Serious Eats: Recipes
The Nasty Bits: Lamb's Head
Many a chef has waxed poetic about half a pig's head. Fergus Henderson writes that it is "the perfect romantic supper for two," but I happen to think that a lamb's head is more romantic than its porcine equivalent.
Granted, a roasted pig's head might be the perfect meal because you get a well-rounded ensemble of offal and bits: crisp ears with chewy cartilage, succulent and fatty cheeks, tender tongue, and, on the surface, glorious skin that crisps up and crackles.
But here's the catch: If you share half a pig's head with someone for whom you have amorous intentions, does it feel natural to use your your fingers to dig into layers of fatty meat and skin? Would you be comfortable chewing on the crisp ears with your teeth like a happy dog, or reaching into the jaw to retrieve the tongue? At the end of the meal your lips and your fingers will be covered in grease and meaty juices—not the ideal precursor to a romantic evening, it seems to me.
So much of what's delicious requires work on the part of the eater. This is true of all kinds of food, not just meat. You use the tips of your tongue and your front-most teeth to extract the flesh from the petal of an artichoke. You hack your way into a jackfruit and excavate each piece of flesh, like a shiny moonstone, from the honeycombed structure. The interior of a jackfruit leaves your fingers tacky, as if you've run a gluestick all over your hands and left them out to dry. And to get at the most succulent bits of crab meat, the most adept tools you have are not a claw cracker and a tweezer, but your own teeth and fingers.
Hands-on consumption is one of the fundamental joys of eating: to engage with your food on an intimate level, to manually unfold nature's bounty. Doing so, however, seems like a casual activity that sets the stage for a good nap more than anything else.
When I told a friend that I felt like spending a night in with a movie and a roasted lamb's head, she said, "So you're not going to save the lamb's head for a romantic date?"
"The lamb's head is my date," I replied. I have a whole freezer worth of pig's and lamb's heads and I'm just going to sit there and wait for the perfect man to materialize from thin air? What silliness.
Convinced that I was going to go at it alone, she recommended that I watch the movie Tom Jones while eating my dinner.
"Why?" I asked.
"Just watch it," she told me. "You'll see."
The 1960s film is based on Henry Fielding's novel about a philandering youth who navigates his way through English society in the 1700s. Lacking the cinematic acumen that might have allowed me to appreciate the nuances of the camera work and so forth, I found the film to be both bizarre and soporific. Ten minutes into the movie, I used the handy-dandy scroller on the bottom of the Netflix viewer to search for the snippet in the film that may have led to my friend's recommendation.
I found the segment exactly at 1 hour, 17 minutes, and 52 seconds into the film. The scene features Tom Jones and a busty harlequin sharing a meal in a dank pub. It ends at 1 hour, 21 minutes, and 3 seconds. So, for those of you doing the math, is a full 4 minutes and 11 seconds long, and probably the most grossly brazen movie scene ever shot of two people eating as a precusor to sexual activity.
Seated across from one another, the actors have their way with roast chicken, oyster, and pears, each escalating the lascivious manner in which the items are consumed. There is absolutely no talking and no soundtrack—only the sounds lips smacking and slurping. By the end, the actors' fingers and faces are covered in chicken grease and pear juice. Then they dash upstairs to do the deed. The scene ends when a candle is snuffed.
Oh, here, I've embedded it below for you. I don't think I have to tell you that it's NSFW, do I?
Which brings me back to my original point. That, if you're going to roast a head at all for a romantic meal for two, it should be a lamb's head rather than a pig's. Not only is the head a cinch to prepare (you simply stick it in the oven and roast for 45 minutes), the head is smaller with fewer offal-related distractions. There are no ears, no skin, and a much smaller tongue, which I prefer to remove for confit or stewing.
The major attraction of the lamb's head is plenty of tender, juicy cheek meat that comes off easily with a brief prodding of the carving knife. Like the pig, a sizable pocket of flesh resting behind the eyeball slips off the skull once the cheek is removed. And, though there's no skin on the skull, a fatty layer of tissue encases the meat so that the head browns beautifully in the oven.
Even for two people, one lamb's head provides more than enough meat. The leftover head should be saved for stock; the skull, along with all the remaining bits of meat, will produce some of the mostly intensely flavored stock you've slurped. Even the bits of meat, when strained through the stock, can be reserved for use in pot pies, impromptu stews, rillettes, and so forth. I saved my remaining lamb's head meat for cabeza tacos, another delicious hands-on meal.