Serious Eats: Recipes

The Nasty Bits: Pig's Head

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

So I had some space issues this week. After my first few days as an apprentice at Fleisher's Meats in Kingston, New York, I returned to New York City laden with four garbage bags' worth of the finest meat around. But the crowning glory was the pig's head, molars and all.

I didn't bother to think through the details until the head was already in the pot, its snout protruding stubbornly from the rims. Not to be deterred, I picked up the head by its two flopping ears and placed it on its side in my largest Le Creuset. No luck.

I set to work fitting the head to the vessel. With a heavy cleaver, I cut off what I could of the snout. I placed the head back into the pot. Still too big.

Detaching the jaw from the rest of the head was considerably harder than removing the snout. Each time I stuck the tip of the boning knife into the socket and cut loose a sinew, I found another one holding the jaw in place. To get some leverage, I stuck my left arm into the mouth to open the jaw at a wider angle, all the while using my right hand to maneuver the boning knife around the joints. Suddenly the tip of my knife touched a large sinew, tight and elastic, and just before I had a chance to sever the sinew the jaw snapped tightly back into place with my arm still inside. Ouch!

With some more wrangling the jaw fell away from the rest of the head. I placed the head back into the pot. Mercifully, everything fit this time around.

As the pot simmered away on the stove, I went back to my butcher's block and cleaned up the mass of tissue and fat I'd accrued during the dissection.

As I cleaned, I thought of the incredible amount of energy and effort it takes, even for those without ambitions of ramen broth and headcheese, to turn carcasses into meat for consumption. Slowly, the notion that a cow comes practically ready to fall apart into steaks and hamburger meat is dissipating. We have a much better idea these days of exactly how much work it takes to remove the rib rack from the beast and trim it down into steaks, or the effort butchers put into shaving every little scrap of meat and fat from bones and skin. A good butcher can eliminate most of the work if you can specify what you want to do with the meat or better yet, if you ask him or her to give you what's tasty that day. If only I'd thought to have someone back at Fleisher's to split the head into two with the electric bandsaw, or take off the jaw at the shop where there were sharper knives around.

But then again, my first days at the shop passed in a bustle of activity; there was hardly time to contemplate headcheese when whole sides of hog were waiting to be broken down. I did have a few moments to jot down my thoughts at the end of each day, right after I got back to Josh and Jess's house and before I collapsed into bed. Last night I dug up those notes, scrawled on same green butcher paper we use at the shop for displaying the meat.

Day One

I arrive at the shop at 9 a.m. and am promptly handed over to Hans, who takes one look at me and pulls out the textbook on meat. I have the primals down, but each primal is broken down into more parts than I knew existed, and I'm having a hard time trying to find the different muscle groups when I'm actually standing in front of the meat.

My knees are so stiff that it's difficult to remain standing. Every joint feels creaky and old, like I've been hauling rocks from the mine all day. There's a rule at the shop that no cutting happens after 4:30 p.m., but even after we stop cutting, there's meat to be arranged and packed, and countless surfaces to scrub and clean. We stopped working around 7 p.m. and Josh took us all out for tapas at the restaurant across the street, where I ate myself silly on blood sausage, marrow on toast, and my favorite—pigs' tails.

Day Two

Josh and I left the house this morning at 7 and it was another full day of work at the shop. I broke down my first pig today! So proud and too exhausted to think. The pain from the knees has subsided but now I'm getting spasms every few minutes in my right hand from the back and forth motions of the bandsaw. Dinner was two fat lamb chops that Jessica seared on the stove and finished in the oven. I haven't had lamb this flavorful and juicy since Ireland. I should've asked for three.

Day Three

Today I stopped worrying that I'm going to cut myself. Not because it won't happen, but because it inevitably will so why bother fretting? I broke down some more pigs today but it still feels strange. I'm terrified that I'll make one wrong cut and loose a huge hunk of the leg or the tenderloin.

For lunch we made burgers. Their beef and bacon grind is amazingly flavorful - what a perfect way to use the best quality grass-fed beef, which may not be as fatty as the corn fed stuff, but is made all the richer with plenty of fatty bacon.

Then we tested some chorizo sausage mix. While we waited for the meat to cook, we pulled out pork cracklings from the oven and doused them all over with maple syrup (Jessica's idea). Dessert for butchers, I guess.

Day Four

I'm set to go back to the city tomorrow. Will return next week to pick up where I left off. Each day I'm a little less tired than the last, but it's still mind-numblingly exhausting. I don't know how everyone at the shop does it. We started the day at 8 a.m. and by 4 p.m. my brain had officially called it quits. Luckily we stopped cutting around then anyway, but there was still work to be done.

I was so tired that I just moved around the shop in a dumb stupor and tried not to crash into anyone else. Of course, the rest of the crew functioned with the same level of energy and efficiency. Think I'll sleep for 12 hours when I get back to the city.

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Back in my own kitchen, the pace is slow and steady. After I retrieved my head from a potful of rich, piggy broth that's perfect for ramen and other noodle soups, I set to work excavating the various items on the head.

A pig's head is an embarrassment of riches. There are the obvious and much-loved pig's cheeks, which are truly the only sections on the pig that manage to be both lean yet moist and flavorful. You'll get a similar type of flesh down in the hocks and trotters, but cheeks eclipse the hocks in terms of moistness and the trotters in terms of size. Though there's a lot of fat and skin surrounding the cheeks, cheek meat itself is just pure flesh that, when stewed, is soft and rich in flavor. Even so, there's a lot more to the head than the cheeks. Large pockets of meat similar in texture to that of cheeks can be found underneath the eye sockets. There's also a hefty section of flesh the size of a baseball, near the brain at the base of the skull. Scattered throughout the head are smaller, equally moist slivers of meat that can be set aside for later use.

If you're looking for skin, pig's head has it in abundance. The snout is pure skin and fat; since the entire head is covered with skin, you have, literally, square footage of skin with which to fashion your dishes. The ears, in addition, offer the unique textural crunch of cartilage.

Finally, there's the amorphous, somewhat undefinable mass of fatty tissue and gelatinous collagen that's holding everything together on the head. This tissue and collagen has a much softer, creamier texture that's pleasantly gooey and gummy. In order to reap these riches, you'll have to use your fingers to mine the edible collagen and tissue from the unpalatable stuff on the head, such as the rubbery lining on the roof of the mouth, the teeth, and the softened bone. By the time you're done sifting through the treasures on the head, you'll have huge piles of pure meat, flesh mixed with collagen and fat, skin, and a much smaller refuse pile. In short, just about everything on the head is good to eat, you'll have plenty of options for how you want to eat it.

I used most of the broth and meat for ramen, but even after I had set aside the appropriate portions, there was still so much left. This was how I learned that a pig's head is simply begging to be made into headcheese: not only is it the most economical way to use all of the scraps, it's also the most delicious. Headcheese is appropriately named because even though there isn't a scrap of cheese in headcheese, slices of the loaf are so creamy at room temperature that they're almost spreadable, like cheese. (Headcheese, for those who haven't experienced its porky goodness, is stewed pig's meat, skin, and tissue that's been molded into a meatloaf.)

If you've gone through the trouble of stewing a whole pig's head, making headcheese is simply a matter of taking everything that you've cooked and plopping it into a pan with salt and pepper. Lemon or vinegar will help to counteract the extreme richness of meat, and whatever other herbs or flavorings you want to add is up to you. A bit of broth will go into the pan to make sure that your mold of meat fits perfectly into the crevices of your pan, but contrary to what recipes may warn about headcheese not wanting to gelatinize, the truth is that you'll have a hard time getting the meat NOT to stick together. Head flesh wants to bind. If you add the gelatinous meat with collagen and tissue into your loafpan, then the entire mixture will easily come together into one solidified mass.

Finally, if for whatever reason you are anti-headcheese, then the meat can also be eaten in soups, or further shredded for tacos, potted rilletes, pasta sauces, and so forth. The possibilities are multitudinous and all of it, utterly delicious.

Headcheese

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About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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