Thursday, December 10, 2009

Eating a Pig's Head: Testa

There are plenty of reasons not to cook a pig's head; I don't eat much meat anymore, and with so many other disembodied parts of the animal available, it's easy to avoid.

Most of us don't want to be reminded that meat comes from animals. Grocery chains don't display animal heads in their meat cases, judging that sales would drop after they made explicit the connection between pork chop and pig snout. How to square this with the fact that people have been eating heads as long as we've been eating meat?

Before I walk you through this, a Public Service ad: If you're eating the pork chop I think you should eat the head. Though I've eaten pork my whole life, I've only cooked one head; I'm glad I did. So now, with all the zeal of the recently converted, I hope that after reading this post you'll do the same.

[I'd like to note that there are no graphic slaughter pictures in this post. There is a picture of a cooked pigs head further down the page. At the very end there is an embedded slide show that contains 4 pictures of the head as it came to me from the slaughterhouse.]


After watching a pig butchering demo given by Rob at Mado Restaurant in Chicago, I decided to make testa/headcheese. Mado's supplier, Slagel Family Farms, sells ethically raised and slaughtered pork. Better still they'll deliver it "free" to Mado, only a quarter mile from my house. You can find like-minded farmers near you by searching EatWild.

I've never cooked a pig's head before. Once I decided to butcher and use every part of the pig, figuring out how to use the head was the next big step.

Cookbooks and websites cover it in some detail, though none of them prepared me for the shock of opening the cardboard box I picked up at Mado. There's nothing I can say, or show you, that could get the rawness across. It's one of those things you'll have to experience yourself.

Here are a couple of ideas on how to prepare the head:
A careful deboning of the head prior to cooking gives you a single sheet of meat that you can roll up in cheesecloth and braise. Once it's finished cooking, re-wrap it in fresh cheesecloth and hang in the fridge overnight to firm up.

From there you have a couple of options:

One is to slice very thin cross sections and arrange them on a plate to serve as an appetizer, as you would prosciutto or other cured meat.

Another is to cut the roll in 1" slices, moisten with dijon mustard, coat in bread crumbs and then sauté in oil until crispy.

Chris Consentino has six short youtube videos showing what else you can do with a pig's head. Knowing that it's possible to eat poached and then sautéd brains with scrambled eggs is enough for me right now. I don't need to try it. Maybe down the road.
Mike Gebert made a terrific video featuring Mado's testa. You can pick up some useful hints from it; even if you have no intention of making testa its worth watching.

Sky Full of Bacon 04: A Head's Tale from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.


With all this in mind, I came up with a plan. I combined the recipes of Paul Bertolli, Michael Ruhlman and Rob Levitt of Mado. (Someone thinking along the same lines posted his recipe here.) After simmering the head with a couple of trotters, aromatics, herbs and spices for 3 hours, the meat falls off the bone and the poaching liquid has absorbed not only the gelatin from the pig parts, but all of the flavor as well.

You shred the meat and dice the cooked tongue, yielding about 2 pounds of meat. These morsels are drizzled with reduced stock and then chilled overnight in terrine pans or improvised molds.

Below are the two slightly different types of testa I made, ready to be served. In order to form a compact roll, I had to squeeze the air out, that in turn forced out almost all the stock out as well. The stock was poured on top of the meat in the smaller rectangular terrines, filling the voids nicely.

It is very rich, and packed with flavor. The word "headcheese" has all sorts of horrible connotations. What I made has no negatives: No unpalatable textures or tastes. It is delicious.
The pig's head and two trotters cost $20. From that I was able to make testa (serving about 15 appetizer portions), a half pound of cracklings from the skin, 7 quarts of intensely flavored gelatinous stock, and a half pound of rendered pork fat.
Click through this slide show to see the entire process. Photos #3-6 show what the pig's head looks like straight from the slaughterhouse. I hope after the initial discomfort of viewing the pictures wears off you'll go back and look at them again. I know I have.