aromas of pork, rosemary, and garlic only made the comforts of the indoors more inviting. Four hours into the roasting, I added foil to the ears and snout to keep them from burning and returned the nearly crisp pig to the oven. Another hour the skin was crispy and the pig was done.
For the next half hour, the cochon au lait rested under a foil tent while I cooked turnips and their greens in Shafly beer, almonds, and Benton’s ham. By the time the turnips were cooked through, the meat had rested. I grabbed the left ham to slice through and it came free without the touch of a knife. I trimmed a bit of excess skin for aesthetic reasons (and to devour it) and came to the table with a plate that looked an awful lot like the cochinillo had only weeks before at Vera.
With each bite, I noticed the texture was remarkably similar to the texture of BBQ, but the bark being replaced by the vastly superior crunch of pork skin. The flesh was rich with the taste of pork, garlic, and rosemary and the distilled porkiness of the skin was an amazing counterpoint in texture. Seemingly, the tenderness of the cochon au lait is the big draw, but the contrast of the crispy skin makes the tenderness even that much more appealing.
Oddly after joking about being able to eat most of the pig in a single sitting, we stopped after sharing just a leg. After splitting the remaining piglet into mini-primals to cool, I grabbed the belly, skin-on, and tossed it into a mixing bowl with a little of the fat from the cookie sheet nestled below the baking rack to make into rillettes. The remaining fat went into a jar, as usual, but what was still on the foil lined tray caught my attention.
The bottom of a roasting pan is nearly always a goldmine for flavor, but the ease with which the crispy bits were lifted from the pan was remarkable. The bits, which often times must be scraped from the pan, were easily removed with a spoon. By mistake, at least initially, I had placed the first spoonful in the same mixing bowl as the belly. The remainder would go in as well with great curiosity. After scooping up another half cup of the sticky pork bits, I chopped the skin into bits and whipped the meat, fat, and gooey bits into a paste, then added back the skin. Since we were already bringing back 3/4 of a suckling pig, I had no reservations about moving the belly straight to rillettes, but after tasting these, I almost wish that I had made more.
Adding the pan bits gave the rillettes an extremely savory quality and the skin, as it did while eating the leg, gave the rillettes a little textural contrast. Purists might argue that rillettes should not have textural contrast, but, as a skin-eater, I argue that purism is overrated. The rillettes rank among the best I have tasted and made for easy transport and preservation. It may be common practice for those more experienced, but I have never used pan scrapings in rillettes (nor used roasted meat) and it make me rethink confit as a starting point for rillettes.
About an hour, or maybe two, into our rainy seven hour drive home, L and I were getting back to discussing logistics for the upcoming holiday season. We had just decided to host Christmas Eve dinner for her family who would be visiting. I had half-decided in my mind that I would make a bunch of sides and run out to pick up a few Peking ducks from Sun Wah. I had not told L of my plans, but when she leaned over and asked if we could make cochon au lait, I knew that my plans were foiled. How could I resist such a request knowing that it would be easier to make this delicious, striking roast rather than interrupt the holiday to run out and transport a few ducks hoping the skin stays crisp?