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Let’s talk about head cheese, that lonely part of the charcuterie board that tends to gather dust on restaurant tables. Why is that exactly? What are we nervous about when it comes to pig-head parts suspended in aspic?
Allow me to answer my own semi-rhetorical question: I think it’s all about the ears and those thin strips of crunchy cartilage that run throughout the organ. Unlike many Asian cultures, Americans seem to have an aversion to the crunchy-gelatinous texture of pig ears. The texture (not to mention the shape of the organ, should it be left in place) tend to remind us that we’re actually eating an animal.
This, no doubt, grosses out the average diner, who prefers to eat meat without any outward signs that an animal sacrificed its life for the meal.
If this is indeed your hang up about head cheese, you need to (ahem) head over to Poste Moderne Brasserie, where chef Rob Weland has developed a recipe that treats pig’s ears more as a garnish. It’s an ingenuous approach that provides the crunch you expect but not from the actual offal meat suspended in gelatin. Weland adds crunch by slicing the ears thinly and deep-frying them; he then garnishes his head cheese with a small tangle of these fried pig-ear strips, as if they were rounds of crispy shallots.
It makes for one of the most approachable (and delicious) plates of head cheese in the area.
Weland’s head cheese is an outgrowth of his Poste Roasts, and it’s different than some of the other versions around town. Both Jamie Leeds at CommonWealth GastroPub and R.J. Cooper at Vidalia tend to braise and/or confit the head meat before adding spices and other ingredients and pressing the mixture into terrines with added gelatin, natural or otherwise.
By contrast, Weland simmers pig cheeks, tongue, snout, bones, and even trotters with spices and a splash of vinegar until the mixture is thick and golden and gelatinous. Weland doesn’t add any gelatin; the bones and meat provide enough to set the meat in place. He’ll plate his head cheese atop a simple sauce gribiche and then sprinkle it with those fried pig-ear garnishes.
It has everything you could want with a plate of head cheese — a rich succulent serving of savory pork, a good hit of acid, and that tell-tale crunch of cartilage. The dish is also so attractively plated you may not know you’re eating head cheese, particularly if Weland calls it a “terrine of suckling pig,” as he sometimes does when serving it as part of his 20 Bites menu at the Poste kitchen counter.
“I’m not afraid of the word ‘head cheese,'” Weland insists. In fact, ever since he started his Poste Roasts, the chef argues that “people really want to eat the unusual parts…People are going for this.”
Which would seem to indicate that nose-to-tail eating is catching on. I don’t doubt that it’s trendier than it once was, but I’ll only believe the whole-animal hype once all chefs can proudly announce they’re serving head cheese on their menu, not a terrine of suckling pig or some other clever description.