As the pork chops harden in the deep freeze and the bacon, guinciale, and prosciutto lay encrusted in salt in the back porch fridge, I embark on yet another culinary adventure I've long anticipated: making head cheese.
Like most traditional French peasant dishes, fromage de tete combines gruesome ingredients with oodles and oodles of labor. So, you're unlikely to see it on a Red Robin menu anytime soon. I'm about half-way through the process time- and grossness-wise, and really just starting labor-wise.
So, what is head cheese? It's not cheese, in fact contains no dairy, but is significantly head intensive. Once you've slaughtered and butchered your pig, shoved your curing cuts deep into rock salt, and begun brining your hams, mostly what you're left with are trotters and a head. What makes the trotters and head so qualitatively different from the rest of the animal is that the meat is hard to get to and it's in close proximity to a lot of joints.
Now, if you've ever had the courage to be curious about that Jello ingredient "gelatin" you already know it comes from the feet of animals and you've already made your peace one way of another with that. (although, Dylan decided one day to break into the ancient box of Jello mix in our pantry to see what this all-American favorite was all about, spent the afternoon waiting for it to set, then promptly threw the whole batch into the trash after 1 bite. "People eat this on purpose, Mom??" he asked.)
But, back to that head cheese. Basically, you clean up the head and/or feet, then split them with a very good, sharp cleaver (can't speak for the trotters, but this is no mean feat with the head - Dylan captured our experience on video it was so extreme), then boil them with aromatics for hours and hours. That's what's going on in my kitchen right now. I'm adding the tongue because it's all about using every bit and anyway, tongue is very flavorful.
In a little while, I will lift the halves of the head and the tongue out of the broth, let it all cool, then pull off the meat and skin, chop it very fine, and set it aside.
Then to the broth. I will finely strain the broth, removing all the aromatics and veggies and skimming any froth off. Not so different than making a basic chicken broth, right? The difference, which cannot be seen at the point, is that this broth that's been created by the cooking head (or feet) will contain all the gelatin that has leached out of the joints.
So, we strain it and set it out to cool. Meanwhile, we prepare a loaf pan by lining it with a big square of plastic wrap, leaving lots hanging over the sides.
When everything is cool, I'll grab a handful of the minced meat mixture and layer it on the bottom of the loaf pan. Then pour a layer of broth over, and keep repeating until I reach the top of the pan. Fold over the plastic wrap to cover it, then pop it in the fridge. Twenty-four hours later - voila. An appetizer worthy of Julia herself, served with grainy mustard and cornichons on a bed of lettuce or dense, dark bread - like cheese, only yummy with porky goodness and actually quite low in fat.
UPDATE: So, I've completed the process with the first fromage de tete and almost completed it with the 2nd. Am waiting for the weekend to try the finished product with my loved ones and can share a photo of the end result out of its mold then.
Would I do this again? Not sure. It better be really, really yummy. I know for sure I wouldn't do it alone - this is serious It Takes a Village kind of cooking - a slaughter-event dish that many hands would help lighten. I think I would also seriously consider using the trotters instead of the head b/c the sheer size of a pig head makes everything about preparing this dish laborious.
All that said, I withhold judgement until after we try it! And, merci beaucoup to our pal and culinary adventurer Chris who was kind enough to come over and both assist in the head-splitting (yes, we already made those jokes) and direct us on what the heck we were doing. There's some tete headed your way, mon ami.
I am a 50-year old community engagement manager, wife, mom and sort of farmer with a passion for sharing life and love through vibrant and delicious food. I work to slowly (very slowly) build a place where people come to know their food and take pleasure in its journey. I am fortunate to live in a beautiful island community outside Seattle, surrounded by nature and exceptional people, especially my loving and supportive Aussie husband, our amazing son, and a small band of fiercely dedicated friends. This site is dedicated to sharing what I learn as I stumble through everyday lessons on farming, animals, growing healthy food, parenting, and what the future holds.