Tuesday, May 22 2012
Pig HeadedYummy Happy Piggy
Caution: this blog deals with the sometimes messy but always rewarding process of turning animals into food. Folks with delicate sensibilities, vegetarians and those who are uneasy about viewing primal cuts of meat that can look right back at them should skip this one. When you get to the pictures of severed heads, don't say I didn't warn you.
A few weeks ago I was chatting with my dear friend Lisa. In addition to being a big-brain in her day job, Lisa is a semi-pro book reviewer in Ohio. If you like books, and like talking about the books you've read, you should immediately head over to her blog, Alive On the Shelves and soak up her reviewy goodness. She has turned me on to more good authors and good books in the last decade than I can recall. She's actually on my notional list of librarian-subversives, a very good list indeed.
Knowing my penchant for eating anything not fast enough to run away from me, Lisa sent me a link to another book blog, Yummy Books, that focuses on cooking--as well it might, being written by a pastry chef/butcher. The blog combines literature and food, and this particular entry was about making a pork terrine, charmingly themed on William Goldman's Lord of the Flies. I really loved the idea of tying the two together, and the terrine looked great, but, well . . . it was all wrong. Not wrong in the sense of the writing--she's an excellent writer--and not in the photography, or the subject. The thing is, I'm descended from very frugal people: when you've got the nasty bits of a pig lying around you don't make anything as effete as a terrine out of it. You make head cheese.
The difference between the recipe featured in Yummy Books' blog and proper head cheese is that they carefully and laboriously flensed the meat off of the head and roasted it in a pan. That is Not The Done Thing amongst those raised as po' folks: instead, they boil up the whole noggin, as well as some other bits, and process it after that. In any case, I was so inspired that I decided on the spot that it was time for me to make a stab at my own head cheese. My wife grew up in a French Canadian household, where head cheese was both a treat and a staple, so she was on board, and this seemed to be an opportunity to satisfy my own curiosity about the process and to exercise my food philosophy.
DISCLAIMER: The following section is about my feelings about killing and eating animals. You can skip it if you just want to see the recipe and the techniques or are bored with my perpetual self-involvement.
I'm an unrepentant omnivore, and enjoy eating from a wide variety of food sources. It's not that I reject vegetables--on the contrary, I love my veggies and eat vegetarian a couple of times a week. But I believe that humans evolved to eat as opportunivores: eat what's in season, try everything and use it all up.
Because meat eating involves taking the life of another living creature, I feel that it comes with a responsibility to acknowledge and understand what that really means. Steaks don't come from the supermarket, pork chops don't grow in styrofoam trays, and chickens don't magically show up wrapped in plastic. In order for me to eat meat, an animal has to die. If I'm to be an ethical meat-eater I have a responsibility to first ensure that any animal that shows up on my table has been treated well in life and cared for humanely, and meets its demise cleanly, at the hands of people who care about it. Second, because an animal died, wasting any single part of it is a criminal act against the biosphere, so I eat the nasty bits as well--not just the shiny happy steaks and smooth, clinically neutral chicken breasts.
There are two more aspects to honouring animals. First, I don't want to eat anything I could envision holding an engaged conversation with. For me that means no evolutionary companion animals (dogs, cats) because we created them to be our co-citizens. Eating them is rude. It also means I won't eat octopus (they're so astonishingly smart, if they lived for longer than a couple of years they'd probably be negotiating trading rights with us) or cetaceans, although the more I learn about dolphins, the creepier they are--seriously, they're the jerks of the sea. While I won't eat one, we should seriously consider sport-hunting them.
Second, if I am going to eat an animal, I have to be prepared to personally kill it myself--I feel that if I cannot bring myself to take on the responsiblity for that life, I cannot conscionably partake of it. I've been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do a small amount of hunting, taking deer and rabbits, and I've had the responsibility for killing pigs, sheep and a cow. It's not easy, but it sure does make you more conscious of the implications of what you have to do to put meat on the table when you (literally) have blood on your hands.
In addition to honouring the animals, I also feel responsible for the impact the animals I eat have on the biosphere we share. The animals I've hunted were actually pests in the places I took them, and thinning the stock was in harmony with the ecosystem. I buy my meat from a local butcher who brings in his own sides from local, sustainable farms within 100 miles of the shop, and from an upmarket hippie store that features fresh, local grass-fed beef and organic free range birds. Feed lots and industrial farming operations have profound impacts on the local ecology and rely heavily on fossil fuels to ship and process the animals economically--at further cost to the planet.
These are personal choices for me that took a long time for me to come to. Other people make other choices, but I think the most important choice you can make is to be mindful of what you eat, and how it impacts your health, the animals you choose to eat, and the health of the biosphere, both local and global. Do that, and you're well up on the great wheel of karma.
Ahem. Enough of my malarkey, onto the food.Note the hairs of his chinny-chin-chin
Step one was to make with the obtainment of the porcine cephalic goodness. You just don’t see a lot of strange primal cuts in my local supermarkets, and even the trusty Chinese grocery only carries small nasty bits, like pork intestines, cow uterus, duck blood, spleens, etc. The closest thing they usually carry is bag o’ snouts (more on this later). Swinging into action I dropped in on my local butcher, Ocean Park Fine Meats.
I buy most of my meat from them, as they’re very careful about sourcing locally from sustainable, ethical farms. They also have their own ageing room, and unlike mass-market meat, theirs is dry-aged for a much richer flavour and tenderness—and when you cook one of their steaks, it doesn’t shrink at all, the way wet-aged meat does.
Funny enough for people who cut up cow halves and grind meat all day long, they’re a tiny bit squeamish about more exotic pieces. While they were as quick and efficient as always about bringing in my pig head, nobody wanted to see it and everyone seemed relieved to have me haul it away. Go figure. Next thing I’ll find out is that they faint at the sight of blood!'Mum says please leave the eyes in 'cos it's got to see us to the end of the week.'
I also picked up a couple of chunks of pork shank and some tongues while I was about it. The head is a brilliant source of rich meaty goodness, but tongue is a tender and lovely delicacy, and a little more meat would fill out my head cheese terrines beautifully. Step two was to take all of these lovely bits of porky goodness and brine them for 24 hours.
Brining was step two by virtue of the tender age of the head donor, because I could skip the shave and a haircut: older pigs get rather bristly and hairy. To use one of those would require either shaving it (as was done in the blog I mentioned earlier), singing the hair off with fire, or using boiling water to loosen the hairs and then scraping them away. Not only did I get to miss out shaving it (the ears would have been very tricky--although I did excise the wee goatee my hog had) I also got a head small enough to brine in a reasonable container in my refrigerator; it also fit it into my pots. I’ve got a collection of generously sized cooking vessels, but a really big hog-noggin is nearly as large the tires on your car!Swimming in sea of pork
The brine is pretty simple: a cup of salt and a cup of sugar per gallon of water, well dissolved, and into the refrigerator it goes for 24 hours. The next day I pulled it out and rinsed it very thoroughly and got it ready for the pot. The brining has several effects. First, it pulls water out of the interior of the meat, making it firmer and pulling it away slightly from the fat and bone. Second, it gets saltier (I know, duh) on a very deep level, which helps to preserve the head cheese, just like salt pork, ham or beef jerky. In the olden days when we had to worry about such things, it would also kill any parasites, such as trichinosis—however the long cooking process would also take care of that.For everything, there is a season . . .
After a good rinsing, into the pot it went, along with some seasoning, including bay leaf, lots of thyme, peppercorns, and a whole head of garlic, chopped in half. I also threw in some root vegetables to deepen the flavours—carrots, celery and onion—topped it up with water and set it to boil for around four hours. The only hitch in my pot was the tallness of the head—no matter how I arranged the pot, there was always a snout staring me in the face. Eventually I got a sharp knife and resected the nose from the rest of the snout and after that it was smooth boiling.My pig has no nose. How does he smell?Delicious! I'm trying to achieve the right aspic ratio
I pulled the head and various bits of meat out to cool and strained the stock into a large pan so I could reduce it by about 70%. The head, especially the dermal tissue and the ears are full of collagen, which gives the skin its elasticity, and there is also collagen in the shanks, from the tendons. Long cooking extracts the collagen and converts it into gelatine, a very strongly curled protein compound that links up tightly and (when cooled) forms a firm, rubbery aspic that is used to hold the meat together in the loaf when it’s finally all assembled.That's one way to get a head
After an hour in the fridge the head was cool enough to handle. Using a terrifically sharp boning knife and both hands, I prised away endless secret nuggets of meat out of cavities, recesses, pockets and layers of tissue inside and around the pig’s head. It’s amazing just how much rich porky meat is hiding all over the head. The snout, retrieved from the bottom of the pot had an amazingly tender, rich layer of meat in it that was almost like meat jelly—it never made it into the head cheese as I wound up putting it on a cracker with a dab of mustard—Spot and I agreed that it was just about the best and most tender piece of pork either of us had ever tasted.
It's sort of like tasting something that can taste you back
The tongues I added were also very good—they need peeling, as the outer layer isn’t worth eating, but the meat inside is again, brilliant: tenderer than filet mignon, yet firm and very rich and porky.Yield!
Assembled, there was a rather pleasing yield of usable meat, which was good because I wanted to make two cheeses, one in the traditional style of my wife’s French Canadian past, and the other in a more rustic, old-school terrine. The former required the meat to be finely ground, while the later has it coarsely chopped. There is a visual difference between the two, the fine ground sort being a little more anonymous-looking, sort of like a meat loaf. The second one, when sliced nicely, shows off each meaty chunk of tongue and whatnot to the eater. Chacun à son goût, I was gonna make both, and between a quick chop and a trip through my meat grinder I was ready to assemble the whole shebang.Coarsely chopped ready to go, parsley: check! Kitchenaid Saves this from being a real grind
Each terrine got a generous handful of chopped parsley as well, for a pleasant and refreshing vegetal note and festive greenness. Once they were assembled and packed, it was time to take my now vastly reduced pork stock and pour it over each loaf of meat.Note how dark the stock has become. It's as sticky as glue at this point.
There as just precisely enough to cover and hold together each terrine, and because it has to be added hot (it gets sticky and thick awfully fast as it cools) I popped the cheeses into the refrigerator to cool down and set up.Chillin'
How is it? Scrumptious. It’s everything I could have hoped for—a slab of dense-yet-tender pork bits that are sort of like a cold cut, but much more satisfying and intense. It’s great in a sandwich, in place of Mortadella or ham, swell on crackers, and good just as part of a salumi plate with other sliced meats, mustard and pickles. I took half a loaf to work, and despite my trepidation at the reaction of other people to eating primal cuts, even ones so prettily packaged, it seemed to be a hit—nearly everyone at least tried it, and it was gone in a couple of hours.An elegant snack
All in all, I really enjoyed this cooking project. Some people were disturbed by the idea that I was using a pig’s head, although beyond ‘ewww, ick!’ nobody could articulate why this would be objectionable. Two of my vegetarian friends had very different reactions. One was actually deeply affected by it (and took pains to say so), while the other expressed pleasure that there was a way to make sure none of the animal went to waste, and accepted some for her husband to try.A hearty sandwich
Would I do it again, even with the multi-day process and long cooking time?Heady goodness
Why, I already have. And it was delicious all over again.
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