Monday, June 8, 2009

Head Cheese... Just Yuckers? (Some Notes)

I haven’t made Head Cheese since a boggling attempt twenty years ago in a Garde Manger class alongside ten other clueless, betoqued students equally as stumped as I about the ins & outs of snout-to-tail eating and the requisite, deeply mysterious art of preserving. Why, oh why were we doing this appalling thing:  jellying long-cooked gray meat, tongue and fat torn from the various hollows of a pig’s warm skeletal head and serving it on gilded mirrors plonked beside wobbly golden gelatin cubes?  This I did not want to be a part of.  One of the glaring failures of cooking school was the lack of provided context for what it is we were feebly carrying out.  Most of us were dropped on a another planet and asked to learn its language without grasping jack about its culture.  The critical backstory - say a brief illuminating history of food - was desperately missing.  

Which is how food books saved my sorry chef’s soul.  Not for recipes alone, but for context.  Like reading the glorious Alice Munro or Tolstoy, crack food writing illuminates worlds; offers endless ways into the mystery, so that even dreaded Head Cheese can morph into something both elemental and delicious.  I zealously make it now because it so cleverly puts to use every scrap of that wild, sacred slaughtered animal (and I’m holding half a pig), and because to make and eat such things is to know what’s been made and eaten for centuries before... it is to conjure endless edible apparitions.  

I nab trusted guides for a quick tutorial.  River Cottage offers a beautiful, muscular outline for the operation: we’re to remove brains first and fry them as a “chef’s perk,” pluck the stubborn bristly hairs of the simmered snout with tweezers (for better mouthfeel, presumably), reduce broth two thirds, cover and weight the head-filled terrine.  Chez Panisse Caféas always, supplies further refinements: checking the broth for tender gelatinousness by cooling spoonfuls on a plate, thinly slicing simmered ears and snout for a nice added cartilage crunch. Both finish with herbs and acid to (somehow impossibly) make the dense porcine mishmash sparkle.  I am surprised by how much liver the peeled, chopped tongue imparts; that the tender suspending gelatin is so meltingly delicious, such an animating part of the whole.  What I have is a lavish, dotted rogue pate.  My final notes are a mingling of the above that reflect my own foibles and leanings.

Head Cheese Notes

1/2 pig’s head

1 pig’s foot, cut in half lengthwise

Sea salt

Mirepoix: 2 onions, peeled and halved; 2 carrots, peeled; 2 celery ribs 

   halved lengthwise

2 leeks, cut lengthwise and cleaned

1 head garlic, cut in half widthwise

A good handful of tied fresh herbs on the stem, some or all:  parsley, 

   thyme, tarragon, marjoram 

A tied cheesecloth bundle of:  2 bay leaves, 4 cloves, 10 black 

   peppercorns, 10 coriander seeds

1 cup white wine

Freshly ground pepper

A good pinch Quatre epices or grated nutmeg

A good handful of chopped soft herbs, some or all: parsley, chives, 


1 tablespoon lemon juice or wine vinegar

Rub the head and foot with a good handful of salt and let sit refrigerated 8 hours or overnight.  Rinse and place in a large stock pot with the mirepoix, leeks, garlic, tied herbs and the spice bundle.  Add wine.  Cover with water by several inches.  Bring to a simmer and skim well for the first 20 minutes, then whenever any foam comes to the surface.   Gently cook at a simmer until the meat is tender and falls off the bone, about 3 hours. Add more water as necessary. 

Remove head and foot, strain the stock and cook over high heat to reduce, skimming occasionally. 

In the meantime, pick the meat when it’s cool enough to handle.  Gently remove the tongue from the skull, peel and chop it into small cubes.  Pull all the meat, skin and fat from the skull and feet, removing any coarse pieces or whiskers.  Chop/shred the meat, skin and fat.  Add the tongue to the mixture.  Thinly slice the ear and snout and add this to the meat mixture.  Add several grindings of pepper, a few pinches of Quatre epices or nutmeg, the fresh herbs and lemon juice or vinegar. The mixture should be seasoned boldly. Taste and adjust it as necessary.  Lay into a plastic wrap lined 5-cup terrine.

When the stock is reduced by about two-thirds, spoon some of it onto a plate and refrigerate to check its density.  The gelatin should be firm enough to bind the terrine but not dense or rubbery.  Add more liquid or reduce the stock as necessary and check again.  Ladle about 1 cup of the reduced liquid over the terrine.  Wrap well and refrigerate until set, several hours or overnight.  

Serve cold, in slices or crumbled with something big and acidic: a bitter salad with Dijon vinaigrette, cornichons and sauce gribiche, or on a warm crostini with endive, red wine vinegar and cracked black pepper. Mario Batali melts his lightly on a warmed plate and serves with potatoes, rough mustard and pickled shallots (Babbo Cookbook).    

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