In the middle of Chicago's Fulton Market, the place that earned that city the name of Hog Butcher for the World, stands The Publican, a restaurant known for many things: a tremendous beer list; cold oysters to befriend those beers; the greatest chicken fried steak in all of America, Texas included. But for the real point of the place, look to the walls, at the massive 10-foot paintings. Pig, pig, and pig. This is one of America's great temples to pork.
It's a place where the magnificently aromatic French fries are cooked, in part, in lard. It's a place where a cone of pork rinds, each a magic trick of crispness, can legitimately take the place of a bread basket. It's a place where, twice a week, there are "Porchetta Races," where cooks challenge each other in a test of skill, honor, and speed in boning, rolling and tying the classic Italian roast. (Chef Brian Huston reveals that while his sous chef, Erling, taught the technique to the sausage maker, Cosmo, it's Cosmo who almost always leaves Erling in the dust.)
For true lovers of pork like Huston and his crew, the desire to find tasty ways to use every part of the animal is undeniable, which is why their menu features so much charcuterie and things others would call off-cuts: headcheese, boudin blanc, pig ears, and all the rest of it. It's also about respecting the pigs this meat comes from, especially since those pigs come from a farm that Huston personally cares about. "Becker Lane's a special place," Huston explains. A veteran of San Francisco's iconic Zuni Café, Huston is passionate about supporting farmers who raise their animals humanely: with enough outdoor space, clean air, and good food to let them live as happily as possible. "Jude Becker's farm is so well run," he says, "You can spend an entire day there, get in your car, and not smell like pig. That's unusual."
Young, smart, and passionate, Jude Becker is on his way to being, if there can be such a thing, a celebrity pig farmer—Michael Pollan declared yesterday that Becker is one of his favorite producers, and Mark Bittman published a column extolling Becker's sustainable virtues. (Disclosure: Gilt Taste sells Becker Lane pork, proudly.) A sixth generation farmer, Jude breeds a 50/50 blend of Berkshires and Chester Whites, the former for their sweet, fatty meat and the latter for their rugged, outdoorsy spirit. He pasture-raises his pigs and feeds them organic corn and acorns that are grown on the same land.
And Becker holds Huston in high regard: "He's not one of those chefs that just says he supports artisanal farms. This guy is committed and he's stuck with us through thick and thin."
The "thin" being times when Becker Lane has hiccups in its breeding and distribution processes, an occurrence common to small farms. Huston and his crew have had to feverishly adjust their preparations and the menu because their pig is, for instance, stuck in traffic on US-20, and they refuse to call on someone else to deliver a replacement. "It's the best pork I've ever seen," Huston says. Many restaurants work with small farms, but The Publican depends on one farm to deliver the one ingredient that is the essence of the restaurant. "And it's expensive as all hell," Huston laughs. "Quote me on that."
One way to manage that cost is to make delicious things out of the parts that others throw away, like ears, skin, and tails. For the adventuresome cook, try Brian Huston's recipe for crispy pig tails. And if pig tails aren't your thing, Huston's also shared a recipe for something a little tamer, but no less delicious—click here for pork rib chops with stone fruit vinaigrette.
Crispy Pig Tails with Sautéed Broccoli and Chili Garlic Vinaigrette
For the pig tails:
2½ pounds of pig tails
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons pepper
6 cups of chicken stock
2 cups of white wine
1 large carrot, trimmed and peeled
1 large onion, trimmed and peeled
1 stalk of celery
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 large bunch of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the chili garlic vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon of minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon of Sambal chili sauce
½ tablespoon of honey
3 cloves of garlic, roasted and chopped
1 shallot, minced
1 anchovy, minced
¼ cup of champagne vinegar
¾ cup of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
For the broccoli:
1 large head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
To make the pig tails:
1. Combine the salt and pepper and toss with the pig tails in a large bowl. Cover and let cure overnight in the refrigerator.
2. In a large pot, combine the chicken stock, white wine, carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the cured pig tails. Turn down to a simmer and cook over a low heat until the pig tails begin to break at the joint, about 1½ to 2 hours. When the pig tails are soft, remove them from the cooking liquid and let cool.
3. Once the tails are cool, peel the skin from the tail and pick the meat off the bones into a bowl. (The bones are small, so be careful to avoid mixing bones with meat.) The meat will be tender and similar to braised oxtail meat; silky, soft and stringy with a smattering of fat and soft tendon pieces.
4. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the picked tail meat and form into rough patties. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Keep the meat together in the center of the pan and allow it to brown and crisp on the bottom like bacon. When crisp and hot all the way through, remove from pan and serve with broccoli and chili garlic vinaigrette.
To make the chili garlic vinaigrette:
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except for the olive oil. Once all the ingredients are combined slowly pour in a steady stream of olive oil while vigorously whisking to emulsify the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To make the broccoli:
1. Fill a large pot with heavily salted water and bring to a boil. While you're waiting for the water to come to a boil, fill a large bowl with ice water. Add the broccoli florets to the boiling water and let cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until barely tender. Immediately remove the florets from the boiling water and put them in the ice bath. Remove the broccoli from the ice bath and let dry on a plate of paper towels. This can be done up to a day in advance and the cooked florets can be stored in the refrigerator.
2. Before serving, heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, toss in the cooked florets and cook on high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Toss the florets with the vinaigrette and serve with the crispy pig tails.