Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Big Two-Headed Hog Dish: The Execution

Phew! Ok, on to the headcheese!  First, I have a delightful story to tell that at least has a little to do with the story I've been telling.  How was I to get a pig's head, given the fact that you can't get a good one (you know, of the pastured-pork variety) commercially? Well, thanks to my ties to Cane Creek farm, I had an "in" with one of their reliable restaurant customers, Vimala's Curry Blossom is a world class South Asian restaurant that also features – as only South Asian joints in Chapel Hill can – whole hog barbecue.  And those whole hogs (as Mr. Chang reminds us) each come with a large head attached.  Working, as I do, at the farmer's market helping to purvey Cane Creek pork – the source of Vimala's whole hogs – I asked Vimala on her recent trip to our stand if any of those heads were spoken for.  Well, lucky me, because they couldn't use the heads (the nasty matter of those bullets decommodifiyng the cranium), and offered to give me one if I swung by the restaurant.  Joy!! I came by and helped saw the lovely thing off some beautiful pork shoulders, and brought it home 

Headcheese is a very very simple thing, though it can be tedious, if not exhausting, to make.  Essentially, there are two steps. You are making a rich, gelatinous stock, and then extracting all of the edible bits from the body parts that provide the richness to the soup.

Here is what looks like porcine heaven, from a certain point of view.   

Admittedly, I had to perform some transformative surgery to get the head and all its tissue into the pot. Much of the jowl had to be removed, along with the pig's ears. But all of them made it back in the pot, covered with the array of veggies shown here; that is, a bunch of scallions, a head of garlic, a quartered onion, much pepper, and some cilantro - though parsely might have been preferable.  A more traditional Frenchified version would have much bay leaf and carrot and leek, which would surely be good.  This was a vaguely Latin version; a little chile in the pot would have been welcome, too.

Boil the stock, and then reduce it to a simmer, and let it go for about three hours.
At this point, you have a huge pot with an extremely hot and unwieldy piece of animal in a vat of liquid.  I strained the liquid through a cheese cloth lined colander into a separate container, then moved the head to a large pan to cool   and put the stock back on the stove

 to reduce a bit more.  Discard all of the vegetables, and then the fun begins. 

Let the head cool a bit, and then start pulling it apart.  This is a job that manages to be both slimy and sticky – if you have latex gloves, use 'em!  I didn't but I survived.  You want to remove the skin. If you can save the ears, great- they add a nice bit of textured crunch to a salad if you fry them up.  Mine were so well simmered that they fell apart.  You will have an enormous pile of fat that you pull off.  Try to go through the larger slabs and look for streaks of muscle that can be pulled out.  There is, of course, a huge amount of meat in a jowl, so really pay attention to that bit.  And a whole lot of meat in the back of the head, where the neckbones meet the skull.  Indeed, neckbones are some of the most tender meat you can get – from any animal – and they are always welcome in posole, barbecue, and carnitas.  Finally, the tongue can be peeled pretty easily, yielding some melting flesh beneath.

You'll get a good amount of shredded meat,

and a pile of bones and fat to discard.  Also: go through the meat and pull out anything that feels or looks like a vein, or a gland.  They won't kill you, but they'll add an unpleasant biterness.

Now, with this much meat, (which you NOW season to taste with a goodly amount of salt.)
 I figured I had plenty of room to play, and decided to try two dishes. First, a straight headcheese terrine.  First, chop the meat finely; large pieces of meat will separate as you cut them in the terrine, and shred the texture of your otherwise delightfully wobbly headcheese.  Line the terrine with plastic, fill it with meat, them top it off with several ladles full of that gelatin-rich stock 

 Into the fridge overnight, and you're good to go.

The second dish is awfully similar, but is finished differently.  This is a torchon (lit. towel, in which this is traditionally wrapped), a cylinder of meat, that is so full of fat and gel that it practically binds itself.  Into the fridge, and later it will be sliced into pucks to make David Chang-style panko crusted pieces. 

And here they are:  Headcheese two ways.  Slices of terrine 
served with some kimchee and crackers (those are some fried shishito peppers too).  And the torchon
coated in panko, then pan fried to a crisp, served with mustard.  And our fig tree is finally coming into fruit, so some of them go with it.  The headcheese, really, is bland – meat, fat, salt, that's the flavor.  So anything to add sweetness, crunch, and bracing pungency is welcome.

Having made this, I'm happy to have lived to tell the tale.  And it is certainly very, very good - better than I had thought, or had before (I find that often the bay leaf flavor overwhelms the terrine - so try to keep that in check).  But surely, I will never rearrange a pig's head in my kitchen again.  Now neckbones – that's another story.  If you can find some of those - and a pig's foot for the pot - you'll have a perfect rich, shreddy, gelified mix for your terrine. Or torchon.  Or anything that call for chopped pork  And, really, who doesn't call for chopped pork? 


  1. Your piggy head cracked me up. He had such a big schnoz. Great job on the charcuterie.