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Brawn But No Brains

Brawn on toast with mustard and cornichons

Brawn on toast with mustard and cornichons

I try to be polite so when I was invited to an open house recently I asked what I could bring.  The hostess responded to my email by writing: “Sure we would love if you brought something yummy… anything surprise us!”  Anything?  Really?  Sounded like a challenge to me.

To pacify the less adventurous eaters at the party I made a batch of the Julia chicken liver mousse.  Just as it was at Hallowe’en this pate was very popular. An aside: Party guests seemed oddly polite about not moving (or eating) the sage leaf garnish in one corner of the bowl.  They went as far as to excavate mousse from underneath the sage.  Chicken liver mousse is great but I’ve done that before and it’s not much of a challenge beater.  I knew of only one dish that would perfectly fit the bill, a terrine made from the parts of an entire pig’s head: brawn.

Let’s get the name thing out of the way right off the bat.  There is a good wikipedia page that details the world’s different names for (and variations on) this dish.  The French call it pâté de tête, the Italians go with coppa di testa–or even better testa in cassetta (head in a box)–and the British call it brawn.  Don’t these all sound more appetising than the North American headcheese?  I think they do.

Step one in this little adventure is finding a whole pig’s head.  This is not easily done, even here in multi-ethnic Toronto.  I hear that heads are routinely available from the pork butcher in the north building at the St. Lawrence Market but this part of the market is only open on Saturday morning and that didn’t fit my schedule.  Also, most standalone butchers are apparently willing and able to order whole pig’s heads but that also didn’t fit the schedule.  After trying No Frills and T&T (both reliable sources for other esoteric pig parts) and several conversations with meat counter employees that usually got to the point where I bridged the language barrier by pointing to my head I realised that I would have to find another option.  Instead of one whole head I bought many of the key pieces: one package pig’s ears (about four), two packages of tongues (six), four trotters (for their gelatin), and a fresh pork hock (for the fat and meat that I lost by not having the cheeks and jowls of the pig).

All the parts that stood in for a full head (l to r: vegetables, feet, ears, tongues, and butterflied hock)

All the parts that stood in for a full head (l to r: vegetables, feet, ears, tongues, and butterflied hock)

For a recipe I turned to the godfather of odds-and-ends meat cuisine Fergus Henderson and adapted my recipe from his that can be found in The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.

Porcine hot tub

Porcine hot tub

All of the pig parts go into a deep stockpot along with two onions, carrots, green onions, and stalks of celery, all very roughly chopped.  I omitted the two heads of garlic because I know one of the party guests has a fierce allergy to garlic.  A bundle with as many of the fresh herbs from the Simon & Garfunkel quartet as you have on hand (I was missing only parsley), say two to three sprigs, each also go in.  Along with two bay leaves, two glugs of red wine vinegar, and a cheesecloth package containing a scant handful of black peppercorns.  Cover, bring to a boil and then reduce to a very gentle simmer.

Some of that is water but most of it is skimmed scum

Some of that is water but most of it is skimmed scum

This really needs to be skimmed as it simmers.  In fact, I have never seen a broth-making exercise create so much scummy froth.  It was absolutely amazing.  On one hand this somehow makes skimming easier but on the other it also makes it more critical.  Moving the pot slightly off-centre on the burner will cause the froth to collect on the cooler side.

After two and a half to three hours turn off the heat, strain the broth, discard the vegetables and reserve the meat.  Set the strained broth over medium-high heat and simmer while working with the meat until it has reduced in half.  I am not at all squeemish about cooking meat but those who are should be warned (and are probably already aware) that raw pig’s feet look pretty life-like.  The cooked tongues even more so.

Cooked foot on the left cooked tongue on the right

Cooked foot on the left cooked tongue on the right

Once all of the various pig pieces come out of the pot they need to be picked apart.  I think it’s easier to start with the tongues because, strangely they cool much faster than the feet.  The skin has to be removed from the tongues and as you work the exposed flesh will darken and it might become tough to visually identify the spots you have missed.  I worked by touch; the skin feels rough like your grandfather’s palm while the skinned sections feel like much softer and more pliable skin.  Cut the skinned meat into small (one centimetre) cubes.  If it seems difficult to cut the meat into such small cubes without turning it into mush let it cool a bit while you sharpen your knife.

Separate the hock meat from the skin and fat and cube the meat similarly to the tongue.  Pay particular attention to cutting across the grain.  Scrape the (extremely delicious) hock fat from the skin with the sharp side of your knife and cube it.  Slightly larger chunks of fat are acceptable because a knife will easily pass through them when the finished terrine is cut.

Picked meat and fat

Picked meat and fat

Tear the feet apart and dig out as much meat as you can find–there isn’t very much.  Gather all of the picked and cubed meat and fat in a bowl and gently stir to combine with your hands.

A saran-lined mold filled with meat that has been covered in reduced broth

A saran-lined mold filled with meat that has been covered in reduced broth

Line a terrine mold–or two regular loaf pans–with saran wrap.  Because the terrine won’t be cooked again the size and shape of the pan only really matters because it will affect the size and the shape of slices that can be cut once the terrine is unmolded.  Pour the meat into the pan, distribute it evenly along the length, and “fluff” it a bit with your fingers so that it is loosely packed.  Once the pork liquor has reduced by half (the “other” end of  a wooden spoon is ideal for measuring this) season it aggressively because it will be served cold and pour into the pans to just cover the meat.  Try to get the broth into all of the nooks and crannies but if need be gently slam the pan on the counter to remove air bubbles.  Don’t throw away any excess broth.  It will make just about any braise, soup, stew, or bean dish taste excellent.

The finished terrine

The finished terrine

Serve, preferably outdoors, on crackers or toasted baguette with grainy mustard, cornichons, chunks of dill pickle or, best of all, pickled carrots.  The set liquor was immnesely more flavourful and much less chewy than what store-bought pate comes covered in.  It seems like as it cools the meat draws moisture and savouriness from the broth and I don’t think I need to describe how good the chunks of hock fat tasted.  To me enjoying brawn is a matter of chewing strategy–the jelly must be given a moment to melt before the meat is chewed.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many people the brawn won over at the party.  I mischeviously gave my cousin’s three-year-old daughter a cracker with a slice of terrine on it.  She ate the pork and handed the cracker back for more.

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Posted in: Charcuterie, Entertaining, Meat.

4 Comments

  1. Elaine says:

    I grew up eating headcheese, and was always under the impression that it was Ukrainian peasant food. My mom always made it using pig’s feet and I never knew why it was called headcheese. Now I do.

    The only time I’ve seen it served in Alberta is at Ukrainian family and church functions, usually just as a side dish with salt and pepper. I didn’t realize it was so high class and international, haha. Thanks for the post.

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Hey Elaine,

    Thanks for commenting. A friend on facebook commented that she grew up eating headcheese as a Romanian dish. It seems that everything “peasanty” is vogue these days. I guess that some of the reason for this is just fashion–like clothes, food trends seem to need to rotate around the universe of possibilities–but I also think there is a taste reason behind the trend. Between health concerns and most consumers buying their meat shrink-wrapped from a grocery store instead of a local butcher quality in general and fat content in particular has fallen on premium cuts faster than price has. If porterhouse steak and centre-cut pork chops no longer have as much of a taste advantage over tongue (some particular) consumers won’t pay the premium.

    In my view the good ethical reason for eating headcheese is to remember that for every two pork tenderloins we eat there is a pig’s head.

    Cheers,
    -David.

  3. [...] (refrigerated) shelf life that makes them a good sort of semi-pantry item.  Also, leftover from my brawn experiment, I had about two cups of concentrated pork broth.  This stuff is food gold and I wish I had only [...]

  4. [...] I push the boundaries of what those I cook for will eat.  Pickled fish, lambs’ kidneys, and brawn all come to mind.  The beef heart was met with some raised eyebrows but also got just as many rave [...]

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