The pig—a Godsend to the culinary world—is a thing of beauty. Aside from being one of the earliest forms of livestock, a highly intelligent mammal, and a truffle detector for its sensitive sense of smell, pork is easily one of the most universal forms of meat. Every cut, organ, and bone of the whole animal can be used for something. While a large number of members of our society experience pork in mass produced packages of bacon, round slices of “ham”—with delicate flavors of cardboard and rubber bands—and too-perfect hot dogs sold in supermarkets around the States, a thing or two can be learned by how the Italians look at swine, from snout to tail.
In Italy, the pig reigns over kitchens across the country where whole hog butchery is common and every bit of the animal is broken down to a delicacy. The cheeks, ears, snout, and tongue might not be preferred choices in the States and can often go to waste, but in central Italy, those “unpopular” cuts of meat would certainly go into a Coppa di Testa. This “head cheese” is made up of the pig’s head, then braised, and cooked down to a gelatinous and delicious cold cut appetizer. The blood collected after killing the pig can also be used for a variety of sausages or desserts (sanguinaccio) such as a sweetened black pudding made with pig’s blood, almonds, chocolate, and spices. Porchetta, another Italian tradition, is made with the belly wrapped around the loin, stuffed with garlic & herbs, and then roasted for a savory and fatty pork roast.
The culinary scene is changing (at least in America) with food culture and eating out becoming more than just sustenance and now a form of entertainment, being hip, and visual lust among Instagram users. This is a good thing: it creates more awareness of where our food is coming from and a higher regard for good food in the public’s eye. The idea that a chef can bring in a whole animal—like a pig—butcher it down, cook dishes out of every cut, and essentially have no waste is not only more bang for the restaurant’s buck but a step in the right direction for today’s dining scene. Less hands handle the product and it allows eaters to be exposed to a more sustainable way of eating. The end product will also taste far better.
“Using the whole animal is respecting the animal,” Bruce Kalman says while cutting along the rib structure of a hundred or so pound pig delivered earlier in the morning. Bruce is the Chef Proprietor of Union, a small restaurant in Old Town Pasadena where he is cooking up northern Italian cuisine from a tiny kitchen (but with a lot of soul).
Every week, Lefty Ayers delivers a whole pig to Bruce’s restaurant from ReRide Ranch in Lake Hughes, CA (60 or so miles north of Los Angeles). Lefty’s small ranch on the edge of the Angeles National Forest is home to Yorkshire/Hampshire cross pigs and the prized Berkshire pig who feed off of acorns and live happy lives. For the Jersey-born Chef Kalman, the quality of the ingredients is imperative, from visiting the Santa Monica Farmers Market for produce to local meat, like Lefty’s pigs.
While wearing his Hedley & Bennett apron, Bruce seems to be in a meditative state as he cuts, saws, and chops his freshly delivered pig. After removing each cut, he reveals what it will be used for.
“Smoke the trotters for ragú and the shanks we’ll braise,” he says.
Looking down at the carcass being quickly minimized, I feel a sense of gratitude and respect for the pig and for Chef Kalman who is careful and thoughtful with every cut. In a way, it reminds me of a simpler time when food was merely food, and uncomplicated. Or as Bruce would put it: “Grandma’s food”.
By the end of the day, the fruit of Bruce’s labor arrives on a plate with baby potatoes and bits of pork resting below an enormous cut of porchetta. The juice of the meat spills over one side of the golden and crispy outer edge of the pork belly that hugs the pork loin in the center. I take the first bite slowly and with reverence. The flavors, the sound, the texture, and the smell all seem more heightened through my senses. After all, it’s not every day you get to see your dinner be butchered down and then cooked into a porchetta before your eyes.
“Oh my God this is good,” I blurt out with a mouthful of potato and porchetta and proceed to wipe the plate clean.
Bruce Kalman’s Pork Shoulder Porchetta
Servings: 4-6 people
- 1/4 C fennel seed
- 1/2 C fresh rosemary leaves
- 1/4 C kosher salt
- 1/4 C garlic, chopped fine
- 2 Tbls freshly ground black pepper
- 2 Tbls crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 Tbls fennel pollen
- 1 each lemon, zest
- 1/4 C olive oil blend 90/10
- 5lb pork shoulder, bone out, skin on (butterflied)
- In a bowl, combine all herbs and spices, except for the oil.
- Unroll the pork shoulder to expose the interior meat.
- Rub the pork with the oil, coat with seasoning, and rub well all over. Roll up the pork shoulder tightly, then tie tightly in place.
- Place rolled and tied pork shoulder on a sheet pan, atop a roasting rack and allow to sit for 24 hours in refrigeration, uncovered.
- Remove from the refrigerator and allow to temper at room temperature for 2 hours.
- Place in a preheated 400F oven and cook until the porchetta has reached an internal temperature of 140F and the skin is crispy, about 45 minutes.