Key Ingredient: Topolobampo's Andres Padilla transforms cock's combs | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

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Key Ingredient: Topolobampo's Andres Padilla transforms cock's combs

Fried like chicharrones, the rooster's crowning glory becomes a "really, really cool" plate.

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The Chef: Andres Padilla (Topolobampo)
The Challenger: Carl Shelton (Boka)

The red, fleshy comb that sits atop a rooster's head is used in the mating process (to indicate health to the female) and to cool the rooster when it's hot out; blood circulates through the comb and wattles to help the bird lose heat. What it's not often used for is eating—at least in this country. Cock's combs have traditionally been served as a garnish in France, and they're a main ingredient in finanziera, a winter stew that's a specialty of the Piedmont region of Italy (its ingredients also include rooster testicles and wattles, as well as veal sweetbreads, marsala, and vegetables).

Closer to home, San Francisco chef and offal lover Chris Cosentino has served both braised cock's comb with lobster mushrooms and candied cock's comb with rice pudding and cherries at his restaurant, Incanto. And Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods reportedly loves them—apparently it's not a bad thing to be "meltingly phlegm and gelatinous," as he's described them.

Andres Padilla of Topolobampo, challenged with cock's combs by Carl Shelton of Boka, initially had some trouble sourcing them but eventually got some from Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms, which supplies the restaurant with chickens. "Some of them, when they came in, had the beaks still attached," Padilla said. "It was a cool sight, to say the least. I had to pick feathers and some beaks off."

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Padilla wanted to make a Mexican dish but couldn't find any mention of the ingredient in Mexican cookbooks or online. He asked the native Mexicans who work at the restaurant whether they knew what it was—"they would look at me like I had two heads," he said. One cook, who's Filipino, said he grew up eating cock's combs and liked them braised with vinegar, fried, and served with soy sauce.

As it happens, that cooking process is very similar to what Padilla ended up doing with the ingredient. First he tried just braising it, which he said gave it a gelatinous texture. "I wanted to go past that and try to make it crispy," he said.

Inspired by the concept of chicharrones, Padilla slow-cooked the cock's combs in duck fat for a couple hours and then dehydrated them before frying them. "It got too dry, and it didn't have any texture to it after that. It just kind of dissipated in your mouth," he said.

So he skipped the dehydration step and just dusted the combs with cornstarch before frying. The moisture in the combs turned them into tiny missiles when he tried panfrying them; not only did fat spatter everywhere, but a few launched themselves right out of the pan. Padilla ended up switching to the deep fryer. "It comes out crispy, and it's pretty flavorful," he said. "It doesn't puff like chicharron, but it's still a desirable texture. The look of it is just really, really cool."

To go with the cock's combs, Padilla cooked baby summer squash and tatume squash in a 2 percent salt brine in an immersion circulator for 25 minutes at 180 degrees. "They're completely cooked but still have this nice, toothsome texture to them," he said. "You get to achieve this vegetable that's beautifully tender but still has a little bit of bite." He added raw squash-blossom stamens for their "vegetal crunch" (and also because they look cool, he said). He also made a green peanut mole sauce with roasted tomatillos, poblanos, peanuts, grilled onion, serrano chiles, cilantro, and parsley, and threw in some pieces of chicken skin that he'd boiled in chicken stock and dehydrated.

The cock's combs themselves, Padilla said, tasted like "really fatty dark meat. Like the oyster of the chicken, there's that part of the back leg that's so rich and good. It's like that with a different texture."

He declared the finished dish "delicious." "With the squash and the chicken skin, you get this summer-squash flavor and then the cock's comb just bursts with chicken flavor in your mouth. And the chicken skin just kind of reinforces that flavor, and the green peanut mole cleanses your palate, all in the same bite. It's really, really nice," he said.

Cock's combs with baby squash and green peanut mole

Cock's comb

1lb cock's comb (beaks removed)
¼ cup duck fat
Salt
¼ cup cornstarch
4 cups water

Remove beaks from cock's comb, blanch in boiling salted water for 30 seconds, then shock in ice water immediately. Place blanched cock's comb in vacuum-sealed bag with the duck fat then cook in immersion circulator for two hours at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool down, then remove cock's comb from bag and dust with cornstarch and fry.

Squash

5 ea assorted baby squash
Water (to cover)
Salt

Clean squash, then weigh them with enough water to cover them. Add 2 percent salt of that weight. Place in vacuum-sealed bag and cook in circulator for 25 minutes at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Let cool, then finish in broiler to char the skin.

Green peanut mole

8 roasted tomatillos
2 Serrano chiles
1 poblano (roasted)
2 cups peanuts (roasted)
6 cloves garlic (roasted)
1 small white onion (grilled)
2 ea allspice
1 t dried thyme
1 t black pepper corn
½ head romaine lettuce
½ bunch cilantro
½ bunch parsley
Crispy chicken skin (optional)

Blend all ingredients, except for romaine, cilantro, and parsley, with enough water to blend well.

Strain into pot to start cooking. After the ingredients have cooked down, blend the greens with more water then strain into same pot, bring up to boil, season with salt. If you choose, add crispy chicken skin at the very end.

Who's next:

Thai Dang of Embeya, working with maguey leaves. "It's really tough," Padilla said. "It's unique to Mexican food and only one part of Mexico." Traditionally, goat or lamb is wrapped in the leaves and buried in the ground with embers on top. "Then they unearth it, and the aroma that it puts into the meat is so unique, so Mexican, and it smells delicious when you open it up," he said.

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