Having just come back from the Southeast, where pig is a mainstay, I’m primed and ready to talk about this week’s challenge, cooking for Charlie Palmer’s “Pig and Pinot” fundraiser. It’s a big event, and it’s great that Charlie lent it to the show. My ten-week old baby is smiling away at me as I type this … I suspect he’s going to like both pig and Pinot down the road as much as his dad does.
About the pairings aspect of this week’s challenge: Pinot Noir is a very complex grape. It can be very feminine, with sweet, bright red notes like strawberries or cherries, or it can go to barnyard complexity (as Toby was trying to articulate) with cooked fruits and wet hay-like notes … and it runs everything in between. Chocolate notes, leather notes, stewed fruits, tar … all kinds of stuff. Charlie hit on it very quickly in the episode, saying that you can either work with “opposites” or “similars”: so many of the chefs used cherries in their dishes because by doing so they were echoing what they found in the wine. The other way is to go the complete opposite, as when pairing an eggplant-colored dress with an acid-yellow clutch (my wife tells me). Just as opposites really do attract with people, opposite flavors in a wine and a dish can often complement one another very well. So it was fun to see what our cheftestants would discover in their pinots and how that would translate into the choices they made with their food.
I also really liked the challenge because it used all the parts of the animal. You treat the belly very differently than the leg, the loin very differently than the shoulder, so this challenge highlighted the versatility of this animal … if not the chefs.
What do I mean by this? Well, for example, a shoulder has a lot of connective tissue and collagen, so you’d want to braise or confit it, to break down those collagens or connective tissues. When done correctly, this can yield a more flavorful piece of meat than some of the easier ones like loins or chops, which could go for a quick roasting or grilling. In general, the animal takes smoke well. It can go Asian, Italian, Korean, or All-American such as BBQ. These are the reasons that, as I stated above, this was a great challenge for showcasing the abilities of the remaining chefs.
Michael and Bryan upped their own stakes: because they had both worked for Charlie before, they felt they had to perform well to impress him, and thus they put themselves under a great deal of additional pressure. With his root beer braised pork cheek, Michael was clearly going for the various notes in the wine and was introducing them into the dish. Kevin also turned the heat up under himself, feeling that because he had put himself forth to in this competition as “the pig guy,” nothing short of the win would be acceptable. Luckily for them, these three are good competitors; not only do they not buckle under pressure, they actually do perform better.