Nose-to-Tail Eating with Chef Ryan Skeen

"We watched Skeen fry, braise, and re-fry the pigs' ears."

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Over the weekend I had the good fortune of attending a class for lovers of all things piggy, entitled "Snouts, Trotters, Ears, and Tails" led by chef Ryan Skeen in the Astor Center kitchen. The four-hour pig extravaganza provided a valuable insight into the techniques required to transform such humble cuts into delicious fare. Asking nicely for members of the class to complete certain tasks, Skeen took us through a series of techniques in the kitchen, interlaced with sitting down to eat. As such, the class was part-tutorial and part-feast, balancing the flurry of kitchen activity with the unrushed pleasure of dining on six nose-to-tail courses.

The feasting began with a complex dish, featuring hamachi and pork rinds set on top of a slice of Morcilla, the Spanish version of blood sausage. Small slices of grapefruit and one sliver of uni rounded out the dish. The amalgamation of such diverse elements was both thoughtful yet hectic, in a way that only a fine restaurant could conceive of putting together. Similarly, the second course of "Pork Toast" with deviled egg was an exercise in skilled culinary manipulation.

Pig jowls, which had been braised, minced, mixed with seasoning, sat in pans frozen, got sliced into rectangular pieces, and were coated and fried to resemble slices of toast. Upon first bite, the toasts burst with rich, intensely porky juices.

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These refined dishes were followed by a heartier, more rustic serving of crispy pigs' ears salad, the chef’s play on the bistro staple of frisée aux lardons. We watched Skeen fry, braise, and re-fry the pigs' ears, until the cartilage was softened from the long cooking and the skin was crisped from the frying. It was by far my favorite dish of the class: the ears, though chopped up into manageable pieces, retained the character of that cut by displaying the unique interplay among cartilage, skin, and meat. The greens were dressed by fat rendered from bacon, and then a poached egg was set on top of it all, making the salad a complete meal.

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For the nasty bits lover in me, having a whole pig's tail to myself was quite a treat. The tails, which also had been fried, braised, and re-fried, were fork-tender, gelatinous, and extremely satisfying to nibble right off the bone.

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From the beginning of the class we had participated in the making of the fifth dish, trotter sugo. The sugo, meaning "juice" in Italian, was composed of not only the nubby, chewy bits of skin on the pigs' foot, but also the tender slivers of meat from a braised pork shoulder. A creamy dollop of burrata topped the sugo, which was served with a specially shaped pasta called garganelli. We ended the feast with a boudin noir soufflé, made from a large jug of fresh pigs' blood that we had watched the chef mix earlier with fat and seasonings.

Throughout the course, Skeen spoke easily on a wide range of topics. His affability made the class very enjoyable. At times desultory, the banter covered many topics: where to find really great bacon (Vermont Smoked and Cured), where to buy the shiny cleavers that he uses in his own kitchen (apparently, anywhere in Chinatown, for $8), and how, if you so chose, you could make "pork glass," a transformation of pork skin into an unbelievably thin and puffed sheet resembling glass.

His respect for pork and those who raise their pigs properly was evident. At one point, I was interested to hear him compare how much it costs a restaurant to buy well-raised pork ($5 to $8 a pound) versus regular pork ($1.69.) Throughout the cooking process, he encouraged us to have a nibble at the raw Tuscan kale, smell the perfume of smoked Turkish pepper, and taste the casing (essentially a very good mozzarella) that held together the burrata.

It was an informative class combined with a memorable feast, made all the more impressive by the carefully chosen wines accompanying each course. Had I not felt the obligation to remain somewhat lucid, I may have indulged even more in the generous pours that were offered.

My fellow classmates, who were under no such duties, imbibed joyously and spoke freely about all matters concerning pigs, sushi, and beyond. Towards the end, we were given extra tubs of back fat, which had gone into the making of the blood soufflés, as gifts. A nice fellow who cooks at Delmonico’s kindly gave me his personal tub to take home, so naturally, I left the class feeling very full, more educated, and quite lucky to have acquired an inordinately generous amount of fat.