You may know Bruce Aidells as a food writer/radio personality/chef, or as the author of nine cookbooks including the comprehensive, 10-year-old The Complete Meat Cookbook, or from the line of high quality specialty sausages that bear his name (but which he no longer owns).
Yet the reason we trust Aidells as a celebrated meat-obsessive is best exemplified by what he and his friends did with the present he received from Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone in honor of his 60th birthday: A Hampshire pig lovingly fattened to 350 lbs. on acorns, apples and food scraps from Doumani and Sone's award-winning restaurant Terra. More than eighteen chefs — including Sone, Doumani, Aidell's wife Nancy Oakes, chef-owner of San Francisco-based Boulevard and Prospect, and L.A.'s own Jonathan Gold — helped him turn Dinner (the name that the pig answered to) into all things porky, including ham, sausages, porchetta, lardo and bacon. People are still talking about Sone's chile verde.
Recently we got Aidells on the phone to talk about his newly-published, aptly-titled The Great Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), about meats he's never eaten — and how to extract a recipe from someone who speaks a different language. But first we started with questions about Dinner-time.
Squid Ink: The story of your birthday pig is a gift that keeps on giving. Recently Lissa Doumani shared with us a compellingly bizarro-world Charlotte's Web-like detail about pig-processing day, and we quote, “The chefs from Sante had done a dinner the night before and had all these extra pig's heads, so they brought them over. We were able to have a giant stock pot filled with her head and about 20 tiny pig heads bobbing around in the pot cooking. Later that afternoon we picked all the meat from the heads and made head cheese.”
Bruce Aidells: It was really quite a production. A guy named Jim Neal who has this giant barbecue rig you pull behind a pickup truck that he had built in Texas.
SI: How long did it take to butcher the whole pig?
BA: I'd say we started around 10 a.m. and finished around 4 p.m. Not that bad.
SI: We've heard that David Shalleck's porchetta was the best that anyone had ever tasted outside of Italy. Why is that?
BA: Real porchetta is the whole pig. We used the pork belly still attached to the loin. It's all one continuous piece of meat, really. It starts at the backbone and goes all the way around the rib cage. Our way kind of got to the middle essence of the pig.
SI: Your Great Meat Cookbook is so definitive and fact-filled it should be sold at butcher shops. What inspired you to write it?
BA: I mistakenly titled the other book I did Complete, which makes it difficult to have anything after that, but that was actually written in 1996. Think of what happened in the world of meat since then: People's attitudes and awareness has really changed — especially because of The Omnivore's Dilemma — and people becoming aware of certain ways that animals are raised. Now people can find all these non-traditional meats through websites and the huge expansion of farmer's markets. Obviously, there were farmer's markets in '96, but not to the degree that there is now. I mean your city is a prime example of all the different farmers markets you now have.
SI: Back in 1996, the internet was just becoming popular. What kinds of meats would be harder to find back then?
BA: I'm pretty interested in a couple of meats that would be pretty hard to find back then which is bison and goat. Goat, in particular, is showing up on menus all over the country because there is much better goat meat available. It's not just dairy goat males. They're actually meat breeds. Given all that plus the fact that I had accumulated 300 or 400 recipes I wanted to share with people, it seemed like the right time.
SI: Many of your dishes come from far-flung parts of the world. How do you pry a recipe out of someone if you don't speak the language? Wild gesturing? Flash cards? Semaphore flags? Pictograms?
BA: By recipe I mean that they just kind of tell me the ingredients. It's not like they give me portions or something like that. Sometimes we just have to figure it out just from eating it. Sometimes I go to a basic source for a recipe and then try to match it to my memory of the dish I had. I think one of the most interesting recipes is Stuffed Head of Cabbage, which is a French country dish. I decided to put that in the book because we were staying with friends in France. The husband grew up there. He was describing his grandmother's stuffed cabbage and he was working himself into an ecstasy. All he remembered was that she used a lot of butter. So I had his description and so then I went to Julia Childs because I knew she had a recipe. Then I kind of tweaked the recipe to match his description.
SI: The Great Meat Cookbook is 632 pages long and contains over 250 recipes. What's the entry-level dish?
BA: Besides the simplest things like putting a dry rub on a chop or a steak which anybody can do as long as they invest in a meat thermometer so they can tell when it's done? There's this method that Lisa Weiss, who helped me test all the recipes for the other meat book, came up with. I call it “Lisa's Lazy Pot Roast.” Basically you let the oven do all of the steps in braising. I've applied it to short ribs, brisket…The results are really, really good and, basically, I think anybody can put that together as long as they take the trouble to taste it at the end to make sure it's ready.
SI: This is the braising technique that involves removing the lid for a certain period of time, then putting it back on?
SI: Why remove the lid only to put it back on?
BA: That browns the onions and other vegetables and concentrates the juices.
SI: What ingredients are essential to have around if cooking fromThe Great Meat Cookbook?
BA: Peppercorns. A basic Tellicherry [peppercorn] is a pretty good one. As far as salt goes, I'm pretty committed to using Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. If you went into most kitchens in Los Angeles and Berkeley, that's what you're going to find. It's extremely popular amongst chefs. It's easy to grab, it's coarser which makes it better for seasoning with your hands and it solubilizes really quickly on the surface of the meat so it penetrates really quickly.
SI: Flavor brining. You offer up at least ten different ways to brine meat. Does that mean that your pan drippings are going to be salty too?
For Bruce Aidells' Lazy Man's Short Ribs recipe, check back later in the day
BA: It certainly can if you let the salt really penetrate. But those are pretty short term, at the bare bone minimum of time and saltiness. I haven't found that that happens. Particularly pork chops, where it's easy to make a pan sauce after you sauté them off.
SI: You make a great case for joining a meat collective. How can the average person join forces with fellow carnivores?
BA: You don't have to go that far. A lot of smaller producers are doing meat CSAs, which are just a box of cuts. A cow share is usually a whole side and you go in with four families or something like that. That tends to be more popular in rural areas where they're actually raising the cattle. Sometimes the guys who show up at farmer's markets having several ways of selling meat — they have CSAs, cow shares and pig shares and an internet site. There are also sources in the back of the book. General sources can lead you to CSAs and stuff like that. In L.A., you'd have to find someone who is coming in to a farmer's market. You'd have to drive too far otherwise.
SI: On the face of it, your argument for making your own lard is surprisingly convincing: It is lower in saturated fats and higher in monosaturated fats than butter and if it's homemade it has none of the unhealthy trans fats that the supermarket variety contains. Still … rendering your own pork fat? We can't decide whether it sounds insanely time-consuming or super-easy.
BA: You're just melting fat. The hardest part is getting it ground up. The best thing to use is a meat grinder.
SI: Solve a meat mystery please. Many of your recipes call for 7-bone chuck. In Los Angeles, that cut is practically extinct. Why?
BA: You can buy parts of it — the flatiron, which is the most tender part. You can get underblade. You know how with the 7-bone chuck there's a long part and then a little knob where there are two eyes of meat? The underblade would be the part that is under the long blade bone. They usually sell it without a bone and call it boneless pot roast. I agree with you — I used to always see 7-bone chuck on sale. But now the flatiron has become super popular. What [butchers] are actually doing is breaking the 7-bone roast down into some of the individual muscles in order to get the flatiron which they can get a lot more money for.
SI: When you are invited to someone' s house for dinner are they too intimidated to prepare something meaty?
BA: [laughs] They're usually too scared to serve us anything. Period. Do you think we get invited very often? Our social life is pretty much Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone — and Lisa Weiss has lots of parties. Otherwise we don't get any invitations.
SI: When you do get invitations do people ever expect you to do the cooking?
BA: That happens. The worst thing when they say, “Well, here it is!” and then walk out of the kitchen.
SI: That has really happened to you?
BA: Many, many times. I don't do this much anymore but [in the past] I'd go over to people's houses and they'd be making something they really didn't know how to make so I'd have to go to the kitchen and cook it. Otherwise, I knew I was going to eat really, really badly.
SI: As the author of The Great Meat Cookbook do you feel it is your responsibility to eat any and every kind of meat?
BA: [pause] I'm trying to think if I've had iguana.
SI: Have you eaten monkey?
BA: Never had monkey. In China I had little birds where you eat the whole thing.
BA: You know, I didn't have dog. I was in Vietnam and I saw it. The closest I got was something called “Mock Dog.” It was a pork roast that was shaped like a dog carcass.
BA: I don't see cat on menus much.
SI: Do we detect a grumble in your voice? Monkey is fine to ask about, but cat is on the secret forbidden list? Is cat “a meat too far”?
BA: [voice brightens] I did have some squirrel recently. That was awfully good! This friend of mine who is a retired professor from Santa Cruz is a Cajun. He can't help himself – he likes hunting things. So there were squirrels on his property and he brought me about eight of them. I took lots of carrots, Moroccan spices and harissa and made a tagine. It was really delicious.
SI: Thanksgiving is upon us. What do you suggest for those who are totally sick of turkey?
BA: In the past we have done other things than turkey for our own Thanksgivings or [served] a roast [along with] the turkey. My first choice would be a bone-in pork rib roast such at the double rack of pork on page 334. I also love the dry-salted fresh leg of pork — and another great choice is the standing rib roast, such as the one with bacon and rosemary jus and yorkshire puddings on page 102.
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