Food & Drink
Hunting the whole hog in San Antonio
Published: May 16, 2012
The dinner was cooked by Lüke's Steven McHugh and featured, among other porky pleasures, belly rillettes, bacon-wrapped terrines, house-made tasso, and a great, gutsy gumbo with andouille and smoked pork — all served as swallows darted and happy hogs snuffled nearby, oblivious to the fate that had befallen at least one of their brethren. At the farm, McHugh cooked the gumbo over an open fire and in a prodigious, cast-iron pot formerly used for rendering lard. In Lüke's kitchen, the equipment is a tad more upscale.
Suckling pig is not the kind of endeavor a home cook embarks on lightly, despite visions of golden-crisp skin and apple-stuck snout. I've done it only once, in a commercial-size oven and with the aid of an ex-chef friend. Backyard barbecuers with large smokers might want to give that method a try — and to fortify themselves beforehand with a class given by chef Garrett Stephens at one of his Pitmaster cooking classes at The County Line. (Stephens does one with a whole suckling pig in Cuban mojo, and a Puerto Rican approach to lechon asado — think lots of garlic — can be experienced at La Marginal, now on San Pedro.) McHugh, of course, is an old hand, suckling pig is a Tuesday special, and it's Tuesday in the Lüke kitchen.
Lüke may well have the city's most pork-centric menu. Here, McHugh, who came to San Antonio from John Besh's New Orleans restaurant empire, showcases much of his sausage-making expertise on a charcuterie board that features a bacon-wrapped country paté, a lovely and lightly smoky andouille, and a "quick salame" of beef and pork. A bratwurst that accompanies the Tuesday suckling special is sampled; it's delicately flavored, perfectly textured, and I'm shown the "Buffalo chopper" that allows McHugh to get just the right emulsion for stuffing into lamb casings. And as a whole suckling pig, about a 30-pounder, is in the oven, stuffed with jambalaya and awaiting presentation at an evening banquet, I'm shown that, too. "He's grinning," observes McHugh. I think the expression might be more of a grimace, but let's go with grins for now.
In the spirit of those Smithfield pioneers, McHugh is also curing a ham of his own. The process is "the original molecular gastronomy," says McHugh, and it begins with the partial deboning of a 30-pound leg from South Texas Heritage Pork. The leg is salted, inside and out, and pressed for 20 days, then it's sewn into a mesh wrapper. "It's been hanging for five months now, and I'm shooting for six," he says, after which it will be sliced like a prosciutto, maybe for a "reserve" charcuterie platter.
It's a sign of the times that locally raised pig parts such as the leg are easy to come by. It's even more telling that pork belly is more difficult to source and that pig heads have become a scarce commodity. "I just called STHP for a head and was told that Jason [Dady] had got the last one yesterday," commented McHugh. I didn't ask Dady what he was doing with his poached pig heads, but we did have a conversation about ribs.