What to do with 25 pounds of pork? That was the question facing chef Matt Skobak of Montpelier's Salt Café earlier this week when a suckling pig from Perry Family Farm arrived in this cozy eatery.
The animal didn't come out of nowhere — owner Suzanne Podhaizer, Skobrak and NECI intern James LaVigne were prepping for a Suckling Pig Dinner, one in a series of themed meals planned by the imaginative trio. Skobrak, a third-year student at NECI, worked for two days to transform the animal into eight courses — a sort of culinary magical mystery tour of crispy pigs' ears and smoked ribs and braised trotter hash and cinnamon-sugar cracklings served with a WhistlePig Rye Whiskey ice cream.
Skobrak even made head cheese scrumptious, lacing it with star anise, white pepper and nutmeg and stuffing it into a steamed bun with Wolaver's stout mustard on the side. No part of the animal went to waste: when Skobrak crisped up pork belly to serve over wilted greens, he then took the rendered fat and transformed it into a pork gelee, cubes of which bobbed around a flute of sparkling cider like tiny flotillas of gluttony.
Skobrak's pièce de 'résistance appeared almost humbly at first — a tangle of hay atop a rolling cart. Standing over it with a knife at hand, he explained how he was interning on a Massachusetts farm when the farmer told him about the French technique of ham-in-hay, a low and slow way of cooking brined pork until it fell from the bone, full of earthy flavor. Rather than simmering the meat with wet hay, however, Skobrak baked the hay with the ham. He pushed away the nest of hay to reveal a pink hunk of meat, which he sliced and passed out to guests alongside subtly herbaceous rosemary-juniper boiled potatoes and sauteed pea shoots. The meat was succulent and smoky, tinged with barnyard, and swoon-worthy.
Skobrak will graduate from NECI this September. Until then, he, Podhaizer and LaVigne are planning more monthly dinners, including one in which they will team up with Three Penny Taproom and blend unusually flavored beers into the dishes themselves. "We're thinking about a pan-seared duck breast with a cherry lambic reduction," says Skobrak. We're so there.
Hay-Scented Ham with Rosemary-Juniper Potatoes
courtesy of chef Matt Skobrak
4-5 pound pork butt or shoulder
1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup sugar
½ lb. dry hay
1 lb. small golden potatoes
3 sprigs rosemary
1 tbsp. juniper berries
1-2 tbsp. sea salt
2 quarts chicken or beef stock
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
For the ham:
The night before, combine 1 gallon of water, 1 cup salt and ½ cup sugar. Place the pork in the mixture and refrigerate overnight.
When you're ready to cook the next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Soak the hay in water for 30 minutes. Once it is hydrated, spread the hay on a sheet pan in an even layer.
Remove the ham from the brine and pat dry. Place the ham in the center of the hay and fold the ends to fully wrap the ham. Flip the ham over so the folds are facing down to ensure the ham remains covered during baking. Bake for 3 hours, or to an internal temperature of 135 degrees. Remove the ham from the oven and let rest, covered in the hay, for 30 minutes.
For the potatoes:
Place the rosemary sprigs, juniper berries and stock in a pot. Simmer for one hour over medium heat. The stock will reduce and become infused with the rosemary and juniper flavor. After the hour is up, add the salt and taste. The liquid must be about as salty as the ocean to ensure that potatoes are properly seasoned. Over low heat, simmer the potatoes until they are fork tender.
Strain the potatoes and reserve 1 cup of liquid. Place the liquid in a pan over high heat and let reduce by half. Lower the heat and whisk in the butter to create a sauce. If the sauce separates, add a bit of heavy cream to stabilize the sauce.
Slice the ham and serve on a plate with a few potatoes and greens.