I returned from the Chicago trip with the nagging feeling I had forgotten something. As frequently happens when I’m trying to retrieve information out of long-term storage, the elusive memory revealed itself to me at three in the morning: You have to make a head cheese, and you have less than a week in which to do it. Other people have night terrors, I have dreams about mise en place and failed recipes.
After a fitful sleep, I retrieved four huge trotters and two hocks from the Deep Storage Facility and put them in the fridge to thaw while I visited my butcher, who happened to have a pig’s head in the freezer. He couldn’t tell me if the tongue was still in the head, and I was unable to locate a fresh pork tongue, so I resigned myself to making fromage de tête without it. Much to my surprise, once the head was thawed the tongue flopped out, providing me with my missing ingredient. I still wouldn’t have time to give the tongue a full cure (not unlike the cure for Canadian bacon), but I had a workaround in mind.
(And who gouged the eyes out of my pig’s head? Was it the result of some crazed pork processor, delirious at the end of his third shift, looking at the last head of the day and screaming “Stop staring at me, you hell-spawned beast!”? Seems as reasonable an explanation as any other.)
I gave the meat an overnight soak in a salt and sugar brine that also included pink salt, which gave a lovely piggy color to the bits the next morning. It also served as a partial cure for the tongue.
I managed to just fit everything into my largest pot – a lobster steamer – to which I added two cups of wine, a bouquet garni, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, and cloves. I filled the pot with almost enough water to cover, leaving one ear still breaking the surface.
Once the pot came to a simmer, I cut off the ear and submerged it with the rest of the pork parts. After about four hours of gentle simmering, I removed all of the meat, which was falling off the bones.
Despite their size, the trotters were nearly meat-free, but I was able to pull a good amount of meat from the head and hocks. After peeling the tongue – not something I enjoyed doing, especially after reading all of A Song of Ice and Fire – I diced it into half-inch cubes. I gave the rest of the meat a rough chop to create a mix of larger pieces and small crumbly bits. I kept both ears, storing them in the fridge until I figured out what to do with them.
I wound up with exactly enough meat to fill a plastic-lined glass loaf pan.
This is where I chose to deviate from my previous failed effort. My terrine mold is too narrow, which contributed to my last head cheese falling apart when sliced. I figured a larger cross-section would make slicing easier, hence the loaf pan.
After reducing the cooking liquid and testing it for seasoning as well as gelling power, I filled the mold with a few cups until all the meat was covered.
I should have let the gel cool a bit before covering it with the plastic wrap and refrigerating it. As the pan sat in the fridge overnight (on a quarter-sheet pan), the still-liquid gelatin wicked up along the plastic and spilled onto the tray. I wound up with rough top surface in the pan, but, when ummolded, it became the bottom.
Before unmolding the head cheese, I thinly sliced one of the pig ears.
After a quick fry in hot oil I had lovely strips of crispy pig’s ear.
I chopped some parsley, sliced a shallot, and made a quick vinaigrette from lemon juice, olive oil, salt pepper, and a pinch of xanthan gum (now a constant addition to my salad dressings). I tossed the salad together, then turned my attention to the big moment: slicing the meat. Much to my relief, it remained solid and sliceable.
I plated the salad, topped it with the crispy ears, added a slab of porky, heady goodness, and garnished it with some pickled garlic scapes.
Credit where credit is due: He Who Will Not Be Ignored suggested this as a dinner instead of an afternoon snack. The meat was more subtly flavored than I had expected, but now I know to boost the spices the next time I do this; and I will do it again.
As for the rest of the head cheese, there’s a sandwich in my future, but you can read about it elsewhere. The man’s a freakin’ genius.