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THE AMERICAN TABLE: Recipe for roasted whole suckling pig

10/22/2014 12:34 EDT | Updated 12/22/2014 05:59 EST
Thanksgiving is all about feasting. And though tradition plays a big role in setting the menu, there are a lot of people who like to mix it up and add something new. One of my friends smokes racks and racks of ribs to serve alongside the turkey, while many Italian families also serve lasagna. And baked ham has long played a starring role on Southern Thanksgiving tables.

This year, I decided to take that ham to the next level and roast a whole suckling pig instead of, or in addition to, the traditional turkey. After all, it's all about the intoxicating smell of roasted meat wafting through the house, and nothing smells as good as roast pork! And I can't think of a better meat to go with the traditional sides of sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and dressing (except maybe turkey!).

Most people, myself included, associate whole pig cookery with summer and outdoors. But I was convinced we could move our pig inside for this holiday.

For that reason, I asked for help from my friend and butcher extraordinaire Pat LaFrieda Jr., who just released his first cookbook, "Meat: Everything You Need to Know."

LaFrieda suggested that to feed a Thanksgiving crowd I should use at least a 15- to 20-pound suckling pig. Mine — ordered from an Amish farm — ended up coming in at 22 1/2 pounds. Please note, you will want to plan this meal a bit in advance; most butchers will need a few days to get you a whole pig.

Once you procure the pig, there is almost no prep needed for it. I seasoned the cavity with a little salt and pepper, then LaFrieda showed me how to score the skin so that as the pig cooked the skin would not only develop a beautiful pattern, it also would develop crisp cracklings (often considered the best part of whole hog barbecue). But if the skin is not your thing, you can skip this step.

I pulled out my turkey roaster and fitted it with a rack; the pig fit perfectly. That said, most people will find it easier to use a large baking sheet. The pig fits better on that and it's easier for when you need to flip the pig during roasting. I placed the pig on its side, tucked the legs into the belly and it was almost ready to go into the oven.

For presentation purposes, I placed an apple in the pig's mouth, but remember that the apple will cook. If you want to present the pig with a shiny red apple, you will need a second apple. Alternatively, you can form a foil ball and place it in the pig's mouth during roasting so the mouth will cook in an open position and you will have the room to place a fresh apple when the pig is done.

After much discussion, LaFrieda and I decided a constant temperature of 400 F was best for roasting the pig. You can generally count on the pig needing 8 to 10 minutes roasting per pound to hit 145 F at the thickest part of the leg (the best spot to measure internal temperature during cooking).

An instant meat thermometer is essential when cooking a suckling pig, just as it is with a turkey. And, just like a turkey, you need to let it rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

After the pig has rested, it's time to serve. You can carve at the table or in the kitchen. I like to use both a carving knife and a pair of kitchen shears. The carving knife is good for the leg and shoulder meat, and I like to cut the ribs out with scissors into two-bone portions. That way everyone gets to have both roast pork and a rib bone to chew on.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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ROASTED WHOLE SUCKLING PIG

For Thanksgiving, a roasted whole suckling pig is a dramatic way to do something other than a turkey. I suggest roasting and serving it whole, then carving it at the table. If you'd rather roast it and chop it to make a more classic barbecue, you will want to roast it until the thigh hits 180 F (not 145 F, as called for below).

If you like, you can fill the cavity of the pig with aromatics and vegetables, such as garlic, onions, celery and carrots. But this seems to have a negligible effect on the flavour of the pig. It will just make the house smell good. If you are going to want to put an apple in the pig's mouth for the final presentation, place a ball of foil in the mouth during cooking.

Start to finish: 4 to 5 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 16 to 20

15- to 23-pound whole suckling pig

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 400 F and arrange an oven rack on the lowest level. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil. Coat the foil with cooking spray.

Use a very sharp knife to score the skin of the pig. Working on one side of the pig at a time, cut a series of long, crossing shallow lines into the skin. As the pig cooks, the scored sections will "pop" up, get crispy and resemble diamonds.

Season the cavity of the pig with salt and pepper. Transfer the pig to the prepared pan. Arrange it on its side with the back legs tucked and pointing forward and the front legs tucked underneath and pointing backward.

Roast the pig for 2 hours, then flip it onto its other side. To do this, wrap the feet in clean kitchen towels, then grasp them and carefully lift and turn. Roast for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until evenly browned on both sides. If the ears or any part of the face becomes too dark during roasting, cover with foil that has been coated with cooking spray.

Roast until a thermometer reads 145 F at the thickest part of the thigh. Remove the pig from the oven and let rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer Barbecue Shack and author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."

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