Well, hello there.
And hello to all of you who found your way over here from the Wall Street Journal. Boy, are you in for a treat.
Time for me to tell you about what has been equally the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my life. Oh yes, kids. This is bigger than just making a braised, stuffed pig's head. There's a whole other layer to this story that I haven't really talked or written about publicly. But it's time, because it's pretty damn cool and I'm incredibly proud of it. Full disclaimer: I made this dish back in early March, and for reasons you'll see as the story unfolds, I haven't been able to post about it until now. But I think you'll be excited about the reasons why as well as the final result (at least I hope you will), because you guys have been so amazingly supportive up until this point, why quit now? Seriously though, I can't wait to share this with you... it's been killing me not to. So, here we go.
Me and my pig's head? We cut a demo for a TV show.
I KNOW! Cool, right?
Back in January, the head of development at JWM Productions got in touch with me to see if I might be interested in pursuing something with them. After calling a bunch of my friends to see which one of them was playing this practical joke, I realized he was the real deal. So, we got together over coffee and got to know one another. I have to admit I was hesitant at first, because as a media and PR consultant, it's always been my job to put my clients on camera while I stay in the background. I've done some on-camera work before, but nothing like this, so I wasn't 100% confident that I'd be any good at it. However, they were willing to move forward pitching a TV series with me, so I thought to myself, "they're the experts and if they didn't vomit when they saw me or think I'm a bumbling idiot, then I guess I should give it a shot."
A few weeks later, three handsome gentlemen from JWM -- Aziz (the head of development), Patrick and Neil (who ultimately became my production crew) -- came over to my house for a meeting to talk about what a demo might look like and what show ideas we might want to pitch to which networks. We ended up spending a fair amount of time in my attic (which seems bizarre, but actually made sense at the time) looking through the hundreds of vintage cookbooks I own, tossing ideas around and trying to figure out what we might want to do.
They wrote up a treatment for some pitch meetings they had the following week. There was interest in one of the ideas, so we worked on an outline for a demo. We went back and forth on what I should cook and what the story would be, and at one point, we all came to the same conclusion: it had to be the pigs' head. So, I outlined the process, they came up with a production schedule, and shooting began.
I got the pig's head from Forrest Pritchard, who runs Smith Meadows Farm. I've mentioned Smith Meadows before because they're my regular meat and egg vendor at the farmers' market in town. I called Forrest ahead of time to order the pig's head so he'd have it ready for us on the Sunday we began the shoot. And away we go......
Let's take another look at the pig's head to get everything started:
This is a dish in The French Laundry Cookbook that is written about in more narrative form, so I'm going to do my best to break it down into the steps the book provides (in the order it provides them, as well) and show you photos as we go, so if you want to try and do this dish, you can. These photos are stills pulled out of the video footage, so credit goes to JWM Productions. The italicized text below is from The French Laundry Cookbook; my commentary is in regular type.
1. Cut off ears and reserve. (Note: pigs' ears have hair on them, so it's best to shave off that hair before removing and then dicing the ears. Someone suggested burning the hair off, but I think that might actually smell worse than that freakin' tripe, so I stuck to shaving).
2. Split the skin and meat down the center of the head, beginning at the top and working around the snout and to the back of the head to split the skull down the middle. Then, beginning on one side of the head, run the knife along the contour of the head, following the bone structure, to remove the skin and the attached meat.
Here's where the fun really begins. Splitting a pig's skull? Wow. Really? There's also text in the book about how to make sure you get the cheek meat and the meat at the temple. This is the point at which I went back and consulted all the notes and research I'd done on this process (nerd alert!), as well as the people I'd talked to who'd done this dish (or a version of it) before. The consensus was that the best way for an amateur like me to be able to see where all the good bits are and be able to get the most meat off the face was to saw the entire head in half and cut the face off each side, one half at a time. So, that's what I did. (Note: If you're going to try this dish, your butcher will do the sawing-the-head-in-half part for you, and I highly recommend letting him This is not easy. Not at all. Especially when you have a crap saw and even your power tools couldn't really do the job neatly or easily.)
Because I deviated from the book's exact instructions at this point (and because I'd never done this dish before and was bound to make mistakes), I ended up with two large flaps of face meat and the cheek meat separately. I also removed the tongue (which was an unpleasant-sounding step) and set it aside to use in a little while. Let me take a moment here to bow down to anyone who has ever done this before, or who does this kind of butchering or boning-out on a regular basis. This was incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and honestly, really gross. the worst part was when... no, I can't tell you this.... can I? No..... wait..... yes, I have to. I was going to spare you this particularly gory detail, but I just can't: I had to reposition the pig's head at one point to get a better grasp on it while I was cutting the meat off the head, and accidentally jammed my thumb through one of the eye sockets. With the eye still in it. No, I wasn't wearing gloves. Yes, I'll wait while you run to the bathroom to throw up.
3. Lay out the piece of pig, skin side down ... Trim off the fat until you reach the meat. Run a knife along the skin and remove [it] from the meat ... (much as you would skin a fish fillet). I did this, and also trimmed away all the other bits and pieces that were not meat-like in any way, leaving only the thin layer of very white fat, which I then scored. I also trimmed the meat side of the face, scored that, and pounded it as flat as I could, then salt and peppered it.
I should note here that we're still on Day One of this little project -- we began filming around 9:30 a.m. at the Farmers' Market, and this pig prep continued well into the night. I think I finished around 1 a.m.
At this point, I also diced the pig's ear and put it, along with the face and cheek meat into the refrigerator.
Monday morning (on just 3 or 4 hours' sleep), I woke up extra early to get the pig's tongue braised so that we'd be ready to shoot the rest of the prep once it came out of the oven. So, before the sun rose or the newspaper hit the front porch, and while most decent people were still in bed, I put a pig's tongue in a Le Creuset pot along with some mirepoixed onions, carrots and leeks, as well as some garlic, thyme, kosher salt, chicken stock, water, and white wine vinegar. I brought it to a simmer on the stovetop, then braised it for four hours in a 300-degree oven.
When it was finished, I brought it out, scraped off the tastebuds and skin, and cut the tongue meat into small batons.
4. Arrange batons of cooked tongue, sweetbreads, and diced pig's ear over the meat. Roll the head in plastic wrap to shape it (as you would a torchon), then remove the piece, roll it, and tie it in cheesecloth.
I laid the two pieces of face meat on the cutting block and put the cheek meat, diced ear meat, and tongue meat onto it, rolled it tight using plastic wrap (which I removed once I had used it to help roll everything up), then wrapped the meat roll in some cheesecloth, which I bundled nice and tight.
I put the meat into the pot with chicken stock, water, carrots, onions, leeks, bay leaves, thyme and parsley, covered the pot with foil and put it in a 300-degree oven for 6 hours.
After six hours of braising, I removed it from the pot, unwrapped it, rewrapped it in fresh cheesecloth, and let it hang in the fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, Tuesday, I removed it from its hanging place in the fridge, and was supposed to unwrap it, slice it, bread it, and sauté it. Just before the guys got there to shoot this segment, I had a mild panic attack. What if it all fell apart? What if it crumbled or fell apart into chunks when I unwrapped it from the cheesecloth? What if it was a complete and total disaster, and all that work up until this point for was naught? Would I have to start all over from the beginning? Would we improvise and figure out another end result? Where the hell was I gonna find another pig's head on such short notice? Was I a total hack? Who let me do this? Who decided this was a good idea? Who do I think I am? AAAAAAUGHHHHHHHH!!!!
I made myself some coffee, ate breakfast, and talked myself off the ledge. The guys arrived, and we got to work. I held my breath as I cut the string that held it in place in the fridge, unwrappped it ever so slowly and gently, almost having an out-of-body experience as I drifted above myself and watched it all unfold on the cutting board below:
As you can see, it stayed intact after being unwrapped. But, would it stay together when I sliced it into medallions to bread and sauté?
Listen, I know I'm a big dork and YOU know I'm a big dork, so it should come as no surprise when I tell you that I actually got a little choked up when this ACTUALLY WORKED. And, if you have The French Laundry Cookbook and can see the photo of this step in the book, you'll see that mine actually, kinda, sorta resembles the one in the book.
I brushed the medallions with Roland Dijon mustard (my favorite brand), dredged them in breadcrumbs, and sautéed them in a little canola oil:
I'd made the Sauce Gribiche earlier in the day -- shallots, capers, cornichons, Dijon mustard, sherry vinegar, olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, tarragon, parsley and chives (photos are mine, not production stills; the crappier quality should be a dead giveaway):
To plate the final dish, I put the meat on top of the sauce and brought it to the table. Here's a shot of my new friend, Katrina (you'll meet her in a minute), eating the dish:
This is one of the best things I've ever eaten. The pork was tender and delicious, and you could taste the subtle differences in texture of the different kinds of meat, but when it all came together it was amazing. It was almost creamy in its consistency, yet still had a meat-like texture. It was smooth and tender and the sauce complemented the dish like nothing I could have imagined. I'd make that sauce again even if I was just making pork tenderloin or a pork loin roast (or even just plain old pork chops, I suppose).
Knowing the amount of work that went into this whole pig head extravaganza, I had prepared myself not to be too disappointed in case it turned out to be a somewhat mediocre dish. But you know what? It was really, really good. The meat was cooked to perfection, the sauce was incredible, and I was so tired and giddy but completely honest when I said, "I can't believe I'm actually going to say this but I think I might actually do this again someday. It's THAT good."
I meant it then, and I mean it now. But someone else is going to have to debone the pig's head for me next time. That's one step of this process I have no interest in repeating.
Looking back, the thought of making the dish was scary enough, but adding the "hey, we don't care if you've never made this before -- let's shoot it as you go and show it to a bunch of programming executives who might ultimately have a major impact your future career path" made this all the more surreal. It was exhausting, grueling, labor-intensive, frustrating, stressful, exciting, hilarious, beyond challenging, and ultimately, something I'm incredibly proud of. I wish there was a bigger, more impactful word than proud, because that's how I feel about the final product. This dish was the best thing I've ever cooked, and the resulting footage told a great story and was an amazing learning experience.
Oh yeah, about that footage. You wanna see it? Good. 'Cause I want you to. Here's the four-minute demo JWM Productions put together. Unfortunately, they had to strip some of the music for it to be posted here; sorry 'bout that. Dang rights and clearance issues. Just whistle along during the quiet parts. Hope you like it!
In Over Her Head (Carol Blymire) from Carol Blymire on Vimeo.
I can't end this post without thanking Aziz, Patrick, Neil, Justin, Jess, Brian, and the rest of the JWM team for making this happen. And, a special thanks to Jason Williams and Bill Morgan, without whom there would be no JWM.
So, there you have it. A delicious braised, stuffed pig's head, and a humble, grateful writer thinking it actually might be kinda cool to make the leap from your laptop to the TV screen. Why? Well, doing this blog has pushed me in new directions I never thought possible and has deepened and intensified my passion for food and cooking far more than I ever could have hoped or imagined. So, if I can share the reward of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone -- truly getting in over your head when trying new things -- and inspire even one person to challenge him- or herself in the kitchen, then it's all worth it to me.
So, stay tuned.... I'll keep you posted on where this all ends up, and who knows? Maybe someday you can set your TiVo to record me. Wouldn't that be awesome? Fingers crossed...
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Up Next: French Laundry at Home Extra: Brioche
Pig’s head from Smith Meadows Farm
Sauce Gribiche ingredients from Whole Foods
Music to Cook By: Perry Como; Magic Moments. This was the tune playing on the original video while I was prepping the pig's head. I find myself whistling this song quite a bit these days. Totally addictive.
Read My Previous Post: "Head to Toe" -- Part One (Pig's Feet)