I promise you this isn’t a story about dog treats.
If you’ve been dining out at some of L.A.'s hippest chef-driven restaurants lately, you might have noticed a recurring ingredient on the menu. Pig ears. You heard me, pig ears.
Recently, at the L.A. Times Taste event, I decided to serve a pig ear terrine dish from my restaurant Lukshon. Cold, thinly sliced pig ears marinated in black vinegar, Sichuan spices and white sesame oil with thin slices of pickled carrots and scallions. The dish got one of two reactions. “Ooh, I love pig ears!” or “Is that really pig ears?”
That’s about what I expected, as pig ears aren’t popular in mainstream American culture yet. But that’s changing. It’s all part of the worldwide culinary movement of nose-to-tail cookery. As I see it, it’s an exciting way to experience something new and turn dinner into an adventure.
The consumption of pig ears is nothing new, though. It might seem like the latest trendy provocative ingredient meant to arouse our culinary curiosity, but it’s actually difficult to find a culture that doesn’t eat them.
Nearly every cuisine in Europe and Asia has a preparation. They are most often fried crispy. But they’re also served boiled, braised and roasted.
Frying them crispy is an obvious choice, as the outer layers of skin become crunchy and the inner layer of cartilage becomes gelatinous and chewy. The flavor of the ears could be described as sweet, rich porkiness. If you’ve never tried them, you should; they’re seriously good. Down, boy!
I’ve seen fried pig ears paired with Brussels sprouts as a crunchy garnish or sprinkled over a salad of bitter greens with a tart lemon dressing. I have served them fried on my menus as well. Last year at Father’s Office, I served them cut into small triangles resembling tortilla chips, fried crisp and accompanied by a spicy tomatillo salsa. We called the dish pig ear chips and salsa.
But lately I’ve been really intrigued by Chinese charcuterie. One treatment of pig ear that has really stood out for me is a classic Sichuan preparation. They are boiled with aromatic spices until tender, then stacked up and pressed down just like a classic French terrine.
Once set, the terrine is thinly sliced, marinated in vinegar and spices and served cold. The cross section of the ears sort of looks like a cross between a relief map and strips of bacon. It’s the high gelatin content of the ears -- easy to miss when fried -- that makes the dish work.
Try slicing the terrine to different thicknesses. Cut paper thin on a meat slicer the ears become soft and supple, almost like mortadella. Slice it by hand slightly thicker and you’ll get a better sense of the crunchy cartilage and firm gelatin.
Pig ears prepared in this manner can be served a number of ways. Try adding a few slices to a charcuterie platter with a little hot Chinese or English mustard. I also love using pig ears prepared this way in a banh mi sandwich: Thin slices of the pressed ears with maybe a little pork pate on a nice crunchy baguette topped with pickled carrots and jalapenos. Perfection.
Look at it this way -- if your friends won’t try it, at least you’ll have the happiest dog on the block.
In a small bowl, whisk together the chile oil, light soy sauce, black vinegar, peppercorns and garlic. This makes about one-half cup dipping sauce.
Clean the pig ears: Remove any dirt or hairs, and rinse the ears thoroughly. Set aside.
In the pressure cooker, combine the chicken broth, rice wine, light soy sauce, salt and sugar.
Make a sachet: In a large piece of cheesecloth, place the star anise, ginger, garlic and onion. Bring the sides of the cheesecloth together to make a pouch and tie together with cotton twine.
Place the sachet in the pressure cooker with the liquid, and place the pig ears on top. Seal the cooker and bring the pressure to 15 PSI. Cook the ears for 1 hour, then turn off the heat and let the pressure cooker depressurize naturally.
Once the pressure has dissipated, remove the pig ears and set aside. Strain the liquid into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, discarding the sachet. Place the pan over high heat and add the black vinegar. Cook the liquid until it is thickened and reduced to about 2 cups (tiny bubbles will cover the surface of the liquid). Remove from heat.
While the liquid is reducing, cut the pig ears into large enough pieces that they fit the width of the terrine mold.
Prepare the terrine mold: Rub a small amount of water along the inside of the terrine mold. Place a large piece of plastic wrap in the mold, sliding it along the inside so it smoothly lines the terrine mold, extending out of the mold at least 2 inches on all sides.
Assemble the terrine: Place pieces of pig ear in an even, solid layer in the bottom of the prepared mold, then pour a small amount of the reduced liquid over the ears so the liquid just comes to the top of the ear layer. Build another layer of pig ear on top of the first, adding more of the reduced liquid just to cover. Repeat with the layers of pig ear and liquid until the terrine reaches just below the top of the mold.
Tap the mold against the table to release any air bubbles, and carefully pull the plastic from each side to prevent creasing of the plastic wrap. Gather the extra plastic wrap at the top and fold it over the terrine, as if you were wrapping a present.
Cut a piece of cardboard just large enough to fit the terrine. Place it on the plastic-covered top of the terrine, making sure it sits just inside the walls of the mold. Place the mold in the refrigerator, with a weight on top of the cardboard. Refrigerate overnight to set the terrine.
The next day, unmold the terrine. Unwrap the plastic wrap and slice to desired thickness. Serve with julienned carrots, scallions and ginger threads, along with the dipping sauce.
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