One Night in Ham Vegas
A hamateur gets hamducated by the ultimate hamthority, José Andrés.
I admit it, before I went to a Fermin dinner at chef José Andrés’s Jaleo Las Vegas I was a total hamateur. All I knew about ham was that I liked it.
Jaleo Las Vegas is a plush red space in Las Vegas’s Cosmopolitan Hotel, and we were seated at long banquet tables that looked prepared to support a feast. Fermin, one of the premiere importers of jamón and other Spanish pork products, and the main supplier to Jaleo, was hoping that this 11-course Fermin product dinner would serve as a fine hamducation for its guests. First fact learned—best to get basics out of the way—was that jamón is only the leg of the pig. Jamón was certainly on the menu, assured Jaleo Las Vegas head chef Luis Montesinos—who had put this dinner together with Andrés, Jaleo Culinary Director Ramón Martinez and the Jaleo staff—but Montesinos added that this dinner would be about showcasing every single part of the pig.
And what pigs these are. In the United States we eat almost exclusively white pig, but the finest pork comes from black pigs—also called Ibéricos or pata negra for their black feet. Ibéricos are then further classified: totally free-range, acorn-eating pigs are called Ibérico de bellota (bellota means acorn, and acorns are very fatty, producing flesh with unparalleled marbling) and grain and acorn eating pigs, are called, simply, Ibéricos. Our first course, a selection of cured meats, offered all three: the drier, leaner serrano was from Fermin’s white pigs, the richer jamón Ibérico, salchichon and chorizo came from the Ibérico pigs, and the lomo, with its super-nutty, earthy, melt-in-your mouth off-the chartsness was from Ibérico de bellota pigs. Luckily they were pouring a dry cava that was up to its fat-cutting task.
Next was a Rappahannock oyster with bellota lardo and Osetra caviar. This dish (and by the way, Rappahannocks come from Virginia, and Osetra is a class of caviar just below Beluga) was a take on José’s Taco, a Jaleo staple. The flavors rolled like waves, the oysters gently fishy saltiness, the sharper, fishier saltiness of the caviar, and rich pork fatness. Thank god they only gave us one of them—had I been presented with a dozen I’d have eaten them all.
The tartar of presa Ibérica de bellota with onions and quail egg challenged my restraint. If you like beef tartar, the presa tartar is better, sweeter, creamier, like warm meat ice cream, in a good way. For those who are still learning the terminology (like me), presa is a scarce (only about 2 pounds per pig) cut that comes from between the top of the shoulder and the beginning of the loin.
I’m afraid the next item, a terrine of foie with jamón Ibérico and Pexro Ximénez sherry reduction, was just too delicious to encourage moderate behavior. Imagine the world’s best butter wrapped in the world’s even better butter, whipped with the world’s best ham, and you might get a sense of what I was up against. “I brought back a jar of this stuff from a trip to Spain last summer,” said Montesinos. “And one of our chefs, Eric Suniga, told me, “Yeah, this is good, but we can do better.” This terrine is light as a feather. It was whipped, and then passed through a tamis, and the ratio of jamón to foie gras arrived at with medical precision. We had dry sherry with this. It needed something that powerful.
I had to have my dining companions physically restrain me from eating five times a suitable amount and only stopped myself because of the appearance of seared tenderloin of Ibérico de bellota with roasted apples. Your mother may have made something vaguely like this with Jones brand sausages or supermarket pork chops when you were a kid. This is that same dish, but for adults. Who are also snobs. In a good way.
Rioja was poured. A paella the size of a satellite dish emerged with appropriate paella fanfare. It was an umami bomb, which I would have attributed to the morels in it, and, of course, also, more succulent pata negra sausage and cured meats. However, Montesinos confided what really makes this dish is the rice. “It’s bomba rice, and its cooking ratio is three-one, not two-one like most rice, so it really absorbs all the flavors.” True story: Put a few grains on your tongue and you could taste the whole dish.
The next four dishes were a bit simpler, cooked primarily to showcase the meat. Braised Ibérico de Bellota cheeks were tender and succulent, like pork-flavored scallops. “We were extremely lucky to get that cut, plus, after this almost entirely open-fire meal, we had to show you we could actually cook things in an oven,” laughed Montesinos. Next came loin of bellota with piquillos. Piquillos are often served with grilled meat in Spain, but these had been confited in oil, salt and sugar, were fork tender, and their concentrated, sweet flavor with the sweet nuttiness of the cut slayed me. Finally: grilled secreto and grilled presa, both of them very rare cuts of meat, the first named because the butcher used to always keep it for himself. “The marbling on these is amazing,” said Montesinos. “It looks like Wagyu beef.” I confess I could only manage a few bites of each, but I did press on, because when do you ever get to the chance to eat every single part of a 350-pound hand-raised beast that lives off of acorns as brown and beautiful and smooth as a George Nakashima table? When would you ever again get the chance to go from hamateur to hamthority in just an evening?
Did you only count to ten? There was a salad, but it didn’t have any pig parts in it. It was also fantastic.