My learning curve as a chef is never ending. That’s one of the things I enjoy about the craft of cooking. There are always new techniques or methods to discover, many of which are not really new, but actually quite old. Gels, foams, and liquid nitrogen have their place, I’m sure, but not before I have a better foundation concerning the enduring methods cooks have used over the years.
Take the pigs head, for example. Humans have utilized the hog for centuries, and when faced with the question of how to tackle the head, I would have liked to hear those early conversations.”You gonna eat all that?”
“No, I’m allergic to occular fat…”
“Ooo, I’ll have yours. I love it!”
Regardless, somebody figured out how to eat the thing, and I joined in suit and served one up on a platter to my man Johnny for his 26th birthday. Here he is, in hog heaven, ready to devour half a braised head all to himself.
So its not hard to see how someone figured out that you could just cook the thing and pull the meat off like any other bone. Ribs have bones and meat, Chicken legs have bones and meat. You see the progression. The skull has bones and meat, so why not?
But like the modern gastronomists of today, who are probably nothing more than bored cooks who need something new to try, so was the restless young butcher who decided to no longer simply boil the head. He would make head cheese!
The process is not difficult, but it is time consuming. It helps to brine the beast’s noggin first. Using a curing salt gives it a pinkish color, much like making corned beef or pastrami, and it imparts a salty flavor as well.
Not sure what the original called for, but I brined mine for about 5 days to get it fully saturated and seasoned. After a rinse out of the brine, its ready for a slow simmer for a couple of hours with additional seasoning of mirepoix, bay leaf and black peppercorns. Once the meat breaks down and becomes tender, its ready to remove and let cool.
At this point the meat pulls easy from the bone. There is a surprising amount of meat surrounding the jaw, under the eye and ear, and the tongue. Remember, nothing went to waste back in the olden days.
Once the meat is harvested, it can be cut into cubes and placed into the molding vessel. I used a couple of 1/6 pans. Anything can do unless you want to be historic and all proper about it. Then you can spend top dollar on a vintage terrine mold on eBay and be authentic.
Now comes the tricky part; reducing the stock down into to the equivalent of porcine Jello. It helps to clarify the stock by removing the fat. This can be done by letting it cool down and peeling the fat cap of the top. Or you can do what I do and pour the stock in a ziplock bag, let it settle for a minute or two while the fat rises to the top. Then hold the bag by the top edge, and snip the bottom corner and let the stock drain into a clean container. You will notice the fat remains on the top of the liquid, and as soon as it gets near the bottom, move the bag away and you are left with a defatted stock. There should be enough collagen in the stock that, once it is reduced down to about a quart, it will congeal when it cools. I have to admit that its hard to make the word congeal sound appetizing, but you have to take my word for it and trust me here.
Here’s the pig gelatin settling in the mold, ready to be chilled and eventually served.
And here you have the final product, head cheese. I can’t imagine that it will make it on the menu anytime soon, but if you want to try it this week, let me know and I’ll give you a sample to try.