Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
When Rob Levitt was the chef at Mado in Bucktown, he had pig's head stew on the menu.
"The white ear cartilage would be floating around in there. More often than not, people would be eating and loving it," says Levitt, now the owner of the Butcher & Larder, 1026 N. Milwaukee. "They'd call the server over and ask ‘What kind of noodles are these?' The server would reveal they were pig ears, and this sometimes horrified the guest."
Ever eaten a hot dog? Then you've probably eaten pig ears. When not ground into sausage, they have a distinctive gizzard-like texture, with a pleasing resistance that easily gives way to a soft bite.
In Chicago's Chinatown, you can find many places that serve ears and other porcine parts that might freak out Anglo diners.
But many of the city's trendiest restaurants now serve pig ears, too, reflecting the current "head-to-tail" movement and the increasingly adventurous palates of the dining public.
At the Purple Pig, 500 N. Michigan, they're julienned over crispy kale; at the Publican, 837 W. Fulton, they're fried crisp.
How the ears are sliced can be critical to some preparations. I've had boiled pig ears sliced thick and was uncomfortable with the tenacity required to chew through the thick strip of cartilage, no matter how tasty.
At Chens, 3506 N. Clark, I recently enjoyed an appetizer of slivered pig ears. Chef Mark Robinson says he braises the ear so it soaks up the flavors of scallion, ginger, star anise, hot pepper, five-spice powder, soy and rock sugar.
Robinson points out that achieving the right mouthfeel requires cooking them just right: "Overcooking the pig ear creates a squishy texture. Undercooking won't break down the tissues fully, which creates a chewy texture."
Much of Chinese cuisine is about balance: crisp vegetables with soft tofu or fried noodles and delicate fish. A good platter of Chinese-style pig ears combines the yin-yang perfection of tender outer meat with toothy, cartilaginous inner membrane.
At the Dining Room at Kendall College, chef Ben Browning has his aspiring student chefs prepare a spectacular version of pig ears. They're brined, pressure-cooked, then fried in panko, which Browning explains "reintroduces the crunchiness we lose by pressure cooking."
Served with a mustard sauce over crispy mustard greens, shallots and apple, the ears are cut to retain their familiar shape, a gutsy move considering some of us don't like reminders of what animal part we're eating.
Never had pig ears? Next time you're dining with a group, order some to share. I'm guessing you'll like them more than you think.
If you want to prepare pig ears at home, Levitt's butcher shop sometimes has them for about $5 - per pound, not per pair.