PIGGING OUT An alternative to the usual holiday ham

Jose Garces made his culinary splash in Philadelphia on the strength of the roast suckling at his Spanish restaurant Amada. Now he has taken the pig on the road to Mercat a la Planxa Chicago. But he’s not alone. Spanish and non-Spanish chefs alike are preparing this sweet, succulent and slightly gamy meat (especially if you crunch on the cracklings) across the country. While Spanish Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, DC, serves suckling pig every Friday evening, Swiss-born Daniel Humm, chef at the decidedly un-Spanish Eleven Madison Park in New York keeps a suckling pig dish on the menu year-round.

“I like pork but suckling pig has a more refined flavor. The meat is really tender,” says Humm, who learned how to prepare suckling pigs while working in a small restaurant in Switzerland that owned a farm with pigs.

Other European countries cook suckling pig as well, a continuation of the custom in ancient Rome. Suckling pig also has a long history in China. But in China and in most of Europe, suckling pig is reserved for festivals and special occasions. The Spanish do suckling pig routinely. Cochinillo asado, as the Spanish call it, is a specialty of Castilla y Leon, the large and rugged region north and west of Madrid. The cities of Avila and Segovia are particularly renowned for suckling pig.

When my wife and I had Sunday dinner at the bustling Meson de Candido in Segovia a few years ago, just about every other order was for suckling pig. As is the local custom waiters (or the chef, wearing his culinary medals around his neck) cuts the pig with a plate, an indication of just how tender it is. At another restaurant, the waiter tossed the plate onto the stone floor like a Frisbee, shattering it into dozens of pieces.

In Spain, suckling pigs are typically no more than nine pounds, according to Dani Arana, chef at Taberna del Alabardero. But in the United States, the smallest ones he can get are 15 to 17 pounds. Most other chefs use even larger pigs, up to 30 pounds. “Chefs need larger pigs because they need more yield,” says Sylvia Pryzant, who, with her husband, owns Four Story Hill Farm in Honesdale, Pa, which supplies Eleven Madison Parks well as Per Se, The French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s in addition to selling to  consumers. Even at 30 pounds (and about four weeks of age), pigs are fed only on mother’s milk.

When I asked Ralf Kuettel, chef and proprietor of Trestle on Tenth in New York, for any cooking tips for the home chef he replied “make sure your oven is big enough.” Indeed, most home kitchens aren’t. But Garces solves that problem by cutting the pig in half, lengthwise, then cooking half at a time. The 30-pounder I cooked at home was also halved but I managed to fit both halves (and the head, much to my wife’s chagrin) in two roasting pans that just barely made it into my oven.

Garces, Arana and Humm all brine their pigs for 24 hours or more before cooking. Humm uses only salt in the water; Garces, salt and sugar; and Arana, salt, lemon and bay leaves. Garces remove the pigs from the brine, splits them in half, lengthwise, then leaves them in the refrigerator for another 24 hours, uncovered, to let the skin dry out. This helps the skin crisp better.

While Garces and Arana cook the pig as the Spanish do, roasted in the oven, Humm makes a confit by cooking the whole (flattened) pig on the stove in duck fat for 12 hours, seasoned only with salt, pepper and thyme. He then removes the skin in one piece and puts it outside down on a work surface. The pig is completely boned and the meat mixed with pan juices, then spread evenly over the skin and weighted down overnight. For service, a portion is cut and reheated to crisp the fat.

I used Garces’ method at home. The two halves were covered with foil, then roasted on a convection setting of 275 degrees for 3 hours. The temperature was raised to 300 degrees and the meat cooked for another three hours, uncovered. The skin emerged beautifully crisp and the moist meat so tender, you could pull it away with your fingers. So there’s no need to worry about carving. Just pull the meat off with tongs and pile on a platter.

You can roast the pig ahead, then reheat it in a 500-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes to heat through and crisp the skin. A 25-pound pig will serve 12 people with enough leftovers to make a few roast pork sandwiches.

Garces also removes the skin in one piece, then he tosses the shredded meat with sea salt and olive oil made with Spanish arbequina olives. “It’s a light olive oil. You don’t want one that overpowers the meat,” he says. The meat is served with a rectangle of cracklings on the top. I didn’t think the pig needed the oil. It was plenty moist and flavorful on its own. Nor did it need a sauce, though Arani makes a pan sauce with white wine and pan juices.

Accompaniments for suckling pig run the gamut. Because Garces’ wife is Cuban (his family is from Ecuador), he prepares a Cuban-style pig for her family in Miami at Christmas. Instead of a brine, he marinates the pig in oregano, cumin, garlic, orange juice, white vinegar and oil. The pig is served with white rice, black beans, sweet plantains, tostones (deep fried, unsweet plantains) and steamed yucca.

At Amada, Garces makes Spanish side dishes such as garbanzos with tomato and spinach, roasted fingerling potatoes with rosemary, white beans with bacon, and colcots, grilled scallions with romesco sauce, all served in shallow ceramic bowls. (In Spain, the pig is traditionally cooked in a ceramic pan.) At Eleven Madison, sides change with the season. Last summer it was apricot chutney and cipolline onions. In the fall, sides are likely to contain winter squash and mushrooms. Arana keeps things much simpler, serving only a traditional salad of romaine lettuce, tomato and onion.

Pork is a transitional meat when it comes to wine, taking to whites and reds, depending on the preparation. With suckling pig, fat becomes more of an issue, so wines need to have good acidity to cut through it. John Ragan, wine director at Eleven Madison, pairs wines based on side dishes and sauces. Thus, he recommended German Spatlese Rieslings from the Pfalz or Rheingau for their acidity and affinity for the apricot chutney.

When I ate at Amada, beverage director Kevin Lundell poured a Verdejo from Castille y Leon. Unlike most Verdejos that are lean and herbal, this was kept on the lees, so it had more richness while still keeping its crisp acidity. It was the best of the eight wines I tried, including six at home. The best red wine match was a light-bodied crianza Rioja, followed by a Burgundy.

Suckling pig is a great party dish that is fun to cook and eat and one your guests will remember for a while, even if you don’t show them the head.

How to Get It

Four Story Hill Farm, Honesdale, PA,  570-224-4137 ($170 for pigs about 25 pounds)

McReynolds Farms, Phoenix, AZ, 800-981-1854, www.mcreynoldsfarms.com ($150 for a pig 10 to 17 pounds)

Williams-Sonoma, San Francisco, Calif., 877.812.6235, www.williams-sonomainc.com ($230 for a pig approximately 12 pounds)

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