Weird Crap I Cook: Goat Head Cheese

I think the name of this post gives a reasonably accurate impression of what will unfold, albeit in obnoxiously wordy fashion.

You know those Saw movies that they advertise once a year around Halloween?  The ones that make you wonder who the hell would choose to sit down and watch horrifically graphic gore for a couple hours of their precious free time?  That’s what this post may feel like at times, except if those movies ended with everyone in the movie becoming best friends and eating a surprisingly tasty meal together.

Before we get started, check out how cute Janet is these days:

Obsessed with her own looks at 7 months old. Maybe I should ask her about her favorite books like that uber preachy article that was re-posted on Facebook a thousand times tells me I should

Alright, now that we’ve broken the ice with that one, let’s get started on this journey.

While wandering through Haymarket with a few friends on the Friday before New Years, I stumbled upon a butcher shop that seemed to specialize in cheap cuts from goat and lamb.  When I saw a skinned goat’s head for $8, I knew I was incapable of resisting and purchased it after having the butcher split it in half with the bone saw.  The previous sentence has surely appeared in multiple serial killer autobiographies.

Once home it went into the freezer to wait for the right meal.  Originally it was going to be soup, but I saw some potential to make a head cheese/terrine and barreled ahead once I saw the minimal instruction available online.

That eyeball is like something out of a nightmarish Pixar cartoon. Way, way too large looking compared to the rest of the head. Remember, it is already split in half down the center at this point

Perfect Super Bowl Sunday food!  I’m the best host ever.

I got started by thawing out the head for a couple days.  Once I tore into the bag, I gave the head a good rinse in the sink and then used a small spoon to remove the brains.  My apologies in advance for what is the toughest shot in the bunch.

Look, this photo was important to setup the post but I sat here staring at it trying to think of something funny to say for 10 minutes. I got nothing, this is just how it looked

The brains were thrown in a bowl and placed in the fridge to wait for their time to shine.  The head got a thorough coating of cumin, paprika, curry powder, salt and black pepper.

Everything looks and tastes better with seasoning

At this point, I had no idea how much meat would come off of this head.  I was picturing the final terrine fitting into a small tin loaf pan, with it mostly made up of the small cheek muscles, tongue, and brain.  It’s hard to believe looking at it, but I seriously underestimated this head.

The seasoned head went into a 450F oven on the top rack to get some roasted color and flavor.  After about 15 minutes, I had this:

I'd feed you some bullsh*t like, "it looked delicious!", but in reality when I pulled the pan out of the oven, the change in temperature caused the right eye to rupture and spray various parts of my kitchen with boiling eye liquid. Even EYE wasn't ready for that one. Puns! Puns lighten the mood!

The head pieces went into a pot of boiling water with a couple dried cloves and a bunch of whole peppercorns to simmer for 3 hours.

While that cooked I hung out with my buddy Matt, originator of the increasingly famous Dupee Burger, and a completely fearless eater.  Perfect company and photographer for the halfway point in the cooking process when the goat tongue needed to be removed and peeled.

Tongue is already out and on the plate. At this point it looked like the terrine was going to be a single serving due to how much the tongue had shrunk

With tongue in general, the most common approach is what I did here; boil it for a bit, peel it, and cook it a little longer.  With the Hogs Head Barbacoa, the 20 hours of cooking made the area that needs to be peeled off melt away completely, but that wasn’t an option here.  I found a little excess on the end to grip and easily peeled from one end:

Good work by Dupe here, especially considering it was after 11, I was pouring IPAs freely, and he was dealing with the increasingly awful point and shoot camera in low light

The peeled tongue and head halves went back into the simmering liquid for another hour and a half while the DB and Dupee made our way through a Long Trail variety pack.

After fishing the head out of the pot with tongs once again, the meat was falling off the bone.

I'm anxious to get to the point in this post where I don't feel the need to apologize for every photo but it's not coming anytime soon

I let the bones and meat cool down for fifteen minutes but kept the pot of cooking liquid on the burner with the cover off so that it could reduce and concentrate for another hour or so.

Once everything was easy to handle, I started picking over the bones a bit.  There was a lot of loose cartilage, bone and skin that I immediately threw away.  The cheeks and tongue provided a good amount of meat, but I also found meat in random crannies as well as around the eyes.

I say "around the eyes" in hopes that some of the people who ate it don't read the captions. I actually took the meat around the eyes and the eyeballs as well. My guess is I am never allowed to cook for my friends again

After a few minutes, I had some piles of meat.

Clockwise from top left: palate, tongue, cheeks, and misc. Way more meat than I expected to come off of such a small, lean-looking head. That goat would be so flattered to know I described its head as "lean-looking"

This led to a little game Dupee referred to as “is it food?”  Basically, I tasted each bit of meat separately and decided whether it would be considered edible and also sorted out any bone or cartilage that snuck into the piles.  The answer is that most of it is food, except the palate which was the texture of a flip flop that had been boiled for three hours.  The other revelation was that the meat tasted far more like lamb than I expected.

From there I cubed the tongue and chopped the rest of the meat together.

Dupee really came up huge on a post that Kristi would absolutely want no part of. In fact Kristi saw the relatively innocuous looking roasted head and ran out of the kitchen shrieking "ooooooooohhhh, I saw it! I saw it! I saw it!" with her eyes tightly closed

With the meat chopped and in a bowl, I got started on the other key elements.  Most importantly, the brain.  You didn’t think I forgot it, right?  Silly you.

I started out by throwing diced bacon and chopped carrots in a hot pan together and letting them cook for 6-8 minutes.  While those cooked, I chopped up a pile of fresh mint leaves to blend into the meat.

I am far from a technically proficient cook, especially with a knife, but I blame that dangerously protruding pinky on the IPAs

I had purchased cilantro too, but mint seemed like the right call with the flavors in the rub and the strong lamb-like flavor of the head meat.

With the herbs chopped and the bacon rendered and crispy, I threw the two halves of the brain into the hot pan and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Brains are cool looking food. I believe what I am doing here is called "gilding the lily"; basically surrounding something that will look foul to most people with delicious looking items

After a few minutes on one side, I flipped the brains and added a long pour of white wine, (about 3/4 cup) and turned the heat up on the pan.  The goal was to poach the brains and let the carrots soften while the wine reduced.

Carrots, bacon, and white wine can make anything look and smell delicious

After another 10 minutes, the wine had reduced and I pulled the brains out of the pan and transferred to a cutting board.

I cut off small pieces for Dupee and I, and found the texture and flavor to be a better version of what I ate in Morocco.  Very soft and creamy, like Laughing Cow cheese.  Tasted strongly of lamb/wine/carrot/bacon but with a metallic aftertaste.  Not iron-y, almost copper-y?  Not sure, something like that.  The rest I chopped to add to the head cheese ingredients.

The brain really reminded me of the awesome, "This is your brain on Long Beach Island" florescent shirt I wore growing up. I wish I still had that shirt and some of those insanely stupid Big Johnson shirts

Along with the drained carrots and bacon, a small splash of apple cider vinegar (no more than a tablespoon), and salt & pepper, the chopped brains headed into the bowl.

The head cheese mixture smelled great at this point, but there was still a lot of doubt in my mind that it would be in any way edible

The reduced cooking liquid is an important part of head cheese (or any meat terrine) since the liquid has gelatin-like characteristics from boiling the bones and skin.  Mixing in a few ladles of the liquid helps the head cheese/terrine bind together into a loaf when it cools.

I was hoping to avoid using this loaf pan again since I wanted thicker slices, but there was way more than I expected

I'd tasted every ingredient and smelled how good the seasoning was, yet I was still completely terrified by what I had made

I covered the loaf pan and the head cheese went into the fridge to set for 12 hours.  It was during that time that I realized the perfect condiment to serve with it.  An item that had been in my fridge for longer than Janet has been alive: homemade kimchi.

I prepared this back in June. Every few weeks I sent Conor a text message to the effect of, "Con, I think the kimchi is ready!" then forgot about it in the back of the fridge for another ~20 days. I have an above average sense of humor

I’ve only had kimchi a few times in my life and from what I can tell it’s just spicy pickled cabbage.  So that’s all this is.  I had an extra half head of green cabbage leftover in early June so I sliced it, tossed it with a little sugar, salt, cayenne pepper, siracha and lots of rice wine vinegar and packed it in a tupperware.  Then it sat in my fridge for 8 months.  But, I tasted it last week and it had all the contrasts the head cheese would need with crunch, spiciness, and a little acidity.

So, on Super Bowl Sunday I ran the bottom of the loaf pan under hot water (brilliant call by a still horrified Kristi), flipped it upside down and tapped the head cheese out of the pan.

Cut it in half so that I could get this shot and also to send half to Cambridge with Dupee so he could share it with our friends on the wrong side of the river. Oh, and ruin the day for my vegetarian friend Taylor

As everyone arrived, I pulled the slab of head cheese out of the fridge and cut a couple slices off expecting the usual; Conor and I eat a bunch of it and Buschy has a tiny taste with his eyes closed.  Until I tasted it on some toasted bread and was a little surprised.

The texture was creamy, but not in a bad way; just different from what I expected since the tongue, cheek, and bacon played a prominent role.  The flavor was surprisingly good; not too strongly funky, just rich lamb-like flavor complimented well by the mint and sweetness from the wine & carrots.  And that was before I put on a spoonful of the chopped kimchi.

Still in disbelief that not only did this end up being eaten instead of thrown out, but it ended up playing a crucial part in some deliciously unique food too

The kimchi pushed it over the top.  All of the contrasts I noted before worked perfectly without overpowering the flavor of the head cheese.   More amazingly, it made the head cheese look appetizing to people besides Conor and I.  Against all expectations, everyone except Kristi (traumatized) ended up trying it and most had seconds or thirds.  I only ended up throwing away two small slivers!

The white is the brain. That wasn't how I pitched it to people. Also, toasted bread was just to sound like I actually present things elegantly. It was actually toasted, thin-sliced, day-old everything bagels from the bakery department at Stop and Shop. Giant bag for $1.99 was tough to refuse

One of the best parts of writing this blog is that it has forced me to experiment a lot with building flavors and working with meat I’ve never handled before.  It’s pretty awesome when it works out that I can transform something no one would try on their own into tasty food that people eat seconds of.  Another best part is that I can normally get them to eat it before posting and letting them know what they really ate.  I am an ass.

Next week, the rest of what was served at the Super Bowl party and particularly my cabrito sliders.  It was a “no animal left behind” theme and we covered goat, venison, pork, chicken, and lamb.  Not too shabby.

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Weird Crap I Eat: Everything Morocco

As discussed in the previous post, Morocco is an incredible place for looking at food.  It’s also a great place to eat, and I like to eat.  So this entry is about the eating, and a little bit of the travels.

After an overnight direct flight from JFK we landed in Casablanca and had a brief layover before hopping on a train to Fes which was about three hours away.   Because we hadn’t eaten since the previous night, I was hungry but hoping to hold out for grilled meat somewhere.  So we started with some coffee, croissants, mint tea, and banana milk.

Good start to the day and trip, except for that goddamned book. Zach's questions to our guides and regular lengthy references to it throughout the trip threatened my sanity. I threatened everyone else's by talking about food for 23 hours out of the day

Mint tea is served as a greeting everywhere you go in Morocco.  It’s black tea, fresh mint leaves, and a few cubes of sugar steeped together.  Always served from a silver teapot into glasses instead of ceramic mugs.  It’s sweetness and warmth were welcome due to the chilly temperatures at the time we visited.

En route to Fes, the landscape was not what I expected at all; lots of rolling green hills with delicious animals grazing on them.

"G-L-A-M... O-R-OUS, Riding first classsss, up on the tracks" or something like that. We bought first class train tickets. They were ten dollars

After arriving in Fes, we took a cab to our riad and discovered that, since it was Friday, most of the medina was shut down.  I was starving and devastated.  So we headed to the souk in the new section of Fes and I prayed to find something edible there.  Luckily, shortly after exiting the cab, I saw some locals hanging around a counter with this behind the glass.

I was deliriously hungry and incredibly excited to find this place, but this glass case didn't appear refrigerated

Sure there was chicken, lamb kefta, and beef, but that skewer of liver looked too good to pass up.  Or was it kidney?  The dude running the stall responded to that question (asked in English) by mooing at me.  Glad we got that straightened out.

I ordered 4 skewers for 10 dihram (or $1.25) grilled and served inside half a loaf of khobz and sprinkled with cumin, salt, paprika and some sort of chili pepper.

Took a few bites before I remembered to take the photo. Was too excited to eat

I decided it was liver, despite having a little bit of crunch to it which was unexpected.  The best and most flavorful bites were the ones that included the one piece of fat on each skewer which you may have noticed in the previous picture.  Overall, I though the liver had a surprisingly mild flavor and the sandwich was very tasty if a little dry.  Danny disagreed with my assessment when he tasted it, so I guess i just like liver.

To get that taste out of his mouth, we found a guy who was cooking small links of merguez sausage inside the souk.

Tiny charcoal grill that he fans heavily with a piece of cardboard to get heated up anytime someone orders

This was served identically to the liver: pulled off the skewers into a half loaf of local bread.  Danny and Zach both ate it without complaint, but it was definitely a little funky.  The sausage was mainly blood and fat and tasted like it, but for a dollar on the street we didn’t expect much more than that.

After picking up Jae at the train station, we headed out for dinner where I had my first tagine.  Tagine is a ceramic dish with a cone-like top, but its also a style of food; basically a one pot slow cooked meal.  It was a little subpar.

I will never understand why I can't take an in-focus picture in a reasonably well-lit room. Superzoom is great, but that blurry photo option that I can't turn off annoys me

Whole slices of salted preserved lemon rinds, un-pitted olives, and a half chicken all cooked together.  If the tagine had a bed of couscous, it would have been a hundred times better, but instead it was just a lot of strong flavors with nothing neutral to absorb them.  Oh well, we quickly learned that restaurants weren’t where you found the best food.

The next day Mohammed, our previously discussed guide for the day, brought us to a restaurant inside the medina for lunch.  We knew we were being pulled into a tourist trap owned by Mohammed’s buddies, but the food ended up being relatively decent.  We were started off with a bunch of small cold appetizers which you piled up on local bread.

Everything was vegetarian and pretty good, but glad to see I am not the only one who doesn't like lentils

The main event for me, and something Mohammed promised me I would be able to order, was pigeon pastilla, or pigeon pie.

Didn't expect the dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Reminded me of how shocked I was when the Monte Cristo sandwich I ordered at The Office in Bridgewater, NJ when I was twelve came out with powdered sugar on it

The pastilla was in an individual portion size and was basically a pastry filled with pigeon meat (some still on the bone), nuts, eggs, and spices.

Just a pigeon donut

The tiny bones were annoying.  Some were soft enough to easily chew, but others had to be fished out in the mouth and removed.  I was getting more comfortable with this process from my time in China, but it made for a less enjoyable experience.  The flavor of the spices and pigeon meat was great, though.

The next day we took a minibus to Merzouga on the fringe of the Sahara desert where we planned to ride camels into the desert and stay in a Berber camp for the night.  Which we did.

This was about the point that we were all shifting uncomfortably and wondering if everyone else's groin region was in as much excruciating pain as ours. Which was the entire time. Also, your DB is the second one from the back

Camels are deceptively tall, extremely wide around the midsection, pretty cranky, and carry a unique odor.  Which meant we had a lot in common.  Camels are also remarkably comfortable with carrying over 200 pounds of DB on their back over steep dunes on shifting sand.

I know this isn't food related, but its an awesome picture. That's the head of my camel, which I named Sal. The camel in front was Zach's, which he named Richard. Both names were well chosen

Shortly after sunset, our camels completed their seven kilometer trip into the desert and dropped us off at the Berber camp where we would spend the night.

We were freaking exhausted from a long day and I was stunned by how comfortable and amazing this sleeping situation looked

Over in the main tent, which was about the same size, we waited anxiously for our guides to cook dinner since we ate an early lunch and hadn’t settled at camp until long after dark.  The first course of khobz and soup, that I think was made from bones, vegetables and pieces of lamb fat, was one of the most welcome and enjoyable eating experiences of my life.

I guessed it was just a vegetable soup until I got a nice big piece of tender lamb fat

I inhaled this soup due to hunger but it was definitely good. Not an overwhelming amount of saltiness, and the occasional white blob of fat that gave the soup it’s meaty flavor.  Next up was a tagine of chicken, root vegetables, and couscous.

Civilized Jae with his fork and plate, everyone else used the bread to reach in and grab bits of food

The chicken was a half bird with heart and liver still attached to the ribs.  Pretty strong tasting, but a great meal to put us all to sleep.

We woke with the sunrise to head out of the desert.

Souvenirs from the desert included about 400 photos, a plastic water bottle filled with sand, and the privilege of still finding the distinct red sand in random pockets of my backpack to this day

Over the next two days we made our way to Marrakech at a leisurely pace.  We stopped often to take in amazing sights like the Dades Valley and gorges, the High Atlas mountains, Ait Benhaddou, and the film studio at Ouarzazate.  I also got pretty sick of eating tagines and looked forward to the food that Marrakech would have to offer.  It didn’t disappoint.

The main square in Marrakech is called Djemaa el Fna.  You should have seen how I spelled that before googling it; it looked like I sat on the keyboard.  During the day it’s mostly street performances along with dates, juice, and spice vendors.

Nuts, dates, and dried fruit

Fresh OJ. Really good, especially since we were all run down and needed the vitamin C

Spices

Its a pretty intimidating place because its huge and there is constantly someone trying to sell you something or throwing some sort of animal on you.

Thank you sir, but my glasses are now crooked

You take a couple pictures with said animal, and then pay the guy ten dihram so that he doesn’t tell the animal to rip your eyes out.  I got lucky; Danny had a giant snake thrown onto his shoulders, which would have ruined my jeans and given me nightmares for a few months.

Around sunset the food vendors hit the square.  Each food stall is numbered and is basically an outdoor restaurant with tables and chairs

It was drizzling that night, hence the covers around the food stalls

I had seen shows about this and was extremely excited for the tremendous amount of new eating experiences that I would be able to choose from.  Right after we arrived the first night, I hit one of the many snail stalls.

I was a little apprehensive due to the allergic history, but it also smelled good and I was hungry

The cooking liquid is loaded with spices and bay leaves and has a flavor that mixes shellfish saltiness with sweet and spicy.  The broth is considered to have medicinal qualities and many people pay one dihram for a bowl of just liquid.  I went for the 5 dihram small bowl of snails.

They looked pretty funky as you pulled them out using toothpicks but by this point I was getting pretty good at it

The snails were very tender and had good flavor.  Considering that a small bowl had 12 of them, I can’t imagine eating a large bowl which was more than double the size for 10 dihram.

If you like french-style escargot, you might not like this since it doesn’t have the butter and garlic that makes escargot great.  However, it is a good reference point that 12 snails cost about 60 cents vs. the $15 you’d pay for 6 in a French restaurant.  Also, no allergic reaction, guess that allergy might have gone away.

We ate dinner at a funny nightclub that featured people dressed like sailors and Michael Jackson impersonators that sounded out the lyrics to entire songs.  First odd item of the following day was this fruit.

No idea what these are...

The guy on the far right would cut into the hard outer shell and pop out a round ball that looked like, and had the staining potential of, a cooked beet.

...which of course didn't slow me down

It also had the texture of a cooked beet with a couple small seeds and a mild sweet and sour flavor.  If you know what that fruit is, please comment.

After walking around for about 6 hours and heading back to the hotel to shower and take naps, we were ready to hit the square for dinner.  The previous night I saw one particular food item that really scared me but seemed like a unique experience.  My apologies to the squeamish, but I was looking forward to trying sheep’s brains.

I was legitimately trembling with adrenaline and fear when I took this picture

I ordered and watched as they quickly poached the brains, cut them, and put them on a plate with some cheek meat from the sheeps head (just to the right of the brains in the picture).  They added a piece of bread dipped into the poaching liquid as well.

Thanks for the picture Danny. That piece of bread was as sticky as it looks in the picture

The first bite didn’t go so well.  I ate it completely unadorned and as I was chewing/getting an idea of the texture I started thinking a little too hard about what I was eating.  The texture is creamy, and the flavor is mildly lamb-like and livery.  I had to take a little pause, eat some cheek meat and drink some water.  The next bite was much better and led me to take several more, since I figured out the importance of a sprinkle of cumin salt and wrapping in a piece of dry bread.

Ma Dowley won't be calling the local Connecticut radio station on my behalf; cleaning my plate wasn't going to happen

The dipped bread was really the funkiest part.  It tasted fine, but stuck to my fingers and teeth and anything that came into contact with it.  Time to move on.

The diners shown here must have been ecstatic when the annoying Americans got up, stopped taking pictures and let them enjoy their dinner. Which was steamed sheep head and brains

We headed over to stall #1 which was by far the most packed and is noted on travel sites as having the best food on the square.

I welcomed normal food and avoided the stuffed organ meat they offered

You pick your meat or side dishes and they grab a few skewers and throw them onto the grill.  The eggplant and grilled sweet potato balls were really awesome, and all of the meat was fresh and had nice flavor.

Finally, desert:

This was recommended to us by the riad owner, so we had to try it

The cake has a pleasantly mealy texture (if that’s possible) and tasted like it was entirely made of cinnamon.  The tea was very heavily spiced, almost to the point of being spicy.  Each of these on their own wasn’t that great, but when you took a bite of the cake followed by a sip of the tea, it was actually pretty tasty and unique.

If you are somehow still reading this post, I will wrap it up with one last meal that also happened to be our best.  On the last day, we finally found an alley that is nicknamed Meshwi alley and arrived right at noon when they opened up.  Meshwi is lamb that is hung vertically in an underground clay oven to cook whole.  Just as we arrived, the first lamb of the day hit the table.

This smelled and looked sooooooo good

As we stepped up, the cook took a couple small crispy pieces from the shoulder and gave them to each of us to sample.  A truly ridiculous piece of food.  Crispy and salty outside and incredibly tender inside.  We ordered a half kilo which he took from all areas of the lamb and lead us to a table behind the stall where we could sit and eat.

After one bite Jae got up and ordered another half kilo

As we walked to the table, we stepped over the lid to the underground clay oven.  The cook was nice enough to take the lid off and show us the inside.

Lot of heat coming out of this. The buckets are filled with the meat that was taken off the lamb we were eating and kept warm in the oven for people who weren't as punctual as us

Right as we finished up our meal, the butcher showed up with a fresh lamb that he prepared for cooking.  I was completely mesmerized by how quickly and precisely this guy worked.

This dude split a whole lamb perfectly down the center of the spine using only a machete, while wearing designer jeans, sunglasses, and a leather jacket. I think his website is mohammedisadb.com

As he finished binding the lamb around the metal hook that it would hang from in the oven, he cut two slits at the shoulder joints and stuffed balls of fat into both openings.  Explains how the meat stays moist throughout cooking.

Probably been done this way for over a thousand years, but with less panache. The bundle of fat is visible in the opening made by the shoulder joint

And that was it.  We went to a fantasia show for dinner (think Moroccan Medieval Times) and then I boarded a plane for home the next morning.

Sorry for the long post, wanted to give some context along the way by showing what we did and there was a lot of amazing food to cover.  Will be back to cooking my own food for next week’s post.