“It’s the most intense umami flavor,” Cox says. “This meat is succulent and delicious. . . . This is easily the best part of the fish.”
Like Cox, Graffiato’s Brick routinely has to place special orders for oddball ingredients. His halibut tail is a prime example. A whole halibut could easily cost hundreds of dollars wholesale, which in turn would require that Graffiato find a way to generate hundreds more in revenue from that single fish. That isn’t going to happen at this small-plate emporium. So Brick, whose résumé includes stints at Aureole, Daniel and Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York, buys the tails from Samuels & Son Seafood. The vendor provides the tails with about three inches of extra flesh, perfect for picking up the gelatin on the bone. Likewise, Brick has to buy separate tuna spines to extract the marrow and individual pig’s heads to butcher the meat for his Sardinian gnocchetti with “pig snout” ragu.
Eola chef Daniel Singhofen can sometimes buy his young pigs with the head still attached — not that it makes it any easier to extract the brain, the part of the pig that’s routinely tossed away. The key for Singhofen is to buy heads without that single hole in the forehead, which indicates the pig was incapacitated with a captive bolt gun, rendering the brain unusable.
This is where the skill of a chef comes into play with whole-animal cooking. Through a lot of trial and error, Singhofen and his kitchen team have perfected a method for extracting the brain. It involves cracking the skull with a cleaver in two locations, and the cooks have to know exactly where to strike the skull, exactly how much pressure to apply and exactly the right angle at which they should brandish the knife.
Once the brain is removed, Singhofen will “cold poach” it, cube it and fold it into tortellini, which are then boiled and served with brown butter, butternut squash puree, crushed hazelnuts and sage. “Texturally,” the chef says, “it ends up being very much like a cheese tortellini.”
I’m reminded of the skills required to deal with whole, or even partial, animals as I’m butchering my own pig’s head on the counter of my Takoma Park kitchen. I bought the head for $20 at Harvey’s Market inside Union Market and now have Brick on the cellphone to walk me through the process, so that I can make his pig snout dish at home. As the sous-chef directs my cuts and I slowly, agonizingly, begin to peel the skin and fat and meat from the skull, I’m forced to literally feel my way around my poor subject’s head.
The reward for my work is two thick slabs of face meat and skin, each half in one continuous roll, from the top of the skull to the bottom of the jowl, far more than I’ll need for Brick’s dish. And there’s another benefit to butchering my own pig’s head: When I’m this intimate with the source of my food, I understand, deep in my bones, the desire to waste nothing.