Thanks to my pal, Nick, for capturing the bird-brained side of me...
Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009. Pan-seared pig's brain with potato pancake, scallion salad and mustard hollandaise.
My visits to the accommodating--if often crowded, Strip District Meats on Penn Ave. are invariably marked with a child's wonder reading the chalkboard beyond the meat counter listing their speciality items: varieties of wild game, offal extremes, bison gonads, rattlesnake egos, cutlets of muscly witchcraft, etc..
As adventurous a spirit as I feel I have I have to admit my adventures have been few--I have lived mostly aloof, and as often dishonestly.
I know, shocking...
Pig's brains at Strip District Meats sell at $1.99/lb--as opposed to the prized veal brains at $13.99/lb. I'm no vegetarian, but I do draw my line at eating the young. It just seems unnecessary and commensurate with the snuffing of young life, simply not fulfilling as an eating experience. That and, c'mon, pig's brains are two bucks a pound. I grabbed a pound.
My schooling on the subject came by familiar way of Simon Hopkinson and his essential food narrative/cookbook, Roast Chicken and Other Stories. His cervelles--he pussyfoots with the more euphonious--and frankly misleading, French name for the dish, but manages, in spite of this affectation, to produce a handful of appetizing recipes. More importantly he makes the process of brain preparation easy and coherent. The brain dish I produced is my own concoction but the fundamentals of the cooking are his.
Because the preparation requires two phases--an initial poaching, followed by a pan sear, there was a convenient pause in the process where I could taste the firmed up brain matter and get a basic idea of the texture and flavor. Of the former, brain has been accurately compared to scrambled eggs in the French style--which is to say custardy and not fully set; my pal, Wendy, still does them the best, having spent her schooling years at Tulane where such extracurricular lessons would've availed themselves.
Enthusiasts of Korean food who--like me, thrill over the silken tofu in soon dubu soup, will find similarities there as well.
It is, to be sure, a little jostling on first taste.
However comfortable one is with his omnivorism the ultimate sensation is one that prickles with philosophical misgivings. We are what we are, we eat what we chose, and if we are to taste some it we must certainly accept the lot it. Of course all of this is provided you've come this far...
Now of the latter, the taste itself, there is not a lot to say. Like tofu it is bland as can be. You will find Hopkinson really gets to show off his saucier skills in this portion of his book. So the exercise comes to concern window-dressing. These recipes are kindled ventures in pageantry.
Far be it for a short order cook of my station to match maneuvers with Simon--I chose a different tack.
Given that uncanny similarity to scrambled eggs I went with my gut and humble heritage. The most common response I got was that this was Eggs Benedict. Well, Brains Benedict. And rather than relying on an english muffin I opted to up the flavor and texture with a potato pancake redolent of onions, finely-shredded celery and plenty of roasted garlic. The scallion salad lent acidity and some much needed structure to the dish, and the hollandaise framed the breakfast impostor studiously.
There are fundamental divergences I made from Hopkinson's instruction, but in the end I suspect they were only minimally influential to the eating experience of a pig's brain.
First I opted for an initial poach in seasoned milk rather than the court bullion. For one thing I hadn't satisfactory spices to fabricate one, and as well, my utilitarian instincts require I soak all non-muscle tissue in milk to leach out the cadaverous elements--its what makes liver such a (less minerally) smash when done correctly.
Also, since I used a larger organ than the one Hopkinson prescribed--he chose a calf's to my pig's, I sliced it down to cutlet serving size prior to poaching. It is essential to the undertaking of this step to know the delicacy of this organ--as food stuff, that is. If you have a fish spatula I recommend using it to transfer the brain segments to and from the poach and skillet as nearly any aggressive jostling will break up the tissue.
Finally, taste it out of the poaching milk. Get to know it for yourself. I found my recipe to be fairly intuitive. Like filet mignon it's a vessel, a near blank slate upon which, not unlike the imagination, you are required to show some initiative.
You need to pile up the flavor on a pig's poor brain.
The ingredients and preparation.
1 1 lb. pig's brain
3 c. whole milk
1 bay leaf; cumin; salt and pepper (to taste)
1 medium white potato
2 medium red potatoes
1 small red onion, grated
1 stalk celery, grated
3 cloves of roasted garlic (with one healthy tablespoon of reserved oil)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 egg yolk, whitened with beating
1 tbsp. heavy cream
1 qt. cup heavy cream
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp. coarse mustard
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
a handful of finely chopped parsley..
A handful of scallions, chopped lengthwise and then into matchstick size
salt and pepper
The idea is to get everything hot and ready at once. So timing is very much a factor. Because a hollandaise--what I call hollandaise at any rate, is so temperamental you should save it for the final step--like any sauce it requires the most ingenuity of your labor, so on that premise too you should save the imaginative for the culmination.
Begin by soaking the brain, sliced into half inch cuts in whole milk, seasoned liberally with salt, pepper, and bay. Let it sit for an afternoon, no less than a few hours, refrigerated.
Prepare the potato pancakes. Boil three medium potatoes in heavily salted water--I find a mixture of white and red increases the textural bristle. Using a block grater grate the celery and onion, adding it, with juices, to a bowl. Add the roasted garlic and oil--mash the cloves first. Once the potatoes have boiled to doneness you want to incorporate the grated vegetables with them, adding beaten yolk and cream as you go. Form patties and reserve til you're ready to griddle-cook them. In a white hot skillet fry the pancakes.
At this point you'll want to either attend to some measly vegetable sidecar--I roasted carrots, or get on with the brains...
The brain filets should be dusted in flour, salted and peppered--like any oddity the guilty secret is that pig's brain has no genuine flavor of its own so here's where you begin to make it up.
Sear and cook them through--touch the filets in the process for doneness. Like anything you'll feel a decreasing give as they go--cook to your liking.
In the meantime get on with your salad and hollandaise. The scallions need merely be trimmed into matchsticks and dressed with lemon juice, salt and pepper--I did dash a teaspoonful of ghee into the dressing as well.
The hollandaise begins like a conventional salad dressing: Convene with vinegar, mustard, egg yolk and seasoning. Whisk to a loose slurry consistency. Then add oil as with a mayonnaise--whisking vigorously. Once the body of the mayonnaise has formed begin adding the cream. You will want a heavy surface--but not something oppressive. Bear in mind you're dressing a brain, it needs a voluptuous speech, but it also needs--and this is admittedly tricky, a finer word--something to allow for contemplation. You want a taste of buttermilk dressing with the warm unctuousness of turkey gravy. Add plenty of chopped fresh parsley. It will take on the characteristics of thin white gravy.
As the hollandaise firms up brown the pancakes in a free skillet. Warm, too, the segmented brains as well--if needed. Upon mutual heating stack the elements in napoleon-form. Beg for Christ's sweet forgiveness and--panting subsided, consume to a nice Hank Snow record. Maybe Wham!