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