Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chicago Needs Sustainence: Lula Cooks Whole Boar, Feeds Entire City

As winter’s chill settles into our bones, Chicagoans seek out rich and hearty foods to sustain our bodies and feed our souls. Just as we would swath ourselves from balaklava to Sorel boots in MicroFleece and goosedown, so do we seek to pad our persons with a thick coating of nutrient-driven insulation. Catch my drift? Just a few days ago I sauntered into Lula’s prep kitchen hoping to be the lucky recipient of a scrap of something or other delicious before banishment to the dustbin when I found myself staring into the cold, unfeeling eyes of a deftly beheaded porcine creature. Startling, yes, but intriguing nonetheless, as I suspected the unfortunate animal’s presence indicated Farm Dinner menu experimentation and finalization. Indeed, LouisJohn Slagel (meat farmer extraordinaire and, incidentally, bearer of probably the most epic name this side of the Mississip’) had dropped off an entire boar for Lula’s disposal—a wily, wascally guy who had escaped castration but eventually met his end in the name of nose-to-tail cooking.

Course 1: Crackling salad with frisee, poached egg, pickled beets, housemade testa, and beet vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: NV Joseph Perrier Brut, 2006 D’Antiche Terre Greco di Tufo

Some of you may think that my absence from the blogosphere would have given me some time to formulate new favorite wine pairings. Not the case—I still like the bubbly. Sorry, but how could I not bust out our old buddy J-Pee-Pee for a first-course salad based around fried boar’s skins (read: pork rinds)? I mean, it’s almost as classic as the Champs and Popeye’s Chicken combo . . . not to mention the addition of a poached Genesis Farm egg, malt vinegar pickled Nichols Farm beets, and crunchy Swan Creek goat ricotta cheese curds? Duh. The whole thing screams for the crisp, toasty mouthfeel and juicy citrus flavors of NV-JP. Perfection. As a still alternative we tried Greco di Tufo, known by the staff as an almost-effervescent, high acid still wine—a terrific alternative to sparkling if a guest is wary of the bubbly stuff. The clean citrus mingled beautifully with the pickled beets and poached egg, while the slightly petrol-tinged, briny minerality provided a nice counterpart to the malt vinaigrette and, of course, the testa.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the main event of Course 1: Boar’s Head Cheese.

“Pray tell,” I hear you say. “What, may I ask, is head cheese?”

“Well ladies, you’re listening to coffee talk. ‘Head cheese’ is neither ‘head’ nor ‘cheese.’ Discuss.”

If you must know, head cheese is the amalgam of some less glamorous pork parts* braised, tenderized, picked off of bone, and packed in a terrine under gelatinized, cooled braising stock flavored with (in this case) apple cider vinegar. The whole thing is served room temperature and is easy to slice, like a block of cheese. I suppose the name “head cheese” is derived from the presence of pork cheek and the dish’s sliceability.

Honestly, Chef Mike’s is delicious, delicate, and flavorful, with a pleasant texture and a beautifully marbled appearance, and it’s addition to the salad of Course 1 was delightful.

*Cheek, tongue, trotters, tail; someone get my mother a drink

Course 2: Milk poached pork loin and boudin blanc with chard, butter braised radishes, marcona almonds, pink lady apples, and parmesan croquette

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, 2007 Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier

For LouisJohn’s boar’s second act, Jason Hammel poached the loin in milk and used the shoulders for boudin blanc, an emulsified sausage. Course 2 was a study in pink, with the milk-poached loin, butter braised radishes, swiss chard stems, and caramelized pink lady apples taking on various hues of rose, white the boudin blanc, marcona almonds, and a parmesan “grit fritter” (made from white cornmeal) added creamy notes. The poaching milk and boar’s stock comprised a lovely dark sauce on the plate.

For such richness I needed the standard high acid and clean fruit flavors, and I considered carrying the Greco di Tufo through from Course 1 to Course 2. In the end, however, I wanted a more substantial body than perhaps possessed by Greco, so I selected elegant Prager GV with its austere fruit, zesty minerality, and juicy acid. Prager didn’t disappoint with Course 2, standing up to the fatty meats and buttery vegetables, not to mention the crispy croquette. Pretty much a no-brainer.

More of a sleeper hit was the red wine choice for Course 2—2007 Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier. Often refered to (by me) as the “Goth Sister” of pinot noir, or as the “Sith Lord” to pinot noir’s “Jedi Knight” (by Dave Thompson, resident Star Wars nerd), Saint Gregory possesses similar weight, delicate earth, and fruit to pinot noir but with a slightly darker, more rustic edge. I thought that the substantial flavor of Saint Gregs coupled with its lightness of body and integrated tannin would provide a challenging and engaging pairing, and the staff and I were delighted with the results. The earthy, vegetal chard and radishes, the bright, tangy, marconas, sweet and smoky apples, and creamy boudin blanc and boar’s loin all brought out Saint Greg’s earthy notes, juicy acid, dark, brooding red fruit, and refreshing tannin respectively. Truly an enjoyable experience.

Course 3: Rosemary crème caramel with Klug Farm pear and peppercorn brittle

Preliminary Pairings: Chambers Muscat, Maculan Dindarello

I had quite a time deciding what dessert wines to try with Melissa’s rosemary-tinged crème caramel. A dessert light in color and airy in texture, with substantial echoes of fragrant rosemary and tingly black pepper, not to mention the natural sweet-fruit characteristics of poached pear adding a bright, juicy counterpoint. Mostly I was stymied by the rosemary angle—it’s simple to find wines to pear with honey, or chocolate, vanilla, or brown sugar . . . The perfumed pungency of rosemary threw me for a loop. I decided to sniff a sprig of rosemary and systematically sniff certain wines and see what I found most pleasurable, and the short-listed contenders ended up being quite delicious. Chambers Muscat, with its caramelly brown sugariness, proved to be a bit overpowering, but Maculan Dindarello, a slightly honeyed Muscat with clean minerality and (as I discovered through my sniff-test) a touch of herbaceousness, turned out to be a beautiful complement to the crème caramel, especially when tasted with a bit of the black-peppery brittle!

So come on in, grab a glass of wine and indulge in a bit of the best way to warm up this winter!

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