Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pluck? Pappa? Cod Tongues? Incanto’s 2010 Head to Tail Dinner

There is a certain thrill each Spring when one receives an email from Incanto with the words “Head to Tail Dinner” in the subject line. Incanto started these annual dinners in 2004 and this year marked the 7th in the series. Unfortunately I missed the first two, but have made every one since.

I was also excited this year because I had three friends who were not just willing, but in fact eager to join me at the dinner. As suggested by my post following last year’s dinner when I had but one companion (thanks again Vanessa!), the H2T celebrates the use of lesser-used ingredients mixed with equal doses of inventiveness and playfulness, and the combination is not for everyone.

One of the things I look forward to when I receive Incanto’s announcement is to see how many ingredients there are which I have never heard of, and the description of the 2010 dinner did not disappoint. “Pluck”? “Pappa”? “Cod tripe”? What new treats were in store for us?

When I went online and entered “pluck,” I was directed first to a commercial site for high school anatomy supplies – Home Science Tools: The Gateway to Discovery – which provided the following tasty illumination:

“The sheep pluck includes the heart, lungs, and fully attached trachea. We
recommend that you use specimens within one year of purchase to ensure the best tissue quality. Specimen discoloration over time is normal and does not indicate decay. For an instructional video,
see here.”
The next entry was a recipe for Scottish haggis in which I learned pluck is the key ingredient:

It was clear we were in for another memorable evening!

So at 6:30 on Monday evening I met up at the restaurant with my friends Antonio, Jim and Eriko. Mark Pastore, Incanto’s owner, greeted us and told us that the approach they would be taking with the meal was to serve the heavier dishes at the start of the meal, with the lighter to follow. We were then shown to our table where we were introduced to our server, Nahide, and presented with the evening’s menu and recommended wine pairings.

First Course: Venison pluck fra diavolo, mint & onion ash

After my visit to the Home Science Tools website I was ready for anything with the first course, but as it turned out it was rather tame – and very tasty. The “pluck” in this case was a mix of deer heart, liver and kidneys, nicely grilled and served with a spicy “fra diavolo” (“brother devil”) sauce.

I was not familiar with fra diavolo sauce but found the following description:

“A spicy sauce of Italian-American origin used for pasta or seafood. It often, but not always, is tomato-based, and customarily includes chili, cayenne or other forms of pepper.”
As far as the “onion ash” referred to in the dish’s name, Mark Pastore told me that was nigella seed which are toasted and then pulverized in a food processor. Again back to Google since I had never heard of nigella seeds:

“The seeds of the Nigella sativa flower have a variety of names including Roman coriander, black onion seed and kalonji. The dry roasted seeds flavor curries, vegetables and pulses. They taste somewhat like oregano and have a bitterness to them like mustard-seeds.”
Second Course: Salt cured pork liver, blood mousse, egg & peasant pappa

This was by far my favorite dish of the evening, with great flavor, color and texture. I learned that “pappa” is an Italian soup or porridge, often thickened with bread (they use focaccia at Incanto), with perhaps the most well-known variant being the Tuscan pappa al pomodoro with tomatoes.

As you can see from the above photo, this was some dish, with the pork liver and scallions shaved over the dish, and a poached egg in the middle. Incanto’s chef, Chris Cosentino, also Tweeted the following photo of the blood mousse which was also a key ingredient. Fantastic!

Third Course: Beef lip & oxtail terrina, artichokes, tarragon

Can you figure out what is in the following photo?

When I saw that I assumed it was a closeup of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but in fact it is from inside the a cow’s mouth. Here is another photo in which you can make out the location of those protuberances a bit more clearly.

According to our son, Patrick, who is in his first year of vet school at Auburn and my new go-to source for all questions of animal anatomy, “they look like some sort of papillae, and judging by their location I assume they would aid in the prehension of forage or cud.” Just as I thought!

My quest to learn more about beef lips also let me to this hilarious site (how many other recipes have you read that begin: “Rinse off the beef lips and try to keep yourself from screaming”?) with a fantastic recipe for Braised Cow Lips, accompanied by a not-to-be-missed video.

However, after that buildup, the actual dish was a bit aesthetically disappointing. It was certainly flavorful, but as you can see from the above photo, did little to reflect its origins.

Fourth Course: Sicilian cod tripe & tongue

This dish was also a bit disappointing. It was poached in a fish broth (which was itself very good), but was relatively bland in flavor and texture, and somewhat overpowered by the fennel. It might have been better lightly fried, especially since there were no other crispy dishes on the menu.

The name of the dish is also a bit misleading. First, regarding "cod tongue,” I had just finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s very interesting “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” where I learned that cod tongues are not really the fish’s tongue but rather a triangular muscle behind and under the tongue.

As far as the “tripe” goes, when I see the word tripe I think stomach. However, when I asked Mark Pastore for confirmation, all he could tell me was that “tripe” was what Incanto’s fish purveyor had called it.

So I then turned to another source, Rosetta Costantino of Cooking with Rosetta in the East Bay, whose “A Taste of Calabria” cooking class we had recently taken. Happily, Rosetta knew exactly what I was talking about, although she too was uncertain as to what that part of the cod is called in English. She did say that in Calabria, where the dish is eaten during the winter months, it is called “ventricelli” (or “ventricieddi” in Calabrian dialect) meaning "little belly." Rosetta also sent me the following extract from her new cookbook “My Calabria” which will be coming out this Fall, just in time for Christmas:

"Despite many queries, I have not been able to confirm the anatomical name in English for ventricelli, but I believe it is the cod’s swim bladder. In its dried state, ventricelli resembles the flat, bony, dark dried fish you see in Chinatown markets. After five days of soaking, changing the water daily, the ventricelli will be soft enough to remove the tiny bones. Cooking renders it gelatinous, akin to jellyfish or braised beef tendon. It does not have a lot of flavor of its own, but, like tripe, it absorbs other flavors, and its texture is appealing.“
That description (i.e. “akin to jellyfish”) certainly matched what we were served at Incanto, as well as the following photo Tweeted by Chris:

Rosetta also advised that her husband, Lino, who is from Palermo, had never heard of the dish before, so the “Sicilian” designation for the dish may be questionable.

Dessert: Lamb mincemeat pie & lavender-hay ice cream

Unfortunately you cannot see in the above photo the mincemeat lurking under the shortbread. This dish was quite good, although it did have a rather strong lamb flavor which was a bit distracting (even for someone like me who loves lamb), and despite Mark’s comment about the heavy to light trend of the dishes, it seemed a fairly weighty end to the meal and left Antonio and me craving a shot of Averna, which sadly Incanto does not serve. I was not sure where the lavender came into play in the dish, other than perhaps just the straw upon which the bowl was resting.

I did appreciate the chance to try mincemeat with real meat as it was traditionally prepared. Here is a Chronicle article which has a mincemeat pie recipe which looks pretty good. While that recipe does not call for meat, it does include suet, and it certainly shows the medley of fruit and spices that goes into traditional mincemeat.

Finally, I thought it might be of interest at this point, after having participated in five of these dinners, to reflect back to select my favorite dishes. Here are the five I would pick:

~ First course: Fried rabbit ear – 2007
~ Second course: Salt cured pork liver, blood mousse, egg & peasant pappa - 2010
~ Third course: Crispy sweetbreads & warm beef tendon with chilies & mint - 2007
~ Fourth course: Big brain, small brain - 2009
~ Dessert (tie): Candied cockscomb with cherries and rice pudding – 2007 &
Coffee & donut – 2009

The “Big brain, small brain” and Coffee & donut” dishes deserve far more of an explanation than those names can convey – for that see my post from last year’s dinner.

So we will now have to wait another year to see what Chris and the gang at Incanto will have in store for us next. All I know is that I am sure it will be fun!

Thanks again to Mark, Chris, Nahide and the rest of the Incanto team for a fun and educational evening.

1 comment:

connie said...

Glad I read this AFTER lunch.