29 October 2009


A savory Cornish-style pasty turns a bleak, ill-humored day and resolves its blurred memories of unwellness into a well-fed, content family, despite the grey-edged rain upon rain.
I've got half a pan of headcheese and I want to eat it with everything, so I made a rich crust with a stick of butter and a big spoonful of rendered duck fat.  No need for salt because this duck fat was already used to make confit.  I divided the dough into five discs of unequal sizes and chilled it while I prepared the filling.
I also had a small plastic bag with kidneys and hearts that I wanted to use, so I cut them up and sauteed them with an onion and a little more duck fat.  A few tablespoons of brandy started sizzling and I scraped up the little meaty bits on the pan.  I still have a lot of thick, gelatinous stock from the headcheese, so I added a few hunks to the kidneys and let it cook down.
After peeling and slicing a few potatoes and an onion (we didn't have any turnips, another common ingredient,) the pasties were ready to be filled.  I rolled the dough into 5" - 8" circles, and put in a bit of 'taters and onions, as well as a crumbled slice of headcheese.  My wife and I got the kidneys and hearts, too, and the pasties were folded over and sealed, the once-open edge rounded up to keep any liquid from escaping. Head cheese is great for making pasties because of the gelatin that softens into a rich, flavorful broth in the oven.  Halfway through the hour-long cooking, I used a funnel to pour a bit more of the rich stock into each half-moon pasty, sealed all around its edges.
A rich, flaky crust with a piping hot interior was the result, and everyone loved the novelty and the taste.  Diced and shredded pork - and that's essentially what headcheese is - is a fantastic filling for a pasty like this.   And the gravy that keeps everything moist and enriches the crust?  I'll be making this again soon.

27 October 2009


There’s no avoiding the bad name; maybe Americans should look abroad and consider brawn, souse, or fromage de tĂȘte, syltty or huspenina, as it’s known in some of the lands of our parents and grandparents. Headcheese sounds like it’s made with mucus or boogers, and the name has somehow come into American English as a real unknown. What is it and why did people ever make it? Does anyone even care to know what it is, outside of the handful of bloggers who populate the internet and drive the search engines to their sites? You might even think I’ve moved away from my love of food and am searching for food with a shock value.
If you or I walked into a nice restaurant and saw Cheek Medallions from Berkshire Pig with Juniper Berries and Port Wine Cranberry Glaze we wouldn’t think twice about it, except to wonder if we should order it. But say headcheese and most people will cringe, even while admitting they don’t know what it is and don’t care to know; they assume it’s gross.

I made headcheese this weekend because I bought a pig and it had a head. Sure, I asked the guy at the meat locker not to grind it up, and I asked for the feet as well, but only because they’re part of the pig. Unlike restaurant food, which a chef can create from disparate ingredients and sources, headcheese comes from a tradition rooted in seasonality and culture. In cultures where families still raise a pig each year, headcheese is still being made. Look to any of the poorer European countries, from Moldova and Serbia to rural districts of wealthier countries like Italy and France, and you’ll find headcheese and its local variants. And headcheese isn’t eaten as penance, either; it’s a delectable way to get at the flavorful bits of head meat – imagine a concentrated combination of pulled pork and pot roast.
A head, with the brains removed, is soaked in a salt brine overnight, along with the pig’s feet. Next day the brine is dumped and the meat is cooked at a low simmer for several hours, along with bay leaves, peppercorns, juniper berries, and typical soup stock ingredients like carrots, celery, and onions. When the meat is fall-from-the-bone tender, remove it from the heat and let it cool. When you can handle the meat, separate it from the bones and fat. Strain the stock and boil to reduce by about a third to a half. The feet add huge amounts of gelatin to the stock, which makes the traditional aspic of headcheese a breeze to make.
Because headcheese is refrigerated, it’s important to season it heavily, so the flavors come through the cold. I added salt, marjoram, and re-hydrated a quarter-cup of wild mushrooms. Headcheese in many places call for vinegar, bringing to mind hasenfeffer and jugged hare. I used a saucier and kept reducing the already-rich stock, tasting as I went to ensure a strong flavor. I then put the meat into a Pyrex glass loaf and poured the flavored stock until it covered the meat, covered it with plastic wrap, and put it in the icebox. We ate it yesterday (and today) at lunch with a slice of bread and a gob of mustard.
There’s no reason headcheese couldn’t be warmed up so the aspic melts, and served with egg noodles. In fact, if you’ve eaten rillettes in a French bistro, you’re pretty close to headcheese, except that headcheese doesn’t have as much fat as the rillettes.
My guess is that headcheese is still popular where pigs are butchered on the farm because the process is so well understood. American consumers are suspicious of headcheese because our meat comes from huge factories and we don’t know anything about them. So, while Americans will buy millions of pounds of ground hamburger from unknown sources, few of us will eat headcheese. Is it because of the name or our suspicion of meat factories? If you know where your pig was raised and slaughtered, headcheese is an obvious addition to your repertoire of pork dishes.

26 October 2009

Sometimes I just want to think about food

I mess up in the kitchen as often as I succeed.  My food isn’t always pretty and sometimes it’s too much of the same – some kind of stew with meat and beans.  And too often I cook a dish but not a meal – delicious pasta but nothing else, and I have to scramble to make the meal complete, heating up frozen peas so we have a vegetable to eat.

Most nights I eat a bowl of cereal before bed – Shredded Wheat on the bottom, Corn Chex in the middle, and Kix on top.  A light shines onto the counter where I sit; the rest of the kitchen is in puddled darkness.  If I don’t read a cereal box I like to leaf through the pages of a cookbook and think about recipes.  There’s clarity late at night when the house is quiet and the incipient rumblings in my stomach are quieted.  Sometimes I just want to think about food.

20 October 2009


Have I said how much I enjoy cooking with my children? Last weekend was a long one and we spent some of that time in the kitchen. First we made pasta, and all three kids took turns putting the dough through the rollers, cranking the handle, and gently guiding the pasta with open palms. With pasta hanging over chair backs we decided to make sausage with our new grinder.

I had already cut and seasoned a big hunk of pork shoulder butt; it was my kids’ muscle power that I needed now. Pulling all the sausage-making equipment out of the freezer, we set up on the counter and began grinding. Grinding was tough at times and they switched off regularly, watching the new-cut pork extrude out of the die holes. Once ground, we put everything back into the freezer while we cleaned up the area.

I took the hog casings from the bowl where they were soaking and ran water through them, causing the kids to laugh aloud as they inflated.  If you haven’t seen hog casings before, they look pretty ugly in the bag. After all, they’re the lining of hog intestines, a light but very strong membrane. Packed in salt, they’re shriveled and kind of smelly. After soaking in water they become pliable and slippery, and when you run water through them you can see where condom makers found their raw materials in the pre-latex days.

Once the now-enlarged casings are put onto the end of the sausage stuffer, the real sausage making can commence. Making sausage is as easy as cranking the stuffer and getting a rhythm so the meat is extruded and the casing is extended at a consistent rate. We had a few wobbly moments when we pulled on the casing faster than the meat was filling it, causing irregular-looking sausages. Another time the casing didn’t move as quickly as the meat, resulting in a few blimp-type sausages. But all-in-all, the twenty or so sausages were not very different from the ones you find in the store. Except for the taste.

Pork shoulder, salt, pepper, garlic, and white wine: a simple, unadorned sausage. With endless cold, wet weather, we opted for the fry pan to cook them. A dab of butter in a heavy, enameled cast-iron fry pan, and an easy, medium flame. A few minutes to brown the sides, and about ten minutes with a lid, and they were ready to eat. I added a heap of sauerkraut to the pan and quickly braised the fermented dream-cabbage in the browned bits of sausage residue. On the burner to the left, boiled potatoes. Put it all together and that’s a happy meal!

11 October 2009

Onion tart

Winter weather has arrived too early, a days-long deep freeze that ended the gardening season quicker than the Yankees dispatched the Twins, alas.  So, for a school potluck this evening, I thought an onion tart would be good.  My daughter thought otherwise - she wanted me to bake a dessert, and when I told her what I was making she complained, "Aww, only the adults are going to like it!"
I love how much onions change when they're slow cooked, and a good tart showcases them perfectly.  Tarts are good for an appetizer, a first course, or an easy dinner, and depending on what kind of pan or tray they're cooked in, they can be elegant or rustic.  I use a bit of whole wheat flour in the crust so it has a nice color and texture.  Cooking the onions takes a bit of time, but the recipe is pretty simple.

1 cup unbleached flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons duck fat
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
ice water

Mix flours in bowl, add salt and fats, mix with fingertips until pebble-sized.  Add egg and mix.  Add enough ice-cold water to hold dough together, mixing long enough before further additions of water to ensure that liquid is absorbed and distributed through flour.  Form into ball, flatten slightly, wrap in plastic (I put it into a sandwich baggie) and refrigerate.

3-4 tablespoons butter
3-4 large onions
pinch saffron
salt and pepper
2 eggs
3 tablespoons sour cream

Melt butter over low heat in cast iron or other heavy-bottomed pan.  Add thinly sliced onions and cook until soft, stirring occasionally, thirty minutes or longer.  Crush saffron threads and mix with a little hot water.  After onions have softened and the exuded liquid begins to evaporate, add the saffron and mix well.  Add salt and pepper.  When all the liquid is gone and the onions glisten with butter and feel thick, turn off burner and remove from heat and allow to cool. If you're in a hurry, put in refrigerator (or out the back door, if it's October in Minnesota!)

Preheat oven to 375°F.
Sprinkle flour onto your rolling surface and flatten your dough a little.  When a ball of dough it first rolled out the edges sometimes begin to break and separate; I use my hands to keep the edges together and whole, the way a potter centers a new hunk of clay.  Roll the dough to fit the pan; I use a standard tart pan with a fluted edge and removable bottom.   Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with a little cornmeal and fit the dough into the pan.

Put cooled onion mixture into bowl and add 2 beaten eggs.  Mix well.  Add sour cream and mix in.  Pour/scrape onion mixture into tart pan, using fork to spread evenly.  Bake for about one hour, or until top begins to brown slightly.  The tart can be served at almost any temperature.  If served as part of a sit-down dinner, it can be served hot - forks will be needed.  As an appetizer or potluck contribution, serve at room temperature so it holds its shape and can be stacked up next to a good Minnesota hotdish or macaroni salad.