Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pot-Roast Half Pig's Head

"I say only half a head, as it is a perfect romantic supper for two. Imagine gazing into the eyes of your loved one over a golden pig's cheek, ear and snout."
Yeah, Fergus Henderson is a strange guy. But apart from the recipes it is his little comments and mannerisms that make Nose to Tail and Beyond Nose to Tail so entertaining to read. So here is Part One of a two part Pig-head Project: his recipe for Pot-Roast Half Pig's Head from Beyond Nose to Tail.

This isn't my first time taking a crack at one of his more "heady" recipes, har har. A year ago I used his recipes for Brawn and Trotter Gear, which were my first introductions to both pig heads and trotters. I ended up putting the trotter gear in just about everything over the next few months. So I figured it was time to do some more projects with heads and feet.

It begins with a pig head. As typical for these sorts of projects I ordered one from Seabreeze Farm out on Vashon Island. A week later I showed up at the market and waiting for me was 16 pounds of pig head and trotters. Most pig heads you find come split, so I technically had two half-heads, and I'd ordered four trotters. Hefting it over my shoulder in a mighty sack I carried it about the market, like Santa Claus with presents for some very naughty children.

Once home it was time to get cooking. Step one is cleaning the head. This is by far the worst part. See, the pig gets scalded to help remove the hair and clean it up a bit for butchering. This does a pretty good job. But not a perfect job. So step one is shave your pig. A disposable razor works great for this.

Or you could do what I did and use your wife's razor. A word of caution: only do this if you know your wife/girlfriend/sister/mother/etc. really well. When she got home she was not upset, and was actually quite happy to swap out the blade for a clean one. But pig got deep into the workings and despite my best attempts I couldn't quite clean it out satisfactorily, so I had to get her a whole new one.

Anyhow, it's totally gross, but piggy had some whiskers and eyelashes that had to go. This was probably the only point in the project where I was a little freaked out by the pig head. Shaving is a bit personal isn't it, and it made this meal far more visceral than most. Once done I gave it nice wash in the sink. Time to cook it.

Here's Henderson's Recipe:
  • a dollop of duck fat. I was fresh out of both lard and duck fat, but I did have some chicken fat and a bit of olive oil.
  • 8 shallots, peeled and left whole
  • 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
  • 1/2 pig's head
  • a glass of brandy
  • 1 bundle of joy - thyme, parsley, and a little rosemary
  • 1/2 bottle of white wine
  • chicken stock
  • a healthy spoonful of Dijon mustard
  • 1 bunch of watercress, trimmed, or other greens - a case of Liberty Hall. Since I was free to spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard I used some kale, as it was in season and is one of the few greens at the farmer's market in January. Cut the stalks out, roll up the leaves, and slice.
  • sea salt and black pepper
I had trouble finding the right size roasting pan for this. My 9x13 was too skinny. My pots and dutch oven were too round. I settled finally on my large roasting pan. Set it on the stove, melted the fat and oil and added the shallots and garlic until they had some color. Covered the pig's ear in foil so it wouldn't "frazzle", then nestled it into the pan. Poured a glass of VSOP over it "to welcome it to its new environment", then nestled the bundle of joy in, and poured a half bottle of WA Chardonnay in.

Here Henderson has you add chicken stock according to what he calls his "alligator-in-the-swamp theory", in which the head is supposed to lurk in the swamp like an alligator. Well I just spent the last five years living in Miami, so I think my idea of what alligators lurking in swamps looks like is maybe a bit different than his, and in this roasting pan it would take a lot of stock to get there... But I get what he's hinting at. So I just added chicken stock (made from an awesome truffle-roasted chicken I'd cooked the week before) until I was out of stock. The size of the pan will dictate the amount needed, but use good stock.

Season with salt and pepper. Henderson says cover the pan with grease-proof paper, but I used aluminum foil as it wrapped around the pan's handles more easily. Then into a Medium oven for 3 hours. I set mine to 350. With about a half hour to go I took the aluminum off the top to give the skin some color. In retrospect I might have cranked up the oven too, it could have been a bit browner.

Once it was out of the oven, I moved the head to the serving platter. Then whisked in the dijon and added the kale to wilt in the hot stock. Dished the kale, shallots, and garlic around on the plate and ladled a fair amount of stock around it. Served up with something red and delicious, a King's Estate Oregon Pinot.

Moon, January, Spoon.

It was pretty darn excellent looking. But Henderson doesn't mention one very important part of this dish: how the hell do you carve it? We sort of stared at it for a bit, trying to plan our next move. Fortunately I'm fairly familiar with pig heads from last year and my guanciale experiments, so here's the top three places to go on the pig head.

First, the cheek. There's a lovely bit of meat in there and a whole lot of fat. Second, the tongue. Peel the skin off and it's excellent. Third, the back of the neck has some great pockets of meat.

Otherwise, there's the brain. It's a texture thing, you'll love it or hate it. Here some crusty bread goes well. I might be a little wary if it were a commercial hog. "Mad Pig Disease" isn't rampant (or even an actual disease), but there are some concerned scientists out there and I'm always distrustful of commercial pork industry practices. But I know where this pig came from, how it was treated, fed and cared for. Which, of course is why I bought it from them. So the brains are fair game, though personally I'm not a huge fan anyway. There's also the ear and snout, that depending on how well you roasted them (and how clean they were before!) you may want to go for. Eventually we had it flipped over and my wife was happily excavating away. Biologists... I married a very special lady.

It looks like a really big amount of meat, but really there's a lot of bone and a head this size would probably feed 3-4. We finished picking over the head, then saved all the leftover meat, kale, shallots and stock. This became lunch for the next few days and it was outstanding. Really, the head was great but the pot-roast soup made with it was the real winner. What's not to like? Wine, brandy, garlic, herbs, shallots, excellent chicken stock, unctuous pig goo.

So it was fun, and visually stunning, but I think that's my head for the year. It's quite impressive but in terms of economy I'd rather use the cheeks for guanciale and the rest of the head for headcheese.

Or soup dumplings, as we did with the other half of the head...


Anonymous said...

Russell. Great stuff--though, I wish there was a photo of you and M gazing into each others eyes over this magnificent looking dinner.

Russell Hews Everett said...

Hah. Yeah, there was a moment of that followed by: "Ok, what do we do with it now?" It would have been nice to get that shot but it's just the two of us. The cat's pretty smart but I think camera operation is outside of her skillset. I do have a photo of M elbow deep in dissection of the beast though.

Trish said...

You married a special lady indeed... I like to think I am an adventurous eater, but I think I might draw the line on foods that look back at me...

Unknown said...

Hi Russel!
I was just googling for recipes for a soup to make from all the bones (including head and trotters) of the pig roast we had yesterday. It was the unofficial end of season (almost) party for symphony musicians. Your recipe sounds awesome! Think I can do it with already roasted head and trotters? just for the broth?
Enjoying this wonderful Seattle rain after being teased into thinking we might be close to summer after all... guess that's why it's so green here!

Russell Hews Everett said...

Hmm, might work. Depends on how well done the head and trotters are I suppose; it won't set if all the delicious goo has melted away. Might throw another trotter in there just for insurance, or keep some dry gelatin handy in case it doesn't set.

Yeah, it was quite a deluge today!

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