By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Cochon555: old skills and sneak previews
Last week, Cochon555 brought its Midwest Regional championship to Des Moines for the second straight year. This Taste Network national tour puts our city in the select company of serious culinary destinations — New York, Napa, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Stillwater and Washington D.C. Cochon is an elite event hosted by several of America’s most famous hotels and resorts. Chefs come from the country’s best restaurants (Boulud and Blue Hill in New York, The French Laundry in Napa). Time magazine and the New York Times cover the tour. In prestige, it’s the culinary equivalence of hosting an NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It might not return to Des Moines though. Ticket sales slipped, and the event hasn’t interested any civic or state group that promotes this city’s image.
Five chefs competed by utilizing five heritage hogs, snout to tail. Guest-voters sampled pork while being treated to excellent wines from five boutique vineyards. Mike LaValle (Embassy Club) said that Chase Family Cellars’ Zinfandels were the best he’s ever seen in Iowa. This year’s competition included local chefs George Formaro and Hal Jasa, defending champion Matt Steigerwald from Mount Vernon, and two chefs from Kansas City — Cody Hogan and Howard Hanna.
Formaro and Jasa debuted some new applications for future restaurants. Using a Farmers Cross/Berkshire hog, Formaro premiered an all-Mexican menu he’ll be selling at the Downtown Farmers’ Market, and hopefully in a new East Village café soon. His pozole was the best I ever tasted. He fried carnitas in duck fat and coated Milanese style cutlets in pumpkin seeds. His huevos motuleños were a poached, Yucatan variation on bacon and eggs. His chiccarones were tender enough to pass for shoulder meat.
Jasa, who’s also hoping to open an East Village café this summer, presented 10 dishes made from a Duroc. A deeply flavored consommé with pork cheeks and goat cheese tortellini stood out. So did a fried ear salad of watercress with quail egg, and his corned tongue with pickled ramps. Jasa fried his rillletes, served his trotters with blinis, and presented a liver/heart pâté with a pistachio puree. He served belly with poached grapes, cassoulet with orange gremolata, and sausage with parsnip puree and a pâté of roasted dates.
Recreating personal pan-served pasta from Lidia’s, Hogan kept things simpler with his Berkshire hog. Ravioli were stuffed with mixed whole hog and served with roast pork and headcheese. His ravioli were the most popular single item of the night with the public.
At Hanna’s River Club, members pay dues to support things that Cochon advocates — preserving heritage breeds and utilizing whole hogs. Like Steigerwald, Hanna brought a staff familiar with butchering, brining, rendering, smoking and pickling. Using an endangered Glouscestershire Old Spots hog, they executed five familiar dishes exquisitely: headcheese; trotter garlic soup with fresh nettles pesto; a Cuban sandwich made with sous vide of shoulder, ham and organ pâté; pork & beans made with legs, heirloom beans, sausage and “KC salt” (crushed cracklings). Hanna said he harvested the main ingredient for his stunning blood pudding “by squeezing every vein and artery.” It also included chocolate, hazelnuts, cinnamon and shortbread.
Steigerwald, whose Lincoln Café purchases whole hogs exclusively, won the competition again with a Red Wattle hog. His menu began with pork belly spring rolls with kimchii and an avocado/yuzu puree. It progressed to a “wattle head slick” with boiled peanuts and greens. He served a white sausage that included innards with fennel kraut. His hickory-smoked shoulder was served on corn masa with turtle beans and pickled chilies. His ciccioli (compressed, dried fat) was treated to pickled ramps. He also served charcuterie that included ham and capicola. I have been dreaming of them ever since.
SWINE’s fourth annual pork & wine celebration will be June 5 on the DMACC lakefront in Ankeny. Hy-Vee is selling discounted $30 tickets… Diva artist Leslie Hall promised personal label wines and “vegan extravagances” for her June 10 event at the Art Center. CV
Caption: Matt Steigerwald’s winning plate at Cochon555.