This is a story of not one, but three failures, all revolving around what should have been a simple recipe. Two of the failures were those of technique, the direct result of my (third) failure to remember crucial information.
But first, a digression about the title. “Brawn” is the English name for what the French call fromage de tête and what we call head cheese. My first exposure to this piggy by-product was the version you could find in the supermarket deli case, buried in the back of all of the other yellow plastic prepackaged Oscar Meyer cold cuts. It looked like a block of translucent stuff with bits of pink meat in it, which, to a first approximation, is an accurate description. I managed to avoid it – it’s not difficult – until last year, when I wound up eating it twice in the span of a few weeks.
My first taste set the bar quite high, as it was the Crispy PDC Salad at Au Pied de Cochon. The second version, Crispy Fromage de Tête, was part of last year’s Whole Hog Dinner at Craigie on Main. I remember thinking I’ll have to make this someday.
That opportunity came when half a pig’s head was delivered along with the rest of the half hog I split with my neighbor. I left the head in the fridge to thaw for a few days while I researched a recipe. I chose to use Fergus Henderson’s brawn recipe from The Whole Beast, but, since he can occasionally be lacking in important details, I consulted Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie as a backup.
Lastly, I read the Brawn post by Ryan Adams in his excellent blog, Nose to Tail at Home. His first attempt had failed, so I emailed him to let him know what I had planned, and what steps I was going to take to make sure the recipe turned out well.
It was finally time to assemble my ingredients. For the cooking stock, I needed two peeled onions, three medium (or two large) peeled carrots, two leeks, two stalks of celery, the zest from two lemons, a bundle of thyme, two bay leaves, and a “scant handful” of black peppercorns.
That container of frozen stuff? It a quart of trotter gear, which I held in reserve as an extra punch of pork gelatin if needed.
I cleaned the half pig’s head, and augmented it with the tongue and the trotters and hocks left over from my last venture into whole pig cookery, retrieved from the Belm Utility Research Kitchen Deep Storage Facility.
I tossed all of the ingredients into a large stock pot – the head just fit – and added water to cover. I simmered the conents for three hours, skimming occasionally to remove the foam and sludge that rose to the top. I also wound up skimming off the lemon zest, so I added the juice of one lemon to compensate. If I make this again, I’ll use a peeler to make large strips of zest instead of my usual microplane grater.
I should point out that it’s quite disconcerting to see foam oozing out of a pig’s nose while it cooks, but that’s just a result of the pressure differential between the water and open air.
I removed all of the meat from the pot to let it cool.
While I waited for a cooler head to prevail, I strained the aromatics out of the simmering liquid and set it to a rolling boil to reduce it.
I removed all of the meat from the trotters and head, making sure to get every last bit of porky goodness.
I wound up with a few cups of meat. The lighter pieces are from the cheek, the darker are from the rest of the head.
While I was separating the meat, I kept replaying a scene from The Simpsons in my head. Homer buys a bag of ice from the Kwik-E-Mart and discovers that it has a severed teddy bear head in it (eventually revealed, via a Citizen Kane flashback, to be the head of Mr. Burns’ long-lost teddy bear, Bobo). When he call Apu’s attention to it, he replies “Oh, that’s a head bag. It’s chock full of heady goodness!” I was expecting nothing less than heady goodness myself.
After a few hours of reducing, I had a gelatin-enriched stock which I seasoned aggressively with salt and pepper. I tested its setting ability by pouring a few tablespoons into a small bowl and chilling it in the fridge. According to Charcuterie, it should be “firm, but not rubbery or hard … a sliceable gel, but not as hard as a rubber ball.” Satisfied that I had a gel at the right consistency, I opted not to include the trotter gear.
Ruhlman also suggested that the meat be cut int half-inch dice, advice I followed to the letter, as Henderson had no opinion on the subject. I lined a terrine mold with plastic wrap, filled it with the chopped meat, then poured on enough of the stock to just cover.
Failure the First:
Two days later, just before I planned on serving it for dinner, I unmolded the terrine.
It seemed to have a firm texture, so I let it warm up slightly while I prepared a salad of lettuce in balsamic vinaigrette, walnuts, tomatoes, and bacon lardons. I was ready to cut a few thick slices to plate on top of the salad when disaster struck:
The chunks of meat were so thick that they dragged through the gelatin and ripped the terrine into pieces. I didn’t have a plan B for dinner, so I served the mess anyway, my plates mow resembling a 1970s cookbook photo of an “exotic” aspic dish.
It tasted good, it just looked a mess. I wrapped what remained tightly in plastic and returned it to the fridge.
Failure the Second:
Still swooning over the torchon I ate on Sunday at Journeyman, I resolved to create my own crispy fromage de tête. A few hours before dinner would be served, I placed the wrapped brawn in the freezer, figuring that a short chill would firm up the gelatin enough to make it sliceable. It almost worked, in that I was able to get a few solid slices from either end, but the center hadn’t solidified enough to retain its shape.
I soldiered on, dredging each slice in flour, then egg with dijon mustard, and finally panko crumbs.
I cooked each slice individually in a sauté pan full of oil at 360° F, supporting the slices on a shallow skimmer. They crisped up, but I could tell that they were losing their shape as they fried.
Those big splotches aren’t oil, they’re the liquified gelatin leaking out as the slices cooled. Once again, I was committed to serving what I made, so I plated the slices on a simpler lettuce, tomato, and radish salad.
Still tasty, and this time crispy as well, but ultimately disappointing because it lacked the unctuous mouthfeel from the gelatin.
Failure the Third:
What I tell you three times is true.
Both of these disasters could have been avoided if I had read Ryan’s post all the way through. In retrospect, I committed a series of cumulative errors:
- I did not chop the meat finely enough
- I did not keep the fat and skin to include in the mixture, which resulted in a too-high ratio of gelatin to meat.
- After the first failure, I didn’t re-render the meat and gelatin and re-process it into a denser mix, at which point I could have added the unused trotter gear.
Lesson learned, but I will not concede defeat. My neighbor is already making noises about ordering another half hog in a month or so, which means another head will be delivered to my doorstep. And when it arrives, I’ll be ready.
Postscript – Insult to Injury:
As I prepared to write this post, I returned to Nose to Tail at Home to check the original post, where I discovered a link to this video:
That’s right, not only is it a MasterChef clip – a special “Master Class” feature unique to the Australian edition – featuring Fergus Henderson, but it shows a plate of his brawn with crispy pig’s ear salad. Does his plate look anything like mine? Of course not, it’s his dish. Now I know how he expects it to look. I can do that.