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Headcheese: It sounds bad but tastes good

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You probably eat more headcheese than you realize. If you eat a banh mi, that Vietnamese sandwich made with various cold cuts, marinated vegetables and whole herbs, there’s a good chance they sneaked a few slices of headcheese in there. If you like Korean barbecue, one of those tasty, mysterious side dishes you eat along with the grilled beef or chicken is likely a thick slice of spicy, gelatinous headcheese.

Some people have a problem with headcheese. Headcheese contains no cheese, of course, but it does contain plenty of pig head. If you prepare headcheese from scratch you start with a whole pig’s head, and you are confronted — as with no other meat preparation — with the fact that you are preparing, and going to eat, something that was once a sentient, probably happy creature.

Chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, one of the few meat-loving chefs who have seriously thought about the ethical implications of what they do, rationalize this dilemma by calling themselves “caring carnivores.” Caring carnivores use only animals that were raised in the best conditions. They respect the animal by practicing what they call “head-to-toe” cooking: In other words, they waste nothing, and find something delicious to do with every part of the animal.

Headcheese is literally a head-to-toe preparation: though you can make decent headcheese with powdered or sheet gelatin, the best is made with pig’s feet. Pig’s feet are high in natural gelatin, and give the cooking liquid, which you use as a binder, a nice viscosity that gives you a firm, moist, sliceable headcheese.

John Broening cooks at Duo and Olivea restaurants in Denver.

Headcheese

Makes 1 large terrine. Loosely adapted from “The River Cottage Meat Book,” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Pig’s heads can be special-ordered from Marczyk’s. Pig’s feet are available at many grocery stores.

1 large metal Pullman loaf pan

2 gallons water

2 cups kosher salt

Handful of rosemary sprigs

2 tablespoons juniper berries

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1 pig’s head, rinsed

3 pig’s feet, rinsed

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped

1 rib celery, roughly chopped

2 cups white wine

2 tablespoons juniper berries, roasted and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons black peppercorns, roasted and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons caraway seeds, roasted and coarsely chopped

Coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Juice of 1 lemon

In a large pot, bring all brine ingredients to a boil. Chill liquid completely. Place pig’s head and feet in brine, cover with a heavy plate and chill at least 24 hours.

To cook headcheese: Remove pig’s head and feet from brine. Place in a large pot, along with onion, carrot, celery, bay leaves and white wine. Cover with a few plates to keep pig’s head below surface of liquid. Simmer over low-medium heat for about 6 hours, or until the head meat feels tender to the touch and easily separates from the bone.

Remove the pig’s head from the broth, reserving the liquid. Strain the liquid into a smaller pot and degrease well. Return to medium high heat and reduce by half, or until intensely flavored but not salty. Keep the liquid at room temperature while you deal with the pig’s head.

Carefully pull out the tongue. (If the tongue doesn’t come away easily, add the pig’s head back to the liquid and cook a little longer). Pull away the white membrane from the tongue and discard. Chop up the tongue into small pieces and place in a large mixing bowl. Pull off the strands of dark meat around the cheek and add to the bowl. Shred the fatty white meat along the jaw. Add any other bits of meat you find, along with about a cup of fat from the head.

Add about half of the juniper, pepper and caraway along with a pinch of sea salt and the parsley and lemon juice. Add some of the reduced cooking liquid, about a cup at a time, incorporating it well with a spoon. The headcheese should be moist but not soupy.

Taste the mixture again, adjusting salt and spices if necessary.

Spray the loaf pan with vegetable spray. Carefully line the pan with plastic wrap, allowing for a little overhang, then spray again with vegetable spray. Pack the headcheese mixture into the pan, then cover with plastic wrap.

Place a weight on top of the headcheese (a few small cans will work). Chill at least six hours.

To serve, cut the headcheese into thick slices with a serrated knife. Allow the slices to come to room temperature. Serve with toasted ciabatta, butter, pickles and mustard.

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‘Head Cheese’ Probably Isn’t What You Think It Is (PHOTOS)

Some foods get a bad rap based on their names alone, and head cheese has got to be one of the foods hit hardest by this phenomenon. We’re content to euphemize all manner of other, stranger things. Blood sausage gets called blood pudding, testicles have been re-branded as “prairie oysters,” and I don’t even want to think of what we would call hot dogs if we were being literal. For some reason, head cheese gets referred to as almost exactly what it is. Almost.

Head cheese is, in fact, made with heads — real ones, from pigs. But there is no cheese involved, and really the word “cheese” was probably employed because referring to something as “head loaf” is really quite unappetizing. Now, unless you are an offal devotee, you might see the phrase “pig’s heads” and want to hide under the covers, but the truth is that there’s a lot of great meat hiding in there, and once it’s separated from its admittedly graphic housing, has some of the best and porkiest flavor you’ll find on the whole pig. We’ve never made head cheese ourselves, but after seeing brave Redditor mrmexico25’s step-by-step head cheese tutorial, we might have to give it a shot.

If a picture of an animal’s head stewing in a pot is going to make you woozy, you might want to consider switching over to a more vegetable-oriented post right now. For the rest of you, here’s how the head cheese gets made.

This is where you start. A couple of heads in big old stock pot with vegetables, aromatics and seasoning. This stews for an incredible six hours to get everything tender. Pro tip from mrmexico25, “The part that takes the longest to cook is the tongue, so once it’s fork tender, then you’re done!” After stewing, straining the stock, picking the meat and stuffing it all into large sausage casings, the finished product is then chilled overnight. What you end up with is a piece of charcuterie that looks completely at home next to things lots of people are way more comfortable with — salami, prosciutto, pancetta, foie gras. Head cheese, at its core, is just another kind of chunky paté.

I’d always thought that head cheese required adding in gelatin to set, but when you cook down pork bones for that long, the collagen that gets released into the broth is enough to bind everything once it’s chilled completely. That, friends, is what we call making something out of nothing. A lot of the commenters on Reddit were understandably shocked by the photos in this how-to, and you might be also. But it’s pretty undeniable that using all the parts of the animal, making them all taste good and helping them all to be appreciated, is about the most respectful thing you can do. Plus, it tastes delicious.

Click over to Imgur for the entire tutorial gallery, with way more step-by-step photos. We just might have to make our own head cheese now, thanks to mrmexico25. We salute you!

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File this in the "try it, you’ll like it" column. ]]>