Serious Eats: Recipes
The Nasty Bits: Pig's Ears Two Ways
"Searing the ear in my skillet was the most fun I've had with cast iron in a long time."
One of the greatest things about working with offal is that you and your butcher will never have to worry about miscommunication. Don't know the Spanish or Chinese word for cheeks? Just puff out your own and point to it. Having trouble recollecting the term for tail? Wiggle your index finger an appropriate distance behind your back, and someone will get the picture. Usually, combining such gestures with an oink or a moo can get you further than relying on the English names alone.
On Sunday, a quick tug of my earlobe sufficed at the meat department of a large Hispanic market. Two minutes later, the head butcher appeared and signaled for me to follow him into the chilly depths of the stockroom, where they had just received a new shipment of pig ears. Going into the unseen parts of markets is one of my favorite activities. There in the backrooms, you can find out for yourself if your meat is being safely fabricated or if your produce is being kept at the right temperature. Once I poked my head into the chaotic kitchen of a large Cantonese restaurant and stared in awe at their medicinal cabinets full of shark's fin, dried scallops, and all manner of herbs and roots. Weaving through bins of carrots and lettuce, I felt the same tingle of fascination as I trailed the butcher to the doors of the meat locker.
It was a brisk 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the stockroom. I watched as the butcher moved frozen box after box, labeled "tails," "necks," and finally, "ears." The cartons of ears appeared to have come from a Chinese supplier, and there must have been over one hundred of them in each. The sheer number of ears seemed especially impressive considering that one pig has but two to give. The butcher was unfazed that each box was frozen solid. Picking one up, he slammed the box to the floor with a resounding thud that echoed in the caverns of the stockroom. He repeated his throwing for several more rounds, during which time I lost all feeling in my exposed toes.
"Cold?" he asked with a grin on his face. "It's not too bad in here. In the meat locker we keep it at minus 30 to 40 degrees all the time."
At last he was able to pry four whole ears away from the greater frozen block and I, albeit numbed, wobbled out of the stockroom a happy cook. After all, pig's ears are some of my favorite nasty bits. The floppy, fleshy organ combines three of my favorite things--meat, skin, and cartilage--into one streamlined package.
Cartilage is a highly underrated texture. Crisp but yielding like a strand of al dente pasta, cartilage presents a unique mouthfeel to the eater. Encased between blankets of meat, the sheet of cartilage is embedded into the entire area of the ear. The thick, rubbery skin of the pig forms the outermost layer. Taken altogether, the entire organ must undergo a lengthy stewing to become palatable.
Like tofu, cartilage may be mild in taste, but it has the ability to take on complex flavors. Stewed in a classic Chinese red braise of soy sauce, sugar, star anise, and cinnamon, the savory-sweet ear is served chilled and sliced into long slivers. Cut across the width of the ear, each sliver is a perfect cross section of all three elements in the organ. A platter of sliced pig's ear makes for the ideal cold dish, an essential part of the Chinese dining experience.
For my second recipe this week, I sought a gutsy preparation worthy of the organ in all its glory. I referred to The River Cottage Cookbook, in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall offers up the entire ear on a plate. The ear is first stewed and then charred over a blistering-hot griddle, which renders the skin paper-thin and crisp. The original recipe calls for the ears to be simmered gently with the pig's head. In lieu of tracking down and transporting a whole head, I simmered the ears gently with onions, carrots, and some herbs (you know, the usual suspects).
Searing the ear in my skillet was the most fun I've had with cast iron in a long time. Pressed firmly against the scorching surface of the pan, the skin of the pig's ear crackled like popcorn, blistering into crisp boils and craters. As the skin hissed and popped, intoxicatingly porky smells filled the kitchen--smells so porcine that just inhaling them seemed filling enough. Served simply like a steak with a dab of Dijon mustard on the side, the ear was offal eating at its most honest: simple, pure, and, as always, utterly delicious.
Pig's Ear on a Hot Griddle
Adapted from The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.