Pig’s Head: Day 2

Meat, Pork

Since the original intention was to take advantage of the connective power of the pig’s head, I decided that head cheese was the best choice.  I have been giving mucho amor to my Mexican cookbooks, so I began there.  Immediately I discovered in Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking a recipe that seemed simple enough, that highlighted the natural flavors of the head–she calls for water rather than a stock–by creating a broth, then reducing it down into a sort of impatient demi-glace on high heat, thus concentrating the rich and deep properties of the flavors.  It was a recipe designed for a smaller head, about half the weight of ours, so we merely doubled everything.

After straining the water from the pig, pink from the remaining blood, we gave it one more bath and took a paring knife to the blue patch of skin to remove it completely before throwing it on the band saw and quartering it.  We went straight through the snout, then perpendicularly, right in front of the eye sockets to avoid hitting the brain.

Inside view of the skull. The left ear is seen in the upper corner.

We rested the four pieces on a bed of sliced yellow onions, crushed garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, fresh thyme, dried marjoram and a few finger-rubs of sea salt.  Kennedy’s recipe called for white onions and fresh marjoram, but we had neither on hand.  We filled it up with water until the snout and one ear were hovering above the brim, like, what Fergus Henderson calls, an alligator.

We brought the pot up to a boil, covered, and when it began simmering, we uncovered it and let it gently roll.  In the beginning, the aroma of the thyme was so strong that I thought I had made a mistake.  But as the pig cooked, the mature and savory properties of the meat, bones and brain merged with the onions and herbs.

After about three hours, the broth, skimmed of the undesirables, was translucent and light brown.  The taste was slightly salty and a tad sweet.  Josh and I checked the meat, just to make sure, by taking our knife to the cheek and devouring it with eager curiosity.  The meat was an unusual and delightful mix of pure fat and soft, shredded muscle.  There seemed to be no distinction between either, the result being a gentle bite that dissolved in the mouth.  I’d never had anything like it.  I am convinced that the cheek must, at some point, replace bacon as the best thing to come from the pig

You can see the area where Josh and I sampled the cheek. This is a full-sized hotel pan the head is in.

The head pieces went into the walk-in to cool.  Meanwhile, the stock was strained twice, first coarsely then finely, brought back to a boil in a rondeau pot and left to simmer and reduce.  As soon as the head was cool enough to play with, I spent about a half hour separating the meat and fat from the bone.

The bones, fat and gristle.

The meat, skin and a bit of fat.

Kennedy said to remove about two-thirds of the fat.  Basically, I kept all the fat attached to skin and any fat associated with the cheek, but discarded the rest.  It was about the same ratio.  After digging my way through every cavity and crack, rubbing the meat to make sure there weren’t any little bone bits or splinters, I had 13 or 14 cups of usable meat.  As for the fat, I wrapped it up and will throw it in the dutch oven to render it.  The bones I will roast and use for a stock.

By now the stock had been simmering for about two hours.  Nearly a gallon-and-a-half of water shrank to a quart.  We took it off the fire and let it rest to glimpse the ratio of liquid to fat.  The light brown darkened to a walnut brown quite beautifully.

Notice the sizable portion of fat. We returned it to the pot with the meat. Next time, I’ll skim it.

We cut up the meat into centimeter-sized bits, then combined it in the rondeau with the stock, some minced garlic, ground bay leaves, some ground black pepper, dried marjoram, chopped fresh thyme, apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar and ground cloves. Kennedy called for Mexican bay leaves, but all we had was dried Turkish ones, so we gave them a spin in the spice grinder until they turned to powder.

We brought it back up to a boil and tasted it.  Kennedy was adamant about going heavy on the flavors now because, later when they cooled, they would mellow out, yet when we tried it, we were both blown away by the intense richness and tanginess produced.  Also, Kennedy suggested using, optionally, jalepeños en escabeche.  We didn’t have any on hand, so instead we used a good squeeze of chopped chipotles in adobo sauce.  They added elements of smoke and spice that infused perfectly with the stock and meat.

The red bits are the chipotle peppers. Notice the beautiful gloss and tiny bits of cartilage, meat, skin, brain and fat.

Without a readily available mold, we grabbed a half hotel pan, poured it in, and stuck a weighted half hotel pan on top.

Underneath, the collagen cools and begins to glue everything together.

Now it’s sitting next to my open windowsill in my new kitchen.  Tomorrow, when it’s cool, I’ll throw it in the fridge and, two days from now, once all the flavors marry and throw a sexy honeymoon, we’ll pull it out, slice it up and see what happens.

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