Impress your friends and buy a pig’s head. Invite them over when you turn it into cheese. Share beers and eat cured ham.
At the markets here in Seattle, head cheese can run you about $25/lb. So, if you prefer to buy yours already made, please do it. The torta will still be delicious and filling. But it will lack the wholesome tanginess, with such incredible and rich flavors, of this one.
For the adventurous or interested cook, making head cheese is a simple and rewarding endeavor. Plus, pound for pound, it is very cheap. I bought a 14-lb. head for $25. It makes about 6-7 lbs. Plus you get the bones leftover for soup or stock and pounds of fat you can render into lard. Compared to the markets, you’re getting an incredible deal.
Most of the time is idle as you wait for the head to be workable. You can have the head cheese done, from laying it in the pot to fitting it in the mold, in about five hours. That is including time for the head to cook and cool down.
This recipe is based on the head cheese recipe from The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy. A debt of gratitude to my two fellow cooks, Josh and Nate, for being there with me throughout the process of making necessary modifications, the experiences of which I documented here and here.
For the Head Cheese
Cooking the Head:
- 1 large pig’s head (12-14 lbs.)
- 2 white onions (yellow work OK too)
- 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- 12 peppercorns
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme (dried is OK too — 1/4 tsp.)
- 4 sprigs fresh marjoram (dried is OK too — 1/4 tsp.)
- 4 Tbsp. sea salt
Seasoning the Meat:
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- 12 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 6 small Mexican (or Turkish) bay leaves, crushed (or ground in a coffee grinder)
- 8 whole cloves, crushed (about 4-5 tsp. ground clove)
- 40 peppercorns, crushed (or a few good shakes of ground black pepper)
- 8 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves only (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
- 8 sprigs of fresh marjoram, leaves only (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
- 3 1/2 – 4 cups reduced cooking broth
- 2 oz. chipotle peppers, minced, with a little adobo sauce (the kind that come in a small can)
- Sea salt
Consider first the head. Might you need the butcher to saw it into pieces? Or do you have a pot large enough to fit it all? When you get it, singe off any remaining hairs. Shave it if you have to. Then soak it in water overnight to remove any impurities. Drain and rinse it off (and out) thoroughly. Cut out any stamp(s) from the slaughterhouse with a pairing knife. Set the head aside.
In a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot, make a bed of the sliced onions, garlic, peppercorns, thyme, marjoram and sea salt. Set the head over it. Fill with water until the snout or ears are just hovering above the brim, resembling a lurking aligator in the wild. Lug it all over to the stovetop. Put it over a high flame until it’s boiling, then reduce to a fast simmer. Cook until the meat slides easily off the bone — 2 1/2 – 3 hours.
Remove the head and set aside to cool. Strain out the remaining bits and return the cooking broth to the flame. Reduce over medium-high heat, at a boil, until about 3 1/2 cups of the broth remain. Remove from heat.
When the head is cool enough to pick apart, dig in. Reserve all the meat, especially from the cheeks and ears. Only keep about 1/3 of the total fat. The rest of the fat should be set aside to be rendered later for something else. If you’re cooking a pig’s head (or anything for that matter), do not waste anything! The brain, at this point, will be mush, but the eyeballs will still be in tact. Feel free to use the eyes. You might be able to avoid the brain, but it has a very lovely savoriness that blends well with the vinegars, spices and herbs.
Chop all the meat and fat into little 1-centimeter sized bits. You should have about 14 cups altogether.
Mix together the chopped meat, the reduced broth, vinegars and seasonings — everything BUT the salt, chipotles and adobe sauce. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3-5 minutes. Mix in the chipotles, adobo sauce and sea salt — everything to taste.
Pour into a mold (or two or three) and cover with something weighted, to force the rendered fat to the top. Cool at room temperature. I left mine in the kitchen overnight on the counter. Then put in the fridge to coagulate and settle, about 2 days. While you wait, read my post about how and why all of this happens.
To use, scrape the rendered fat (and save!) and turn the mold upside-down. It should slide right out. Slice as desired.
The head cheese will stay good in the fridge for up to a month. It can be frozen too.
For the Sandwich
- Mexican bread (such as bolillo or telera)
- 2 hearty slices of head cheese
- 1/4 white onion, sliced (yellow is OK too)
- 1 tsp. lard (or cooking oil)
- Some shavings of smoked cheddar, sliced
- 1 pickled cucumber, sliced
- 1/2 pickled poblano, julienned (or any mild, pickled pepper)
- 1/2 avocado, smashed
- Dijon mustard, smeared, to taste
(For the bread, try to use the Mexican stuff. It is very soft inside and has a thin crust that crisps very nicely. I bought mine at a panadería in South Park. I suspect any Mexican market will have it, or can tell you where to get some nearby. BUT, if you can’t find any, use a small ciabatta or bolo roll, or really soft small baguette or French roll.)
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat with the lard or oil. When very hot, to the point of smoking, add the onions and shake around. Blacken their edges a bit, then turn the heat down to medium-low. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, until they begin to caramelize. Set aside.
Turn on the broiler in your oven.
Slice the bread. Smother one side with dijon mustard and the other with smashed avocado. Lay the onions down on the mustard side, along with the meat and cheese. On the avocado side, spread out the pickled cucumber and pepper.
Reheat the frying pan with any residual onion-infused oil over medium-high heat. Or skip and use the broiler.
Place meaty, mustardy side on a baking sheet and under the broiler for a couple minutes, until the cheese is melted. Do not cook the head cheese too long or else it will fall apart.
Put the sandwich together and fry (or broil) both sides in the pan until the bread is as desired.
Serve with beer and fresh fruit. (I served mine with Strawberry & Epazote Salad.)