Even in cost-conscious households, there’s a tendency to buy skinless, boneless chicken breasts, deveined shrimp and beef that’s already been ground up and mashed into patties, items that are in the final stages of processing. It’s almost as if we are afraid to acknowledge where our food comes from and far too squeamish to actually cut flesh from bone. That’s to say nothing about our aversion to all the leftover ugly bits, things like chicken livers, beef tongue or trotters.
However, there was a time and place when home cooks would give you the evil eye if you thought about tossing any of that in the trash. Done right, those ugly bits can be downright tasty.
And few chefs in Greenville know this better than American Grocery’s Joe Clarke, who uses oft-discarded items to craft protein-packed bites of decadence. Each night for dinner at the celebrated West End eatery, you’ll find his Country Pâté, Chicken Liver Rustica, Rabbit Liver Mousse, Potted Rabbit Rillette and Trout Pâté.
The Whole Hog
Clarke isn’t the only chef in town to make the best of something offal. Anthony Gray of Bacon Bros. Public House serves headcheese, rillettes and country pate, and Jason Scholz at Stella’s Southern Bistro serves up bologna, pâté, rillettes and mousse, while you’ll find pork rillettes on chef Nick Graves’ Casual Fare menu at Restaurant 17 (and with Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale, mac and cheese and brown butter panko, no less.)
But back to Clarke.
Like many, the American Grocery chef understands that in order to drive the culinary arts forward, we have to look to the past. This is particularly important in a burgeoning foodie town like Greenville, where the restaurants have only recently begun to move away from semitruck-driving food suppliers.
“This movement that we are in, this farm-to-table thing and using all the animal, this is nothing new. This is just going back to what we used to do and what many cultures still do,” Clarke says. “If you grew up with my grandmother, you raised hogs on the farm. You better believe she used every bit of it. The lard for soap and cooking. She made everything. It was just the way it was always done, because you’re not rich and you take the time to raise this animal and you want to use it all.”
Still, Clarke will be the first to admit that some diners have an aversion to the ugly bits, including his much beloved liver. “It’s polarizing,” he says about the basis for his stellar Chicken Liver Rustica and Rabbit Liver Mousse. “Some people hate it, but that’s their prerogative.”
He adds, “You are either open-minded enough to try something and grow your palate or understand that this might be something you really enjoy, or you’re not.”
The American Grocery has seen at least one of these dishes take off: Clarke’s braised beef tongue entrée ($28, with charred onion spaetzle, smoked tomato cream). “I spent some time convincing people of the beef tongue, but I think it kind of gets its own momentum. They love it and they talk about how great it is and then somebody else comes in based on that,” he says.
There’s the Beef
While some of his charcuterie items are relatively easy to make, like the Trout Paté, a few are a bit more intensive.
Take the house-made rib-eye bologna. “It’s probably the fanciest bologna you could probably every have,” he says with a laugh.
The trick to making bologna, Clarke says, is keeping the temperature of the puréed mixture of fat and meat from rising over 145-150 degrees Fahrenheit. “You can’t let the friction of the blade heat that up too much or it will break. The fat and the proteins will separate when you cook it,” he says. “When you’re puréeing that meat and fat together, you crush up some ice chips and you throw it in there with it.”
When all is said and done, Clarke and his crew stuff the farce, a French term for a meat mixture of this kind, and they smoke it. The end result is a beefy delight that has far more character than a cold, bland disc of Oscar Mayer bologna.
And while this bit of charcuterie would easily provide the basis for the best fried bologna sandwich ever, unlike other typical charcuterie proteins — salami, prosciutto and speck — you’re more apt to savor it without bread, mustard or cheese.
Pâté and Then Some
American Grocery’s Country Pâté is equally intensive.
For the Country Pâté, Clarke takes pork shoulder, loin, fatback and scraps and marinates them overnight with spices and brandy. The next morning, they take the marinating meat and fat and make both fine and coarse farces and add pistachios, dried cherries and chunks of pork. “That’s what makes it a rustic pâté, by having all those different textures,” the chef says.
Then they take that mixture and let it cool before putting it in a terrine mold to cook slowly in a water bath. “If you cook it then, which is not impossible, you are just going to lose more fat in the cooking process. It’s going to leach out,” Clarke says. “But if you chill that back down, let the meal get chilled back down and let the meat go straight from the refrigerator to the oven, that water bath, cook it to about 140, it’ll come out perfect.”
And perfect, or very nearly so, it is. Clarke’s Country Pâté is a flavor-bomb of creamy, puréed meat and toothy chunks of pork that hits you in the umami feels.
In the end, Clarke doesn’t care about the labor-intensive nature of making a charcuterie menu. “I think it’s just a natural thing if you care about doing all your own stuff, which we do. If we can make it, we’re going to make it,” Clarke says. “Personally I find it very satisfying.”
Offal: The entrails and internal organs of an animal used as food.
Pâté: A rich, savory paste made from finely minced or mashed ingredients, typically seasoned meat or fish.
Rillettes: Pâté made of minced pork or other light meat, seasoned and combined with fat.
Mousse: A sweet or savory dish made as a smooth light mass with whipped cream and beaten egg white, flavored with chocolate, fish, etc., and typically served chilled.
Terrine: A meat, fish or vegetable mixture that has been cooked or otherwise prepared in advance and allowed to cool or set in its container, typically served in slices.
Sweetbreads: The thymus gland (or, rarely, the pancreas) of an animal, especially as used for food.
Trotters: A pig’s foot used as food.
Headcheese: Meat from a pig’s or calf’s head that is cooked and pressed into a loaf with aspic.
Source: New Oxford American Dictionary
Nose to Tail: What is it?
Nose-to-tail cooking is an offshoot of the farm-to-table movement, but instead of utilizing local farm-fresh veggies, chefs break down entire animals for the purpose of using every edible portion of the slaughtered animal, including innards, feet and ears. This traditional practice was reintroduced to popular cooking with the publication of the Fergus Henderson’s 1999 book, “Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking.”