March 4, 2010

Partying whole-hog

— To roast a pig, you have to have a thick skin.

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Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Dave Mallari of The Pig Kahuna, a local pig raosting catering business, keeps watch on a pig at the Elks Lodge in Saco. Photographed on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Dave Mallari of The Pig Kahuna, a local pig raosting catering business, puts a brand on a pig at the Elks Lodge in Saco. Photographed on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009.

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''Basically, you're cooking and people are walking in, and there are some that walk up and they just go, 'Oh, that is disgusting,' '' said Dave Mallari, also known as ''the Pig Kahuna.''

Mallari has come to see such comments as a challenge. He knows that, in the end, he'll be able to convert these grossed-out party goers by offering them some of the most succulent, tasty meat they've ever had.

After they've gotten over seeing the whole pig on a spit and actually had a taste of it, ''they're like, 'Oh my god, that's amazing. That's the best pork I've ever had,' '' Mallari said.

Pig roasts, whether they are catered or do-it-yourself, have become wildly popular in Maine. (Lobster bake? What's that?)

They're the latest thing at fundraisers, neighborhood parties, office parties, church gatherings, weddings, rehearsal dinners and graduations. Some folks are even doing them in the winter for New Year's and Super Bowl parties.

Chris McCourt, meat manager at Fresh Approach on Portland's West End, sells whole pigs for pig roasts and says that in the last three years, ''I've done three times as many as I have in the last 15.''

Clark Souther of Souther's Family Farm in Livermore Falls, president of the Maine Pork Producers Association, said he thought at first pig roasts were just a fad. Now most pork producers raise at least a few roaster pigs every year to keep up with the demand.

Souther said he panicked this year, thinking the economy would put an end to the craze and that he had set aside too many roaster pigs. ''But they're all gone,'' he said. ''Every roaster pig I kept is all gone.''

Mallari is a chef who caters pig roasts in three styles -- traditional Filipino, Hawaiian luau  and Southern-style -- using a 6-foot-long rotisserie he calls the ''Oinkmaster 8000.''

''We turned away so much work this summer, it was ridiculous,'' he said.

UPSIDE OF DOWN ECONOMY

Mallari credits the sluggish economy for the extra work. People are looking for less expensive, more informal alternatives to higher-end catering, which can run $65 to $100 per person compared with an average of $20 to $25 for a pig roast.

Plus, the pig is the star -- you might even say the life -- of the party.

''People usually have it right in the middle of the yard, where everybody can see it,'' Mallari said. ''After I pull the pig off, I do a whole anatomy lesson, and people love that. You hear the exact same questions at every pig roast: Where's the bacon? Where's the pork chops?''

Actually, roasting the pig can be a fairly easy task. The hard part is making all the choices. Have it catered or do it yourself? Open rotisserie or covered roaster? Rented pit roaster or purchased box roaster? Charcoal, propane or wood? To season or not to season? Roast for four hours, 10 hours or 18 to 24 hours?

A pig roast is like any other barbecue in that everyone thinks their method is the best. Some pork producers and meat markets rent out roasters, and they all have reasons for why they have chosen a particular kind of equipment or heat source. At Bisson's Meat Market in Topsham, for example, you can rent a pit roaster with a domed cover to keep in the heat.

''When you rotate a pig, you run into the problem of bringing it too close to the coals,'' said Cindy Bisson. ''If the skin splits, you're going to have a big fire.''

The Bisson's method takes about four hours and uses charcoal. If you want wood flavoring, Bisson says, wet some wood chips and throw them on the coals.

Myron Spaulding of Over the Hill Farm, an engineer at Bath Iron Works who does barbecue catering on the side, swears by an enclosed cooker that burns only native wood. The temperature never goes above 225 degrees. He uses his own dry rub and barbecue sauce to season the pig so it develops a ''bark,'' or outer crust that keeps moisture in.

''It's just like cooking in an oven versus cooking on top of your stove,'' he said. ''It's a long, slow process. I usually take 18 to 24 hours to cook a pig.''

Mallari, who learned the art of pig roasting from his Filipino father, uses a rotisserie that turns the pig over the heat. For heat, he uses a blend of two charcoals. ''Never propane,'' he said. ''That's blasphemy.''

Using this method, a 100-pound pig takes nine to 10 hours to roast.

BETTER THAN A LOBSTER BAKE

Anne Verrill and her husband, owners of the Portland restaurant Grace, host a pig roast every year on the Fourth of July for their staff, family and friends. They swear by a contraption called the La Caja China, a pig-roasting box you can order over the Internet that's wood on the outside and stainless steel on the inside.

Why a pig roast?

''Because we go to about 19 lobster bakes a year,'' Verrill said. ''And it's so incredibly easy. There's no maintenance while it's cooking. Get a pig, brine the pig, throw it in the La Caja China and forget about it for four hours, then pull it out. You could get a 70-pound pig for $100 from a farm, so it's super cost-effective, and it could feed an army.''

The La Caja China uses a butterflied pig that's been pressed between two racks. The squished pig is lowered skin-side down into the box (over a drip pan). The charcoal goes onto a grid on top of the box. The stainless steel inside the box gets hot like an oven. Halfway through cooking, the charcoal top is removed and the pig is flipped to crisp the skin.

The box comes with a syringe so you can pump the pig like you would a Thanksgiving turkey.

The Verrills were so impressed with the results that they occasionally use the box at their restaurant for brunch service.

''It's the best way to get the maximum amount of slow-roasted, unbelievably delicious pork,'' Anne Verrill said. ''And you've got every cut, because you've got the whole pig.''

Everything but the oink.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Dave Mallari of The Pig Kahuna, a local pig raosting catering business, keeps watch on a pig at the Elks Lodge in Saco. Photographed on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009.

click image to enlarge

 


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