"I need to make that."  Seeing the recipe for Maple Glazed Pig's Head with Lobster in Martin Picard's book Sugar Shack Au Pied de Cochon, I had a immediate, intense, and extremely visceral reaction.  It wasn't just a "hey, that looks good," it felt like a calling. 
The cookbook tells the story of the maple sugaring house that is an offshoot of Martin Picard's decorated Quebec restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon (The Pig's Foot).  The Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon allows the chef to harvest his own sap, boil it into syrup, and then have a seasonal second restaurant that celebrates all things maple.  The cook book celebrates a season at the shack, showing the sap turning to syrup, and then all the wonderful things you can do with it, from candies to drinks to savory dishes.

I locked on to the one with the pig head.

So while this sounds like a totally bizarre pairing, it makes a lot of sense considering Picard's Quebec-centric focus.  He's very proud of the region's lobsters, pigs, and syrup, so why not work them all together?
My dog wanted to play with these lobsters.
After I committed to the recipe, all I needed was an event where I could serve this dish and not be inundated with tons of leftovers.  Thankfully Carla's mom and brother were having a dual housewarming party, which would provide enough brave and curious appetites to give this dish a try.
Suckling Pig Head: Prepped for Roasting.
The recipe itself was very straight-forward, once I sourced the skin-on suckling pig head as a special order through D'artagnan.  From there, it was mostly assembling and basting.  Lots and lots of basting of the roasting pig head.  To start, I brined the head in saltwater overnight to remove excess blood and permeate the thick and knobby parts of the pork noggin with salt.  The next morning the head was rinsed off and loaded into a large roasting pan with four cups of syrup, twelve cups pork stock, and some stock vegetables.  It slowly roasted at 300 F for the next four hours, with lots of basting of the gently reducing stock and syrup.

While the head was roasting, I began to work on the lobsters, which are used for both presentation and spooning over the finished head.  Teasingly, I told Carla I was more worried about cooking the lobsters than the pig head, as I'm pretty sure I've cooked more pig heads than lobsters in my life.
Lobster Shells and Mirepoix in a Cognac Flambe
But the lobsters turned out fine.  A brief boil to just cook them through, then picking and poking out the lobster meat from the various crustacean crevices.  Lobster meat successfully freed, I chopped up the shells (aside from the front half of one lobster needed as a "garnish") and made a lobster sauce with the shells, mirepoix, cognac, white wine, and more maple syrup.  This simmered gently for an hour, all the while I kept basting and basting away at the head.

Finally, with the end in sight, I prepped a healthy serving of mashed potatoes to serve as the bed for the pig head.  Plus the potatoes are perfect for collecting all the drippings of sauce, pork, and lobster.


For serving, the remaining sauce from the pig head was taken out, mixed with the lobster sauce, and everything was strained into a fresh pan to reduce.  The pig head stayed in the oven for another 30 minutes, which was cranked up to 400 F to help it brown and crisp up the skin. 

Using my largest serving platter, I laid down a pillowy bed of mashed potatoes, gently nestled the head into the potatoes, and then worked the front half of the lobster into the pig's mouth.  It's a little harder than the old apple in the pig's mouth, but I eventually got it to fit.  Finally, my favorite part of Picard's dish, I put the pig's tongue into the lobster claw.  The reserved lobster meat was rewarmed in the sauce and generously poured over the pig, lobster, and potatoes.

Verdict?  Really good.  Ever had a bacon-wrapped scallop?  That's what this reminded me of, although I don't think it does the dish justice.  Sweet lobster, sweet pork, sweet maple....but balanced with savory notes from the roasting process and the lobster sauce.  But then again, it's hard to use the word "balanced" in a dish this gonzo and over-the-top.  It was hearty, fun, and I'd make this dish again just to have those crispy ears; they shattered like maple pork brittle with each bite.

We made a good dent in stripping the pig head down to the bone that day.  What was leftover Matt boiled with the skull to make head cheese, which thrilled me to see it all go to use.

Funny enough, when looking up this dish, I came across Dana Goodyear's New Yorker review of the cookbook, in which she asks, "There is maple pig’s head and lobster (tell me: Who is making this at home?)"

Right here!
Coke with a Scoby on Top
I've been happily fermenting black, oolong, green, red, and white teas for nearly a year now with a kombucha tea scoby (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast.) Carla picked up at a farmer's market back in October.  Since then, with regular feedings of fresh tea, we've grown our one scoby into three scobys, one of which we gave away to Carla's mom and brother.  Last month our main scoby had become so large, it was time to either cut it in half or give it a bigger home, least it become so large it overtake the entire jar.

While debating my scoby's fate, Carla returned from a work event with some leftover food and a liter of Coke that someone opened only to take 1 tablespoon out.  We don't usually have soda in the house, so I claimed this nearly-full liter of Coke in the name of science.  In the book "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Ellix Katz, he mentions passing his own overgrown scobys out to friends, one of whom used it to ferment Mountain Dew to create "Scoby-Dew."  This has been hanging out in my mind for a while as a twinkle of possibility, but now the stars finally aligned.

Topside View of the Scoby
I poured the soda into a large glass jar and plopped several layers of our overgrown scoby on top.  At this point I had no idea what would happen.  Compared to the black tea I normally brew for kombucha, the sugar and caffeine levels for Coke are totally off the charts.   After a few days, there were some small bubbles around the edge of the jar, meaning some sort of fermentation of the sugars were taking place.  Perhaps this was too drastic of an environmental change for the scoby, but this fermentation took about three times longer than normal.  Or it could also be that with the higher sugar content, the scoby had to work a lot harder to eat up all the Coke sugars before I could taste any of the characteristic kombucha tang or acidity.

Now, nearly 8 weeks since fermentation started, I have the strangest beverage in front of me.  It tastes like regular, malty Coke that's gone flat and had a splash of lemon juice added to it.  It's not bad...just sorta thick and flat and not too acidic.  Honestly, maybe this should have gone for 12 weeks of fermentation, but after 8 weeks, I don't think the juice - or Coke - is worth the squeeze compared to how much I prefer black tea.



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The last time I cooked spleen, I had some issues with the membrane being a bit tough.  Some recipes solve this problem by removing the membrane in its entirety. I don't think that will work, however, when trying to cook and slice a whole spleen, as the membrane keeps it from crumbling into offal granuals.
Berkshire Pig Spleen
But spleen is surprisingly mild in flavor, with a meaty flavor and little-to-no aggressively strong liverish flavors.  If you can find spleen, snap it up!  This spleen came from a pasture-raised Berkshire pig from North Woods Ranch.  The pigs can root and snoot to their hearts' content in the woods and fields, and I strongly recommend you try to find humanely raised animals if you're looking to eat offal, but have been put off in the past.  The organs of pasture-raised animals are night-and-day from the flavor of organs from conventionally raised animals.  I've heard that the rigors of conventional pig farming puts a huge amount of stress on the organs, which makes them rather unpalatable.  But with free-range animals given a natural diet, you'll quickly see why organs are so revered in many old cookbooks.

Digression aside, I wanted to try to confit the pig's spleen, after having some membrane issues with my last spleen dish, vastedda.  Surely, if slow braising in fat could make something as tough and leathery as poultry gizzards tender, than it could help soften the thin membrane of a spleen.

The pig spleen was small, and rolled up compactly into a nice little bundle.  Being so small, I didn't have a casserole dish that would fit it, without the spleen just swimming in a huge amount of fat.  But I found a 16oz mason jar was perfect, tidy container for the spleen.  I rubbed the spleen generously with salt, garlic, and thyme, and began to melt duck fat in a pan.


Cooked Spleen Jarred in Hot Fat
Once the fat was liquid, I dabbed off the excess liquid the spleen had expelled from the salting.  Rolled up and packed in a jar, I poured the hot fat over the spleen.  I sealed the jar with a few layers of foil, then put it into a water bath, keeping the fat at the faintest simmer for about 5 hours.  Being so small, I didn't think the spleen needed an all-day braise in the fat like duck legs or lamb shanks might.

After cooking, I let the spleen cool in the fat, then sealed up the jar and stored it in the fridge for about three weeks to let the flavors marry.  The texture of the spleen was just what I hoped for, super smooth, creamy, like a spleen foie gras.  Flavor-wise, it was a little garlicky and could benefit from some more black pepper.  Most surprising to me was the slight livery flavor was more pronounced.  I know I opened this post talking about the mildness of spleen, so it was something of a shock to find that this preservation method brought that mild liverishness to the forefront.   It still wasn't aggressive, like beef liver, but unexpected.
So while the texture was better than I could have hoped for, I may need to tinker with this recipe.  For now, I'll just pair it with something with a bit of zest to it, like a spicy chutney to match the flavor of the spleen confit.

Lastly, even if the idea of eating spleen isn't appealing to you, it's still something to behold.  Below is a rather unique picture I took of the spleen, editing it in photoshop with some serious filters.

Pig Spleen as Art: The Organ in Still Life

This summer I've been working my way through the books of Haruki Murakami and loving each one of them.  Starting with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, then Kafka on the Shore, I next churned through the 1100+ pages of 1Q84.  Now, with September coming on, I'm still going with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, as the man has a serious back catalog of work published and just released another book last month.
Spanish mackerel splayed and deboned
Something I love are all the little details he includes about his characters' meals, from business lunches of seafood linguini to a late night drink accompanied by a bowl of pistachios.  Granted, food doesn't hold the central place that classical music or western literature has in his dreamlike, open-ended, and suddenly violent stories, but it's always there in the background coloring in the scenes.

A few times a character eats salted, dried horse mackerel, which is a food I was unfamiliar with before these books.  I assumed it was a fully dried fish that was reconstituted in water or broth for a soup.  But it's actually a semi-cured, air-dried fish that gets grilled gently on both sides and is served whole, with rice, miso soup with tofu, grated daikon radish, and a green salad.  At least that's how Murakami's characters normally enjoy it.

One YouTube video mentioned this dish, being only semi-cured, is normally stored frozen until use.  But I haven't found it in any local Asian grocers.  So I decided to make it myself.  I've never seen horse mackerel before, but we can get plenty of fresh Spanish mackerel here in Pennsylvania.  Information on making this at home was sparse, but I did find one site in particular that helped.  But I was perplexed by the idea that the fish would be dried in the sun.  My brother has sent me photos of white fleshed fish drying in sun in Korea, but wouldn't the fat in oily mackerel go rancid?
Curing mackerel with salt, wrapped in kombu
The above site did say you could dry it at night, which seems safer to me (and would have cooler temperatures.)  So I rubbed two Spanish mackerels with sea salt.  To prep the fish I headed, gutted, and took out the spines so they could lay flat like an open book.  Well-salted, I rubbed the outsides in salt, then wrapped them in large pieces of kombu kelp.  Curing fish with kelp was something I gleaned from Morimoto's cook book, and a step I added as I tried to figure this dish out.
I let the mackerel cure overnight in the fridge, which gave me a break to figure out the next steps on how to dry it.  Some people just dry it outside, hanging inside a porch, but I think our neighbor's cats would think it was a treat for them.  Assuming the possums didn't get it first...or the porcupine that's taken up residence in our woods.  But do porcupines eat Japanese food?

Mackerel After Drying
Ultimately, I decided to jury-rig up an improvised fish dryer.  I blotted the excess juices off the salted fish, wrapped them in cheese cloth, and then wrapped and tied the cheese cloth to a metal baking rack.  This was then lashed up to a box fan, set up in a window.  This might not be how things were done in the Edo period, but it seemed to work.  The fan blew air through the fish overnight, giving our hallway a peculiar smell and resulting in a nicely dried piece of mackerel.  The flesh felt firm and dry, but still a bit plump.  It wasn't totally desiccated or jerky-like.
One of these I froze to eat later on, and the second I refrigerated for dinner later that night.  From what I gleaned, cooking was pretty simple.  Grill the mackerel on the skin side for about 3-4 minutes, flip over and grill the flesh for another 2 minutes, then flip and crisp up the skin for about 30 sec.

Grilled Dried Mackerel with Rice and Miso
After grilling, the fish was sizzling and only slightly strong smelling...which is pretty amazing considering everything it had been through.  It was firm, and a bit gummy in texture, but not in a squishy way.  It seemed like the individual muscles, rather than being flaky as in fresh fish, fused together during the curing and drying, creating firm little individual morsels of fish.  The taste was incredibly savory, which was probably a combination of the curing, kombu (naturally rich in MSG), drying, and intense heat of the grill.  I'm excited to eat my second fillet at another meal, but I don't see this as something I'll do regularly.  It totally makes sense to do, if you have a glut of fish that needs to be put up before it spoils, but just doing a few fillets at a time seems a bit labor intensive, especially when you could just enjoy the fish fresh.
After having some major success with black garlic a few weeks ago, I wanted to keep teasing out new possibilities and flavors with an ingredient I unfortunately overlooked for a few years.
For me, the success came by pairing black garlic with a rich, fatty sauce of cheese and cream.  The fat locked in the intensely savory, earthy, and surprisingly sweet flavor of black garlic.  Plus, being in a sauce, the unique flavor of the black garlic was evenly distributed throughout the dish (a black garlic mac and cheese in this case).  Originally black garlic was created in Korea, so I wanted to try a less Western dish than Mac n' Cheese, but keep the idea of using a rich sauce to carry the black garlic's beguiling flavor.
Asia does not have a long-history of cheese making like the West, aside from Tibetan Yak cheese, but they do have something very similar: tofu.  Like milk being set with rennet to curds in cheese making, tofu starts when soy milk is set with an acidic ingredient like citrus juice to form a soft, wobbly curd.  Then the curds are collected and allowed to drain in a colander or mold.   At this point the tofu can be enjoyed young and fresh, or pressed and drained for a firmer, drier product.
Although not a fatty item at all, I thought the tofu would be a great jumping off point for this dish.  Silken tofu is soft and slightly bland, making it a wonderful vehicle for delivering big flavors.  To make a richer sauce, I decided to go about making a vegan cream sauce, which is something I've learned while cooking at the Nittany Lion Inn.  I soaked cashews in water for about four hours until they took on a soft, slightly crumbly texture.   The cashews were drained, and then pureed until a smooth, thick paste formed.  This paste is surprising adept at thickening all kinds of soups and sauces.  I added the cloves of two heads of black garlic, along with some salt, red pepper, and some almond milk to thin out the sauce a bit. 

As this whirled in the blender, it took on a creamy, spoonable texture.  But the color became a anemic gray and looks pretty awful.  So I deviated from the vegan route and added a packet of squid ink (4 grams worth) and that got me to a much nicer color.  It wasn't jet-black like I wanted, but it still really set off the pure whiteness of the tofu.

Taste-wise, I really like this.  I love the flavor of the sauce and think the cashew and almond milk is also a good way to capture that black garlic flavor.  Texture-wise, the dish was fine, but suffered from rapidly diminishing returns.  At first it was great, with the thick, intense sauce and smooth, creamy tofu, like a savory black garlic custard.  But about half way through the dish both Carla and I had our fill of all of wobbly, creamy spoonfuls.  Carla remarked that this would be wonderful as a starter, but needed some more textural contrast to really stand out as a main dish. 

While making this, I realized it was similar to a dish I had at Morimoto's; a bowl of creamy congee rice porridge with a generous square of braised pork belly right in the center.  In that preparation, the creamy congee paired wonderfully with the rich, fatty pork belly, while still having the shreds of meat running through the belly to add some textural change.  Perhaps I should try that?  I guess if I do, I don't need to sweat so much over adding squid ink to my vegan sauce.