Friday, February 8, 2013

Making Cheese... Head Cheese

It's all fun and games until you get splashed with pig skin juice.  That phrase basically sums up my experience making head cheese, my sweaty, grease-covered, finger burning experience.  As people who read my blog know, I am all for long drawn out food experiences.  Hand grind my sausage meat for two hours?  With pleasure!  Sit over a smoker for four hours while my bacon takes a smoke bath?  Gladly!  Spend three hours toasting peppers and a multitude of other random ingredients for mole?  I'm like a pig in shit.

Despite the fact that making head cheese is indeed a long drawn out food experience, I didn't really enjoy it.  For starters, pigs have eyelashes.  I don't know why it bothered me to see the eyelashes on my piggie, but it did.

Then there's the nose.  The nose.  You can tell just by touching it that a pig's nose is a sensitive thing and I didn't enjoy trying jam its beautiful nose into my stock pot.  I just didn't.  At one point I was trying to hack the nose off with a serrated knife, desperately trying to fit the whole head into the pot.

It was not pretty.  I toughed it out though and ended up with a large loaf pan of jellied pig head.  Here's how I did it.

The recipe came from Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast and I followed it closely.  To be honest though there isn't much to making head cheese.  You are really just taking a head with at least one foot and slowly simmering it until soft then separating out the juice and meat and recombining it in a loaf pan.  Pretty simple stuff!

Ingredients

  • 1 pigs head
  • 4 trotters or pig skin or a combination
  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 2 onions, peeled and cut in half
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 4 green onions
  • Bundle of thyme, parsley and sage
  • 2 large pinches of red chili pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of coriander seed, ground in a pestle and mortar
  • 4 cloves
  • The peel from 2 lemons
  • 1 bundle of cilantro
  • Salt to taste


Directions

1) First you need a pig's head and at least one foot.  The recipe calls for four pig's feet but I had a whole bunch of pig's skin from making bacon and smoked pancetta so I used one foot and three big pieces of pig skin.  Rinse the head well.

2) Find a pot large enough for the head and trust me, it needs to be mighty big.  Place the head in a pot with all of the other ingredients except the cilantro and the salt.  Fill the pot with water until all of the ingredients are submerged.  Bring the whole mess to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  You can't cook the head for too long.  I repeat, you can't cook the head for too long.  Other recipes talk about cooking it for up to 14 hours so don't worry about overcooking it.  It took a while for my head to break down enough to fit into my pot so I cooked mine for close to four hours.  Cook until the meat is tender.

3) Once the head is cooked, you need to get it out of the pot.  This is easier said than done.  I recommend putting another pot in the sink and pouring some of the liquid through a sieve until the head is easy to grab.  At this point, wearing gloves or using tongs, pull the head out of the liquid and set it aside to let it cool.  It will be hot so be careful and get kids out of the kitchen.  Pour the remaining liquid through a sieve, discarding everything else (I squeezed the garlic pulp out of the bulb of garlic into the meat).  If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can dig through the pot contents for little bits of meat and soft sinew to add to your meat pile.

4) Put your broth back on the stove and reduce by one half.  As the liquid reduces skim the broth, there will be brown scum and a lot of fat to skim off.  Just be patient and dutiful.  After all, who wants to eat greasy head cheese???

5) While the liquid reduces, pick all of the meat off the head.  Wear gloves because it will still be quite warm.  This is the really sweaty stage.  You have the vat of pig broth bubbling away as you pick at a large very hot pig's skull.  I found this part the most challenging and it takes some time to really clean the skull.  Once you are finished, put the meat in the fridge while the broth finishes reducing and has a chance to cool.

6) After your broth is reduced and cool, add salt to taste.  Err on the side of adding too much salt than not enough because head cheese is normally eaten cold so it can take some salt.  At this point I added my fresh cilantro to the meat.  I wanted it to be green and fresh so I didn't cook it at all.  I chose cilantro because it complements the lemon and the coriander seed.  Line a loaf pan with saran wrap and pack loosely with the meat.  Pour in the broth up to the top of the loaf pan and shake and jiggle the pan until all of the air bubbles are released.  Place a piece of saran wrap on top and put in the fridge overnight.

Voila!  Head cheese!

The Verdict

My gelatin set up beautifully.  It doesn't have the artificial hard texture of manufactured gelatin but rather a wobbly luscious feel.  I ate my first bit of head cheese on a spoon.  That's right, I just scooped up a chunk of the end piece and into my mouth it went.

Not the most pleasant experience in the world.

I must admit right now that I am not a big fan of jellyish textures unless it is in chocolate pudding form.  And head cheese is definitely not in chocolate pudding form.  A large mouthful of meat and jiggly jelly didn't do it for me.

My second attempt was a sandwich.  I put a large slice of head cheese on dark rye bread with a pickled golden beet and mustard relish and some greenery.  The pork itself was delicious, beautifully flavoured and textured.  It was just the jelly surrounding the fantastic meat that threw me off.  So here's my solution.

Braising is a fantastic method for demeating a pig's head.  Rather than taking the leftover stock and boiling it down to encase the meat, reduce it and freeze it in small portions to use in other soups.  The natural gelatin will add a beautiful texture and you won't be confronted with lukewarm pig jelly in what was otherwise a delicious pork sandwich.

Notes
  • It's really a fairly simple recipe, which makes it fun to experiment with!  As I mentioned, I decided to add fresh cilantro to my cooked meat to give the loaf color and freshness.  I also added some red chili flakes for spice.  The possibilities are endless.  Maybe you want a Thai head cheese with lemongrass and thai basil?  Chinese style head cheese with star anise, cinnamon and orange peel.  German head cheese with pickled sauerkraut for the vinegar element or beets for color.  Texture is always a good thing in food so add nuts and cooked veggies!  Go wild with your head cheese!  Ahhh...  Head cheese.
  • Think of head cheese as a sandwich meat.  You can eat it on sandwiches with cheese and mustard.  It goes on a cheese plate with pickles.  I've even read about deep frying it, which might be my next experiment.  If anyone has delicious head cheese recipes, I would love to hear about them.
Up Next?  Roasted Romano Beans

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Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

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