It happens to everyone some time. You’re in the mood to cook something, but you don’t want to go shopping. So you open your fridge and this is what you see:
You ignore the leftover pork, push aside the tomato soup, pass on the natural pickles, and then you see it. Trying to hide behind its own hind leg and underneath its own feet, you can’t miss that giant nose of the pig’s head. You’re in luck – you lay out a few other ingredients and see that you have all it takes to make Brawn, or Headcheese.
Pig’s heads are not hard to come by if you have a good butcher around. Just call ahead and ask for one, as well as four trotters (the feet). They charged me $10 for the feet, and nothing for the head. This is cheap food. I had read a recipe for Brawn (the more appealing English name – Headcheese is American) in one of my favorite cookbooks: The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson. Other recipes include boiling a ham in a bale of hay (which we’ll be doing next week), Rolled Spleen, Soft Roes on Toast, Pheasant and Pig’s Trotters Pie with Suet Crust, Jugged Hare, and so many other brilliant creations. Henderson runs the newly Michelin-starred restaurant St John in London.
The recipe is not difficult, but takes some time. You will also need a large pot. I started with one that was not big enough (an ear kept sticking out) so I ran to Ming’s Supermarket on Washington St and bought an enormous 30 qt stock pot. You’ll want one that is at least 20-30 quarts, depending on the size of your head. Er, the pig’s head.
Makes enough for 8 adventurous eaters, or an infinite number of polite tasters…
1 Pig’s head
4 pig’s trotters
2 onions, peeled
2 carrots, peeled
2 leeks, cleaned
2 stalks of celery
2 heads of garlic, skin on
zest of 2 lemons
a healthy splash of red wine vinegar
a bundle of fresh herbs tied together (I had rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage from the garden)
2 bay leaves
a scant handful of black peppercorns (tied in cheesecloth)
If you’re lucky, the butcher will have cleaned the head for you. This means carving out the skin from around the eyes and in the ears, and shaving the hair from the snout and chin. If not, clean around the eyes if necessary, use q-tips to clean out the ears (pigs have ear wax too), and use a disposable razor to shave your pig.
Put all the ingredients in a pot, a big pot, and cover wth water by 2 inches (the head will float). Bring to a boil, and then imediately reduce to a simmer, skimming as you go. It was at this point that I wished I had an induction cook top, as I’d be able to boil a pot this large faster, but I’ll have to keep dreaming. (For a review of induction cookware, check here).
After an hour of cooking, remove the ears. You can use them later for a salad decorated with crispy pig’s ears. Of course. Continue cooking the head for a total of 2.5 hours, or until the cheek muscle begins to pull away from the skull. When done, you’ll probably need some help hoisting the head out of the pot – you want to save the liquor, so you can’t drain the pot. And the head is heavy, so ask a friend to use a long-handled fork/spoon/skewer to help you. Remove the feet and set aside.
Remove the vegetables and flavoring from the broth, and set it to boil in order to reduce it by half. Since there is a lot, I found it more reasonable to remove 4-5 cups of broth from the big pot and set it to boil in a smaller pot. Goes much faster.
Then begin picking through the head and feet, retrieving the flesh. There is little meat in a trotter, so don’t be discouraged. The head offers the most. Cut off the tongue and slice off the outer layer of skin (all bumpy with tastebuds) and chop it. The pieces I cut were 1/4-1/2 inch cubes, or whatever smaller size they came off as. As Henderson writes,” The snout is neither fat nor meat; do not be discouraged, it is delicious in your brawn.” And he is right. The snout was a fascinating mix between fat and muscle, the perfect fusion between lip smacking pork fat and satisfying piggy flesh. Carving up the head was nearly a religious experience:
Most of the meat comes from the cheek and under the eyes. Don’t be timid. Your fingers are the best tool and can get into all the nooks of the skull that your knife cannot.
You should be able to get all the meat (and snout) off, most of which is usable. I ended up with enough flesh to fill a large terrine (or use a loaf pan, which gives an equivalent shape).
It tastes like pork. You aren’t squeamish about eating the animal’s rib cage or leg, so why get worked up about eating other parts? Get over it.
Once the liquor has reduced, taste it for salt. You want it to be saltier than you think it should be. You’ll pour this broth over the meat, so any saltiness will be diluted by the meat. Also, brawn is served cold, so flavors are subdued. (In fact, next time I do this, I’ll be adding more than just salt – perhaps some garlic, rosemary dust, thyme, cayenne, cumin, coriander, lemon juice – something to make the flavor pop more).
To assemble: line your terrine with plastic wrap. Arrange the meat in the terrine, and then pour the reduced, flavored broth over the meat, just to cover. Slam the terrine on the counter to eliminate any bubbles, and slide it into the fridge overnight.
Remove the brawn from the mold. It should hold its shape, as the meat is held together by the jelly. (Isn’t it amazing how broth becomes a jelly at low temperatures? All thanks to proteins from the bones.) Slice thinly and serve with crusty bread, mustard, and your homemade pickles.
It is meant to be a subtle flavor, with a tender jelly. Mine turned out perfectly for a first brawn – the meat was juicy and tender, the jelly subtle and melted in the mouth. The flavor was lacking in salt, and while delightfully piggy and fresh, it could have used some of the spices I mentioned for some more depth. Next time, I might also shred the meat finer and mix it with less jelly, yielding something with the consistency similar to a rillette. And there will be a next time.
Coming soon: Cured salmon, Fried Green Tomatoes, and a Shocking Announcement…