by Julia Thiel
In 2013 Food Republic declared pig's tail the new pork belly (and pork belly, of course, is constantly being dubbed the new bacon). Vince DiBattista, chef at Campagnola and Union Pizzeria in Evanston—challenged by Brian Huston of Boltwood to create a dish with pig's tail—says that the hindmost part of the pig is actually very similar to pork belly.
"The pig's tail is a little more gelatinous. It gives it a richer flavor and texture," he says. "It's a little bit more work to eat, because pork belly you usually serve without the bone." Pig's tail, on the other hand, has cartilage to avoid when eating it.
And then there's how it looks. "If you leave it whole, it gives it a kind of monstrous appearance," DiBattista says. The tails he got didn't have the corkscrew curl often associated with pig's tails, but looked more like huge human fingers. "It's not what you'd expect—not like a piece of rotini pasta or anything," he says.
But while he'd never cooked with pig's tail before, DiBattista says it wasn't that far outside his comfort zone. His first thought was to make a ragu, but he wanted to "showcase the form of the tail." He decided instead to braise the tails, then cook them on Campagnola's wood-burning grill. He was inspired by the barbecue of the Caribbean, where pig's tail is popular, but made the barbecue sauce using a balsamic vinegar reduction and served the meat with polenta to give the dish an Italian spin.
In addition to the barbecue sauce, which included ketchup, red pepper flakes, honey, and Dijon mustard in addition to the vinegar, DiBattista made a cherry mostarda to serve with the pork. "I'm Sicilian, and I like to use sweet and sours, especially when you have something rich and fatty," he says. After braising the pig tails in crushed tomatoes and white wine with celery, onion, and carrot for a couple hours, he brushed them with balsamic barbecue sauce and threw them on the wood-burning grill to get a little char.
Meanwhile, he made the mostarda—cider vinegar, brown sugar, mustard seed, mustard powder, and tart cherries—and polenta (which he makes with water instead of stock because he thinks that stock masks the flavor of the corn). Before serving the pig's tail, he cut the end off for aesthetic purposes. "Sometimes people don't like to be reminded of what they're eating," he says.
DiBattista says the dish turned out well, although it wouldn't be immediately obvious to anyone not familiar with pig's tails what the meat is. "I would think it's some odd cut of pork, like a knuckle," he says. "Because it doesn't have the squiggly tail on the plate that you would see and immediately identify as a pig tail."
Still, while he'd consider serving pig's tail as a special, he wouldn't put it on the regular menu because customers might find it "off-putting." Brian Huston, who put braised pig's tails with mussels on the menu at Boltwood around the time he challenged DiBattista to cook with the ingredient, says they're selling better than the duck hearts he's tried serving at the restaurant in the past—which may not be saying much. "At my last job [at the Publican], I could sell 20 pounds of duck hearts in a night. I can't get rid of five pounds of duck hearts a week in Evanston."
DiBattista has challenged Mark Grosz of Oceanique to create a dish with hemp seed, which the Campagnola chef has been experimenting with himself, mostly serving it toasted on top of salad.
Braised pig tails
6 pig tails
2 qt canned whole peeled tomato with juices, crushed by hand
2 qt chicken stock
2 qt white wine
3 bay leaves
Small bunch thyme
2 each, cut large: celery, onion, carrot
6 whole garlic cloves
Rinse tails in cold water, pat dry, and place in a deep roasting pan along with vegetables. Bring tomato, stock, and wine to a boil on the stove and add a liberal amount of salt and pepper. Pour over the pig tails. Cover pan with foil and braise in the oven at 375 degrees for approximately two hours, or until tender, but not falling apart. Let pig tails cool in braising liquid.
1 c quick-cooking polenta
5.5-6 c water
2 oz butter
Salt and pepper
Bring water to a boil, turn down to simmer and whisk in polenta in a slow stream. Let cook for approximately five minutes while continuing to stir. Turn off heat, whisk in butter and salt/pepper. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve. If it become too thick whisk in a touch more warm water as needed.
2 c brown sugar
2 c apple cider vinegar
2 c water
2 c dried tart cherries
½ c toasted mustard seed
2 T mustard powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves
Combine all ingredients except for cherries in a pot, bring to a boil, and simmer for ten minutes. Pour over the cherries and let stand for at least ten minutes.
Balsamic barbecue sauce
1 c balsamic vinegar
½ c ketchup
¼ c honey
2 T Dijon mustard
1 tsp chile flakes
Reduce balsamic vinegar by a third. Stir in remaining ingredients and let cook for a few more minutes. Let it cool to room temperature before brushing on pork.
Heat wood or other grill. Remove pig tails from liquid and brush with balsamic barbecue sauce. Place on grill unti tails return to an internal temperature of 145 degrees and sauce caramelizes. Bring two cups of mostarda back to a simmer and add two tablespoons of butter and a quarter cup of chicken stock to enrich. Place polenta on plate, top with pig tail and pour mostarda over.