14 July 2013
Pigs Head Cheese
Further Adventures in Using All Parts of an Animal
Pigs Head Cheese…hmmm, sounds kind of weird, wouldn't you agree? If you belong to an older generation you would most likely know of it as 'brawn'. Call it what you will - that's what I ended up making when presented with three pigs heads. I would never have considered buying a head and experimenting like this in the kitchen, but that's the exciting culinary journey of farm life and being handed cuts you don't buy every day, if ever!
A lot of cooking these days starts with the recipe first. Those tantalising images and delicious ingredients drive us to write lists, visit butchers, greengrocers and delis in search of all the components to create a wonderful new dish. Well…that's not how my path towards head cheese started. It began in the paddock and knowing these pigs, it then moved on to visiting the abattoir they would be sent to, learning about live carcass weights vs dressed carcass weights, the butchering process and cuts, and finally that most people don't want pigs heads. They're heavy, hard to manage and there's not much meat for the work one invests. That didn't deter me, and I started researching pig's head recipes.
I did ask the butcher if he would cut the head in half, however, they weren't keen on this idea as the strong teeth ruin the saw blade. So I ended up with a full head, and luckily I had a pot that could accommodate it's size, just. We removed the snout with a cleaver (after the image below was snapped) so that we could pop a lid on top, and what was revealed was the intricate scrolls within the snout - my guess is that this increases the surface area assisting with their excellent sense of smell.
Into the pot I popped aromatic vegetables such as carrots, leek, onion and celery, fresh bay leaves and parsley, half a dozen garlic cloves crushed, salt and pepper, topped it up with cold water and turned on the heat bringing it up to the boil and then back to a gentle simmer for approximately 4-5 hours. Some recipes suggested longer and some less so I just worked on feel. Close to the 5 hour mark, the head was removed from the stock and placed aside to cool enough to touch. I left the stock simmering to reduce. As the head cooled, picking off the meat began and I was surprised by how much meat I was able to find. The cheeks are an obvious great score. All the meat was chopped and went straight into the mixing bowl, and I put the gelatinous skin, fat and brains to one side as I wasn't quite ready to throw everything into the mix. All the bones went back into the stock pot for a further 2 hours of simmering. Some recipes suggested much longer as more gelatine will be extracted from the bones, however it was Sunday night and getting late.
Into the bowl of chopped meat was added some of the fat and skin, a good handful of finely chopped parsley and the juice of a half a lemon. The mixture was then pressed in a deep, rectangle dish and enough stock poured over the top to just cover the mix. It was then topped with plastic film and a house brick to weigh it down and press the mix together, before heading to the refrigerator to cool and set. Now onto the washing up - what a mess!
The next day - da da - pigs head cheese! The texture was similar to a terrine from leaving out lots of the fat, however, it could have done with some extra seasoning. That wasn't a serious problem as it could easily be seasoned on serving. It was delicious and worked well with a warm salad of puy lentils. The strained, retained and cooled stock was amazing - incredibly jelly like and has been a fabulous addition to a number of meals.
Earlier in the month I also used the trotters, in an authentic Chinese recipe based on black vinegar and serious amounts of ginger. This recipe was shared with by my father, who learned it from a dear Chinese friend of his.
Many cultures truly value parts of the animal that we don't always see here in Australia amongst the prime cuts, and they value qualities past that of just the meat. Qualities that benefit health and healing. If you are presented with the opportunity to step outside of your food comfort zone, I urge you to give it a go and discover something new.