I never intended to jump on the nose-to-tail trend that’s been going on for several years but somehow I’ve ended up cooking the tails of several animals. It started with David DiBari, chef/owner of The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry, New York, who loves nothing better than breaking down a pig and incorporating every bit of flesh, skin and fat into his gutsy Italian dishes. In the restaurant’s basement kitchen, he led me through a three-part process that transforms bony pig tails and shins into a falling-off-the-bone party on your plate.
Brining carries the seasoning, including fennel seed and hot red chile, all the way through the meat. Next it’s confited, meaning slow cooked in fat, which breaks down and tenderizes the tough connective tissues. The final step is a quick pan fry to brown the outside. The whole process takes two to three days, mostly free of work on your part. Chef Dave serves the pig tails in a puddle of minestrone and you can, too. ”The idea is to pick them up and gnaw to get every morsel of meat,” he says.
Equipped with the recipe, I was sure I’d have trouble finding pig tails in the Tampa Bay area where I live. But, slam dunk, they were right there at my Publix supermarket. The reason is not people like me trying to make a chef’s recipe but the fact that there is an African-American population aware of how good pig tails are for seasoning greens and beans. They know what to do with turkey tails, too, as I discovered at Mr. I Got ‘Em’s stand at the Saturday Morning Market, where proprietor Brady Johnson sells collard greens simmered long and slow with turkey tails and smoked turkey legs. Sometimes I buy his and sometimes I make my own from the stand’s thrice-washed and chopped greens.
When we bought a share of a locally raised lamb last June, I acquired a couple of tails as a freebie. I had some dried white beans in my pantry so I made a soffritto by sauteing onion with garlic, then adding a few canned plum tomatoes (squish ‘em) and some rosemary. Next the beans and one of the tails went in and, once covered with water, simmered until they were meltingly tender. The remaining lamb tail is still in my freezer and I’m thinking it’s time to do the same thing again.
Turkey, lamb and pig tails are all bony and fatty in a gelatinous sort of way. That may not sound promising, but I can attest to the fact that their powerful flavors are worth the trouble of extracting. And, as you’ll see in the recipe, working with tails can open the door to other neglected but delicious animal parts. In other words: Tails, we win.
Three-Step Pig Tails (Chef Dave DiBari)
Makes 4 to 8 servings, depending on the cut
½ cup kosher salt
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon hot red chile flakes
1 sprig rosemary
2 ½ to 3 pounds pig tails or shanks, baby back pork ribs or chicken necks*
1 ½ cups rendered duck fat, vegetable oil, olive oil or a mixture
1. To make the brine: Combine the salt, sugar, fennel seed, chile flakes and rosemary in a medium saucepan. Add 6 cups water. Stir and bring to a boil. Cool to room temperature.
2. To brine the meat: Fit the meat snugly into a deep Pyrex baking dish or other nonreactive, ovenproof container. Pour in the cooled brine, making sure the meat is completely submerged. (If not, add more water and proportionately more of the other ingredients.) Cover and refrigerate. The length of time depends on the size of the meat parts and which animal it’s from. Pork shanks need about 12 hours; 4 hours is enough for smaller cuts like pork ribs and tails, and 2 hours will do for chicken necks. The point is to brine the meat long enough to absorb the seasonings, but not so long that it becomes too salty.
3. To confit the meat: Preheat the oven to 300F. Pour off and discard the brining liquid, leaving the meat behind. Cover with the fat. Cover with aluminum foil and set the dish on a middle rack. Check after 15 minutes or so, and adjust the heat so that the fat cracks a bubble every now and then. Cook at this leisurely pace until the meat feels fork tender. Just as with brining, the length of time this step takes depends on the size and nature of the animal part. Count on 3 to 4 hours. Cool the meat in the fat. You can proceed to the final step now, but it’s an even better idea to refrigerate the confited meat in fat for at least a day to let the flavors develop.
4. To fry the meat: If time permits, let the meat come to room temperature. Have a splatter screen or large pan lid on hand—because the meat has given off liquid during the confit step, there’s likely to be some splattering. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add enough confit fat to coat the bottom of the pan and fry the meat on all sides, using a splatter screen or tilted lid to block splatters.
5. Serve the meat with polenta or as a soup topper.
* With the exception of pork ribs, it’s not necessarily easy to get your hands on random animal parts—which is ridiculous, because pigs still come equipped with tails and chickens with necks. Often these cuts are thrown out for lack of demand, but supermarkets with an ethnic or foodie clientele sometimes stock them. Ask your butcher—even if not considered worthy of a display case, they may be available either immediately or by special order. Farmers markets are another good source, although you may have to coordinate your cooking with a particular farmer’s slaughtering schedule.