I’d Like To Be Alone With The Sandwich For A While

So this month’s binding project got me thinking about the head terrine I made with Rich a couple of years ago, and how I wanted to try it again with my new knowledge and aim it at a specific goal: bánh mì entirely from scratch. It’s one of the great sandwiches of the world, and since it’s a bastard offspring of French colonialism with many established variants, it’s ideally suited to remixing and tinkering. Ironically, it was my new level of comfort with baking bread that actually spurred me to choose this project; head cheese by itself is not something I would make just to have around since it takes a fair amount of work to yield something that to me is less sensually delightful than a good pâté. But in combination with crusty bread, roast pork, mayo, and pickles, it attains greatness. And since I had all those things on hand–all lovingly homemade–I knew these were going to be winners.

I procured the necessary ingredients and gave the process a bit of thought in the days leading up to the meal, which was to be a send-off for my wife’s trip to Edinburgh, where she’s dancing in the big festival they have every summer. Milo and I spent an afternoon last week turning the head into the terrine, which he thought was one of the cooler kitchen projects we’ve undertaken. It began with me cutting the ears off and plunking the head into our biggest stock pot, covering it with water, and simmering it for about four hours with an onion, carrots, and celery I grabbed from outside.

I also added a couple of cloves, a shard of cinnamon stick, some black peppercorns, a bit of ginger, and a star anise pod to give the meat and resulting stock a slight whiff of phở, which I thought would enhance the aroma of the result.

We gingerly removed the hot and collapsing head from the pot and strained the stock into another vessel to reduce. Using tongs and forks, we separated all the beautiful meat from all the skin, fat, and less beautiful other things that make up a pig’s head.

All the desirables went into a bowl, to which we added chopped pickled wild garlic, kimchi brine, Korean pepper powder, pimentón, 5-spice, a pinch of curry, salt, pepper, and a bunch of thyme leaves stripped off their stems.

All this, thoroughly mixed, went into a glass dish which I then topped up with reduced stock after chilling a little bit in the freezer to make sure it was gelatinous enough. I smooshed it all down with a spoon to release any bubbles, covered it, and put it in the fridge to set up.

It gelled to a redoubtable solidity, and breakfast taste tests the next morning were promising.

A few days later, John got in touch after a lot of touring and it turned out that the only evening he could see us was the planned bánh mì dinner. And so that right there was the moment at which this meal took a turn for the awesome. We’ve had some epic meals over the years, and while this didn’t rival the over-the-top complexity or hedonism (or sheer blottitude) of many of them, in its way it was as good as any (and more memorable, in that we remembered all of it). He mumbled something about bringing some Burgundy, and I said “sure,” and ran down the menu for him, knowing that whatever he brought would be superb. He knows that Burgundy is my favorite, and that I don’t have very much of it. He is as generous as he is brilliant.

That morning, I bagged the ears up with some butter, spruce tips, green coriander seeds, pepper, and salt and dropped them into a 65˚C water bath, and followed them with a nice hunk of pork belly that I sealed up in its own bag with red miso, maple syrup, and a big scoop of that black trumpet/black peppercorn compound butter I made a while back. (Pay attention to this part, because it’s important later on). I made a nice thick aïoli with pickled wild garlic, yuzu juice, Belizian mustard-habañero sauce, and some of the clear slime that you can squeeze out of the hollow green parts of really fresh scallions, and I baked two sesame baguettes using the standard bread recipe which I’m sure you’ve all memorized by now. I picked cilantro. There was a big jar of the most recent batch of kimchi (nappa, carrot, turnip, scallion) ready and waiting. I lowered the water temperature to 63˚C and put in four chicken eggs.

A little later, he texted me from Eataly, asking if I wanted any black Italian truffles. I said yes. True story.

A few hours after that, he arrived, bearing truffles and wine. We’ll get to the wine in a minute, but check these out:

We grated one on the mini-mandoline to see how they were. They’re not in the same league as black French truffles, and not as fragrant as white Italian, but their subtly funky elegance was exactly what the salad needed to make it great.

The salad was a fat bunch of selvetica arugula that I had picked and washed just before he arrived. I truly love this variety, much more than the bigger-leafed relative most people prefer. When I lived in Provence, I’d stroll up the hill behind our house and pick handfuls of this plant to enhance my lunch, and that combination of peppery taste and buttery texture can’t be beat by any green anywhere. I also love that it’s much slower to bolt, and still delicious when bolting, and that it reseeds itself all over the place so I only have to let it grow in a few spots and never deal with sowing it at all. I even had two plants make it through last winter because of the thick, insulating blanket of snow we had. I made a vinaigrette with shiso, basil, lemon marigold leaves, homemade red wine vinegar, olive oil, mustard, and garlic, and emulsified it with the immersion blender.

I took the pig ears out of their bag, rinsed the spruce leaves off of them, and cut them into ribbons. These went into the wok with some oil, where they sputtered angrily and took on a puffy brownness. I removed them and threw in a truffle’s worth of slices as an experiment, pulling then out as soon as they turned toasty brown, and then sprinkled them with salt to make little truffle chips. So the salads were arugula tossed in vinaigrette, crispy ears, an egg, truffle chips and raw slices, lemon marigold flowers, and cherry tomatoes. It didn’t suck. We opened a 2000 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne to go with this. It was slightly oxidized, so it had a sherry-like note that harmonized pretty nicely with the food. I like this wine, especially with food; by itself it can be a little unbalanced, but the 2000 John brought to a dinner several years ago was freaking perfection with hijiki-saffron tortellini stuffed with kabocha and sweetbreads and the 1998s we had and drank before that were all superb matches to all sorts of tricky yet luscious concoctions. This one was past its prime, but we both enjoy drinking older whites (and rosés like Tondonia) because they can go to some astonishing places.

After the salads, the sandwiches. I took the hunk of belly, strained its juices into a bowl, and gave it a good hard sear on all sides to get some deep color on it and put a good crisp around the edges, then I sliced it into quivering slabs of pale, steaming gorgeousness. I cut the baguettes in half, trimming the ends, and slathered both halves with mayo. A layer of terrine, some leftover truffle slices, a layer of belly, a generous strewing of kimchi, and then plenty of cilantro on top: simplicity itself.

The good part came with the eating. See, my baguettes are whole grain (wheat and rye) and these especially were chewier than your average French fare since I missed the dough’s peak and it had fallen some by the time I shaped them so they were less airy than they should have been. But none of that mattered, see, on account of that magical pork belly jus that I saved from the sous vide bag, remember? Thus was invented the French dip bánh mì, and I must say that this was among the very best sandwiches any of us had ever eaten.

The jus both softened the bread up to the perfect texture and tripled down on the porky/sweet/umami/black fungus flavors that permeated the rest of the ingredients. The tangy kimchi crunchily embellished the unctuous terrine and also echoed within it, since I had used some of the brine. The character and flavor of the extraordinary local grains in the bread asserted themselves without distracting, the mayo lubricated and added flecks of pickled garlic, and the cilantro of course did what it does, contributing that bright metallic treble note for which it is prized.

To go with this part, we had two more Grand Cru Burgundies: a 1999 Bizot Échezaux and a 2006 Camille Giroux Corton le Rognet (made by enfant terrible David Croix, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few times). They made for a very instructive pairing, and underlined for the one millionth time how important it is to drink great wine with other great wine: the contrasts between them show so much more than any one bottle can possibly reveal by itself. The Bizot was classic Échezaux, with layer upon layer of spice and incense and fractal filigrees of flavors that entwine and evolve like pure magic. Having said that, though, it was a little timid; I’ve had others that are richer and more generous with those etherial details. Still, it was a delight, and it had not finished improving as we finished it. The Giroux was amazing, offering an abundance of everything one looks for in a Burgundy–the incense, the toasty tang, the weightlessness containing serious power–but with an astonishing ripeness that fully included the sort of black fruits that one would expect to find in a New World pinot. Not that this bottle was in any danger of being confused for one, but still a remarkable aspect to an excellent bottle which also hadn’t finished evolving as we polished it off.

That last bottle was the coda for the evening, coming after the peach tart I made with the first delivery from our biodynamic fruit CSA. The Matrots’ “La Pièce Sous Le Bois” Blagny is only a 1er cru, so it was a big drop in depth from the other two, but still held its own; to my taste this wine is as good as Burgundy gets for under $30, offering real and elegant glimpses at what the greats are famous for, and with an elegantly sensuous texture to boot. The second half of the bottle was excellent two nights later, showing more mature dried strawberry flavors that made for some enthusiastic enjoyment. Milo took a sip and said “Dad, you should buy more Burgundy. It’s really good.”

Speaking of enjoyment, all the fancy talk and truffles should not distract from the point of this post: all this DIY from-scratch stuff isn’t just wankery for the blog. It makes some of the best food in the world. This sandwich was incredibly good in so many ways. If you don’t believe me, at least listen to John:

Now my wife is in Scotland and I have nothing to console me but lots of leftover terrine and belly.

18 comments to I’d Like To Be Alone With The Sandwich For A While

  • peter, i am literally speechless. this post is a dream dinner for me…

  • Wow. I can’t think of much more to say! Just. Wow.

  • So creative! I enjoyed reading about how you took the basic concept from one culture and adapted it to another. Both the head cheese and the sandwich look delicious!

  • El

    That was about 6 pictures too many for me of a pig’s head before breakfast but as usual you made it worthwhile in the end.

  • Time to thaw out the miso bacon slab and make me some banh mi.

  • Like everybody else, all I could think was: wow. And: holy shit. And then I felt a little sorry for myself.

  • I want that banh mi in the worst possible way but the pig’s head? not so much.

  • The photo of the pig’s snout sticking out of the pot is brilliant – I love it. I think your pig’s ear salad definitely trumps mine, as I didn’t have anything as fancy as truffles to add to mine. I really like the idea of the banh mi doused in sous vide pig belly jus – and I must admit I geeked out a bit at the idea of John Medeski eating the headcheese banh mi :)

  • Mo

    Wow!!! When I was reading through the Charcuterie the head cheese drew my attention, probably because of Little House on the Prairie. But then I read what it entailed and readily decided it would be way too much work for so little reward.

    I have to say, I would kill for your entire meal, the sandwich, salad, truffles…wine. Fuck. Need now!!!!

  • Peter

    Claudia: You’re never speechless.

    Sara: Well thanks for coming by to say it.

    Linda: They both were. I love this kind of open-source food.

    El: You’re a trooper.

    David: How did the miso bacon come out?

    Julia: Yes, because you eat so terribly over there.

    Winnie: Ah, but the former requires the latter. It’s the circle of life.

    Martin: Thanks. It was.

    IBW: That one is my favorite too. I think it’s funny that you, David, and I all made pig ear salad at the same time.

    Mo: It’s some work, but not really that much. And the jellied stock is a fabulous byproduct.

  • Ditto: Julia – totally feeling sorry for myself, lol.

    In case you aren’t busy enough, here’s a project for you:
    http://www.farmcurious.com/hand-thrown-fermenting-crock/

  • The miso bacon turned out quite well. I split the belly and made two batches: both cured with miso & maple syrup, but I added a healthy amount of togarsshi to one of them during the cure.

    I’m jealous – your pig’s head had eyes, mine seem to have been pecked out by crows.

  • Odd to say, but that terrine makes me want a pig head. Lovely!

  • Peter

    Jackie: It’s on my list for sure.

    David: They probably did that to make it more palatable, though the result wasn’t exactly less gruesome.

    Diana: Get one! They’re fun to play with.

  • Peter, I just read this whole thing through and wanted to say, I have absolutely nothing in my experience against which to judge anything in this post. I can’t even begin to imagine what any one item here tasted like, let alone any of them together. It sounds totally wild, like a story about visiting Nepal…in 1850. I mean, this is almost in another language from the one I speak.

    More than anything else I’ve read from you, it makes me want to invite myself up to a meal like this at your place, just because I really have no idea what the heck this would be like. (I should say, I’m not inviting myself, and even if you did invite me I’d never come because you live, like, a zillion miles away and you make fun of me whenever you can. Also, inviting myself would be rude. But you understand my point.)

  • This post is like reading a beautiful foreign language. I’ll now get up to start my day and pretend that I have half as much gonzo as you…

  • [...] everyone noticed his spectacular, extravagent and enviable way of answering the challenges. I’d Like to Be Alone with the Sandwich for Awhile, My Salami Brings All the Goyim to the Yard, and the Charcutepalooza winning post Gratitude is the [...]

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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