I don’t remember when my love affair with trashy cheap meats first began, but I blame ‘Murica.
Are you an adult person? Do you remember bologna sandwiches as a kid? Perhaps you enjoy them still? Do you also remember a time when you hated them? I happen to. Now, however, I get way way too excited when I see fried ones with onions on a menu. It’s better than any burger. I’m un-ironically fond of Spam (not fried, just Spam) and I still fucking love those nuclear pink vinegar-saturated Tijuana Mamas at the gas station. I sneak them whenever I can, along with many many other abominable variety of vacuum-packaged mechanically-separated meat-stuffs. A tip for the cautious: while eating them in oversized bites is preferable, it is also preferable to perform this despicable act in dark solitary corners, lest you be seen. If an unsuspecting 401k-having citizen were to happen upon you mid-deed - hunched close to the ground, making guttural noises, fingering away at the inside of an empty barbecue vienna sausages can - you can hiss rabid-like at them in a proud aggressive manner, in an attempt to shame them into accepting you. I would, however, suggest you do as I do: recede Gollum-like back into the shadows to wage an urgent, diarrhetic war on the nearest public restroom.
Isn’t it interesting how every culture invents their own version of the hot dog, as they discover that food could be and should be more esophageal-ly aerodynamic? No homo, but I’ve never met a wiener I didn’t like. It’s evolved with time to my love of all things dry-cured and fermented, but it started with those damn franks. God, I love them. I remember mom used to boil up the cheap kind when money was tighter. Often we couldn’t even afford the buns, but the Wonderbread we already had did just fine. I didn’t give a shit; whatever was needed to sate that sweet addiction. And I think I bravely speak for all addicts when I say this: if you don’t get straight-up giddy about dirty water hot dogs, my friend there is just something wrong with you.
But for you hoity-toity lads and lasses, this here isn’t a frank.
This is better than a frank. This is head cheese. There are many styles and names: brawn, sülze, coppa di testa, pâté de tête… but if you love junk meats, it is the indisputable and irrevocable king of junk meats. It is one of my most favorite things on the planet (besides taking the Lord’s name in vain, that cheeky cunt). When I first discovered it, I was completely confused. Why is this called a cheese if it’s not cheese? Maybe I was just fascinated by the visual concept of meat in aspic - not the familiar way we disguise offal, by emulsifying and pulverizing. I popped my head cheese cherry on Queen City hot souse. Holy hell was I hooked. An instant fixation. For awhile, I made a lot… no, let’s say an obsessive amount of head cheese. It’s honestly a very un-complicated technique: boil a whole pig’s head in a seasoned stock, pull it apart, then combine the meat and gelatinous liquid together and chill. There’s always a torchon of it in my freezer. It is an amazing, simple pleasure to me.
Though it wasn’t just the vinegar and enticing spice of that first bite of souse; I immediately appreciated the resourcefulness. I mean, what the hell else are you going to do with a pig head? Forgoing my privilege for a moment, I’ve just never felt wasteful. Veggies are better left unpeeled, in my opinion, as herb stems are better off chopped along with the herbs. My favorite part of roasting a chicken is picking at the carcass before tossing it in the stock pot. I think’s it’s because I’m not quite ready to part with my food. I want it to go as far as it can and linger as long as possible.
If I had to guess, butchers are responsible for this completely acceptable plague of strange and deliciously-attractive processed meat things. They were forced to take what was left and make something out of it. Now many years later, their influence all but eliminated the word “excess” from my food vocabulary. They were the first real chefs, even before we had chefs. But if I could specifically thank one of them, the one that came up with head cheese is my hero.
Coppa di Testa
A pig’s head, ears, tongue and jowls intact
1 Tbsp Black peppercorns
1 Tbsp White peppercorns
1 Tbsp Juniper berries
1 Tbsp Fennel seeds
1 tsp Coriander seeds
1 tsp Red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp Fenugreek
A leek, an onion, a few carrots and a stalk of celery, all roughly chopped
A head of garlic, split down the equator
A handful of fresh thyme and parsley, and several bay leaves
Preheat oven to 225. Make sure racks are positioned to accommodate head-sized stockpot. If you’d like to save a jowl or the cheeks from the head for another dish, now’s the time.
- Using the bottom of a heavy saucepan, crush spices a bit on the countertop. Scrape them into a small saucepan and toast over medium heat until very fragrant. Careful, as they can scorch easily. Blitz well in a spice grinder and set aside.
- Meanwhile, place head, trotter and all other ingredients in a stockpot that will hold them comfortably and cover with water. Bring to a gentle simmer on the stovetop.
- Add ground spices, a big pinch of salt, and pop in preheated oven about 8 hours or overnight.
- The head is ready when the bottom jaw separates from the skull very easily, and the tongue is easily pierced with a knife. Remove to the stovetop to cool for about 15 minutes.
- Get three big bowls - one for the head to rest in, one for the meat and fat to save, and one for the trash. Carefully remove the head and the trotter from the stockpot as best you can with some tongs and/or long slotted spoons and place in the first bowl. Once cool enough to handle, start pulling the flesh from the skull. Reserve all good meat and fat in one bowl. Peel and clean up the tongue and the ears, then chop moderately and save. Pick apart the trotter. Discard any vegetables, prickly or bruised skin, glands, blackish tissue and tough ventricles along with the bones.
- Meanwhile, strain the head liqueur into a second stockpot, reserving any meat or fat you may find and discarding the rest. Bring the stockpot to a boil over high heat and reduce by half; this can take up to an hour and a well-ventilated kitchen. The stock should turn almost syrupy, and a ladle-full on a plate should set quickly in the fridge. Season it aggressively, remembering it will be served chilled - about 5%, like a brine. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
- Using a large utensil so as not to break up the meat too much, toss enough of the reduced liquid with the picked meat and fat to drench it thoroughly.
- Either wrap the meat in a torchon, or much easier: gently press into a terrine mould, adding more stock as needed. Chill the whole mess in the refrigerator for 48 hours to fully set.
- When ready to serve, slice cold and remove from refrigerator for a few minutes to acclimate - it is best eaten cool, with a good mustard and many pickles.