[Smashy the Hammer] [An Aspiring Luddite]
I carry no phone
An aspiring Luddite
In a wired world.
[Jeff Berry]
Jeff Berry is an early adopter of the Internet and the Web, a late adopter of Twitter, and declines to adopt Facebook or Livejournal. (Although he did succumb to the lure of Google+.) He hates cell-phones.

Home-made Headcheese
20 January 2011

[A Pig's Head] Headcheese is one of those names which can sometimes confuse people. After all, it's not cheese. It's not a dairy product at all. However, some people take it a step further, and claim that it can be made without head, either. Now, that's just crazy talk. Headcheese that's not cheese is one thing, but headcheese that's neither head nor cheese is madness, and it is a path down which we must not go.

Headcheese is slow cooked meat suspended in the gelatin released by the cooking process. This means using cuts of meat with lots of gelatin to be released. While this can, I suppose, be accomplished with nothing but pigs' feet and the like, it's best when you use a head. Or, at least, a large part of a head.

[The Final Product] Headcheese

Rinse the head and trotter, cut into pieces if necessary, and put into a pot for the initial brining. My head wouldn't fit into my large stock pot until I had removed the lower jaw and cut the snout in half. This isn't as hard as it sounds, but if you don't want to spend the time with a bone-saw and cleaver, either get a very large pot, or see if your butcher will cut it for you. You do want to save all the bits, though!

[About to cook] Cover the meat with brine. The recipe above is for one-half gallon, you may have to make more. For the pig and pot I used, I needed a full gallon. Pink salt, by the way, is a slightly nitrited curing salt, with about 6% sodium nitrite. You don't have to use it, if you don't want to, but it will help both with color and shelf-life. Brine the meat for twenty-four hours, or at least over-night.

Drain and rinse the meat. Put it into a large pot. Unless you have a lot of large stock pots, you may want to use the same one. If you do, be sure to rinse it out thoroughly before putting the meat back in. Cover with water and bring up to a simmer. Gently simmer for three to four hours. The meat should essentially fall off the bone. During the simmering, skim the pot as needed.

Remove the meat and set aside for a moment. Strain the cooking liquid as best you can. Since you want to remove all the fine particles, a mesh strainer or cheesecloth is advisable. Put a small bit of the liquid into a bowl and pop it into the refrigerator to cool, so you can test the set of the gelatin. When it cools, give it a poke. It should be firm but not solid, it needs to support the meat but you don't want a rubber ball. If it's not firm enough, reduce the cooking liquid a bit and test again. (I usually put the cooking liquid back onto the heat to simmer while the test batch cools, even though this means that my final liquid will set a little firmer than my test. I don't mind that.)

Meanwhile, pick all the flesh off the various bones, and dice it. Any bits you don't want, you can discard. My rule of thumb, however, is if it's easy to slice, I'll use it. This means I used the ear, but I don't mind the texture. I did discard the bits of skin that still had visible bristle, but used the rest. (And, to be honest, I did throw away the eye.) If there are any bits of fat still unmelted, cut them up, too. (Or not, if you prefer.) If your head had a tongue in it, peel the skin off the tongue and discard it. Dice that meat, too. (If your head doesn't come with tongue intact, you might consider buying one and simmering it along with the rest; it adds to the texture and flavor.)

[Before Cooling] Use plastic wrap to line a dish large enough to hold the meat. Put the meat into the dish. Skim the fat from the cooking liquid, taste it and adjust the seasoning, if needed. Add a few tablespoons of good wine vinegar, white for preference. Then pour the liquid over the meat until it's covered. (Ideally, you want your meat covered by the liquid, but as you can see from the picture, my dish was just a little too small, so I have bits poking out the top) Chill until set.

Headcheese should be eaten at room temperature. I recommend a little mustard, horseradish, or an acid chutney as an accompaniment since it is very unctuous - and I mean that in a good way. Since this makes quite a bit, don't hesitate to give some to your friends. It also freezes well.

If you have any of the cooking liquid left over, by all means save it! Much of the flavor of the headcheese is in that liquid, and it can be used in a variety of ways. (As upcoming recipes will demonstrate.) Because so much of the flavor is in the cooking liquid, that is an area ripe for experimentation and variation. If you don't like juniper berries, don't use them. Want to add more garlic? Feel free! And so on.

© 2011 Jeff Berry
The Aspiring Luddite