In one kitchen cooler, a large piece of pork hindquarter hangs with the telltale layer of lard covering the open cut, a whole prosciutto emanating a sweet, musky odor. In another you'll see a foreleg, coppa, that carries a similar olfactory punch.
Nearby you may see a head. "We usually do get the whole animal," says Michael Pruett of Steenbock's on Orchard. "The off cuts, I'll grind them and make sausage."
That area kitchens get whole chickens and ducks comes as little surprise. But whole goats, hogs? Even whole beef? This was not always typical.
"You can pull tenderloins from vacuum-packed bags, grill them and serve them," says Daniel Fox of the Madison Club. "It's not why I started cooking."
Fox "breaks down" the entire carcass of a hog, a goat or a lamb, rather than ordering individual cuts. Part of this follows from his hobby of raising pork for his kitchen. Part simply flows from a point of view increasingly common among Fox and his peers in the culinary world, and among local chefs Fox names: Tory Miller at L'Etoile; Jon Nodler, the sous chef at Merchant; the Hunter brothers at Underground Food Collective; and Francesco Mangano at Osteria Papavero. "He's taught me quite a bit," says Fox of Mangano. "He has quite a following for offal meats. I have a lot of respect for him."
These local cooks are not alone. Harvest Restaurant has used whole hogs, including an effort for an October dinner to serve entrees that drew from every part of a hog. At Promega Corporation, a Fitchburg biotechnology company, sous chef Pete Kelly and chef Nate Herndon also cure cuts from hogs.
Kelly credits gastropubs with starting the movement, although those kitchens usually took the organs and meat pre-cut, not as whole animals. About five years ago, Kelly began to see whole pigs delivered to kitchens like L'Etoile, where he worked as sous chef. The trend neatly joins the need to balance ledgers with creative culinary challenges, Old World sensibility, and farm-to-table values.
Kelly and Herndon cut up a small pig carcass last week. Front legs received a spice rub and a 20-hour stay in a smoker. Back legs became hams, bellies bacon. The head was boiled with chiles and spices for use in pozole, a rich Mexican soup with hominy.
When a kitchen uses everything from an animal, the appeal is obvious: "It's more economical," says Kelly. A typical quality pork source may charge around $5.25 a pound for a host of cuts. A medium-sized, whole carcass will come in around $2.50 a pound.
Breaking down an ungulate carcass also pays homage to traditional cookery. "It's really out of respect for what I do," Fox offers. "I grew tired of not using everything. It hurts to see people trim meat and throw [scraps] in the garbage."
Fox learned to use whole carcasses from farmers and chefs. A friend in North Dakota, he says, walked him through using whole lambs - stuffing pillows with wool, curing and hanging decorative hides and producing a range of dishes from the meat, bones and cartilage.
For Fox, it generates an array of ingredients. Legs may go for prosciutto and coppa. Loins will be dry cured and sliced thin for lomo embuchado. Fatback will be processed into lardo, skin into chicharrones. Kidneys and livers will be ground in paté, and the heart may be cured, pickled and smoked for various dishes.
Then, of course, there's the head cheese. The head, the trotters (feet), stomach, bladder and more will be simmered awhile. Blood will be stirred in, bones and cartilage pulled out, and a thick broth will be reduced and packed with the meaty extras, then chilled. It thickens nicely. "That base has a lot of collagen," observes Kelly of his boiled head broth.
Lamb and goat can be a bit more challenging, notes Fox, because the organs can be gamey. He will soak organs in buttermilk, milk or cream and rinse them, sometimes through several cycles, to pull the iron flavor from the flesh.
Heads of lambs and goats yield good meat from cheeks, tongues, even brains. Some is used in patés or aspics for soups and sauces.
Some is not. "If it's for a special occasion," notes Fox, "I'll roast the whole lamb's head and serve it."