We've already showed you where you can find some of the most delicious offal in metro Phoenix, but don't worry, the fun doesn't stop there. This week Chow Bella ventured into the kitchen with chef James Porter of Scottsdale's Petite Maison restaurant as they gear up for their annual Halloween Offal Dinner. As always the menu includes head cheese, a classic dish found in cultures all over the world. And we got to help make some.
Though the name implies head cheese is, well, a cheese, it's actually a cold cut — or more accurately, a meat jelly made from an animal head and other body parts like feet and heart. It sounds pretty yucky (trust us, we know) but at its root this dish is about history, tradition and sustainability.
As chef Porter explains, throughout history head cheese was a way to ensure no part of an animal got wasted.
"If a farmer raised an pig or a cow, he wouldn't just say, 'I want the short ribs,' and throw the rest away," he says.
And in most other countries, eating only "the beauty cuts" as Porter calls them, would be an unthinkable and wasteful practice. Plus from a culinary standpoint, Porter says doing so overlooks some of the animal's tastiest parts. Body parts that "move around a lot" (like tails, for example) pack a lot of flavor, Porter says, but require more complex preparation than just being thrown on a grill.
Just because Americans don't tend to think of head cheese as typical sandwich meat, doesn't mean it's a foreign idea to everyone else. Many countries' cuisines include a variation of meat terrine. While France calls theirs head cheese, or fromage de tête, Germany calls their similar dish sülze, schwartenmagen or presskopf. You can find other riffs in countries as disparate as Russia, Brazil, Spain and Sweden.
The head cheese-making process, which is surpringly straight-froward, begins with a trip to the grocery to pick up ingredients. We went to Ranch Market to get a pig's head and a few other cuts. We included four pig trotters (feet), a couple hearts and some tails in our head cheese.
Chef Porter then cooks his meat in a pressure cooker for an hour to an hour and a half with water, bay leaves and thyme. If you're making head cheese at home you can also just boil the meats in water for four hours. You'll get less flavor than with a pressure cooker, but also eliminate the chances of an explosion should a mishap occur.
When it's all cooked you'll have a fragrant pot of tender meat, fat and bones. Pull the meat pieces out, leaving behind the meat broth for other uses. You can dump the whole meat mixture onto a paper lined tray and then begin the process of picking out the bones and fat that you don't want in your cheese. Some fat is good and adds to the flavor, but since the dish will be eaten cold or at room temperature, you want to make sure that there's not too much. Otherwise people will be gnawing on cold chunks of fat.
It's up to you how much you want to break down the meat, but part of the art of making head cheese comes in the creation of mosaic-like layers. To achieve that effect you'll want some larger chunks in the mix, Porter says. He likes to leave his meat about the consistency of "burrito meat."
Up to this point we haven't added any seasonings, so next chef Porter brings in the building blocks of flavor. To balance out all the fat in the meats he uses French Banyuls vinegar for acidity and smoked salt to add salinity. Porter also likes to add some fennel pollen.
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Once the seasonings have been incorporated it's time to start layering the pieces of meat in a loaf pan. There's an art to it, Porter says, which also means there's no "wrong way" to do it. Some people like to put down a layer of meat and then a layer of meat stock, let it set in the fridge, and then top it with another layer of meat. That's a way to create clearly defined layers that would be visible once the head cheese is cut.
Chef Porter goes the simple route, laying down the meats and then topping the whole thing off with the rich stock at the end. He uses the tongues as a centerpiece for the dish by arranging them down the middle of the pan. Porter also uses a spoon to puncture the loaf at the end of the layering, to ensure that the stock can reach all the way to the bottom of the loaf.
Then the pan is refrigerated for a day, to allow the fat and stock to harden and turn the head cheese in a flavor-packed gelatinous loaf. You should serve head cheese at room temperature, Porter says, with pickled cornichons, mustard and toasted baguette.
After seeing the process first hand it's easy to see how rustic this dish really is and understanding the simple preparation makes head cheese much more approachable than the name implies. Head to tail eating doesn't get much more basic than with head cheese, which uses nearly every part of the animal's head besides the eye and brain. Smelling the unctuous meats and rich broth makes it impossible to believe this dish could be anything but delicious.