Having been exposed to headcheese at a young age through banh mi, I fortunately don’t have an aversion to it. I also have no qualms about handling a pig’s head as I’ve cooked with it in the past. Although I’ve used pig’s head for tamales, congee, and barbeque in the past, I’ve never made headcheese. This month’s CharcutePalooza challenge provided a great excuse to finally make some.
For the headcheese challenge, I wanted to focus on texture because headcheese typically lacks in that department. Placing some headcheese on top of a cracker didn’t sound very fun, so I thought about battering and deep frying pieces of headcheese. However, I wanted to preserve the integrity of the gelatin in the headcheese and prevent it from melting in the fryer. After all, where’s the fun in eating headcheese if it doesn’t have any gelatin?
The use of agar-agar came to mind as a way to keep the gelatin from melting under high heat. My mom used to make jasmine-coconut agar jelly when I was young, so working with agar wasn’t too foreign to me. The application of agar in a hot preparation, though, was a first. I already knew agar-based gelatins held their gel state at room temperature, and a little research revealed that agar-based gelatins melt at 85 Celsius. I decided to use agar threads as they’re readily available at most Asian grocers and 3 times cheaper than agar powder found online.
Since I received some negative responses about showing a pig’s head in previous head-related posts, I’ll spare readers the sight of the suckling pig’s head I bought from Marketplace Oakton. I feel pretty spoiled having suckling pig’s head so readily available and for only $0.99/lb. After poaching the head and separating the liquid, I added enough agar to bring the liquid to a 1% agar solution. I’m not sure how apparent it is in the picture above, but I think I added too much liquid to the mold.
During my research into how much agar to use per unit of liquid, I stumbled upon Grant Achatz’s pheasant with burning oak leaves and sweet potato with smoldering cinnamon stick recipes. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to eat at Alinea a few times, so I was familiar with the “tempura on a skewer that serves as an aroma source” style of preparation. It didn’t take long for me to realize that preparing the headcheese in a similar fashion would be interesting and fun.
When thinking about what to pair the headcheese with, I looked to classic combinations like pickles and mustard. Initially, I wasn’t sure what I’d use for the pickle, but upon seeing fresh parsley root at Marketplace Oakton I knew I had to use it. It was only natural to use the leaves in the poaching liquid and make a quick pickle out of the roots.
The previous week I worked with doenjang (a fermented soybean paste akin to miso) for the first time and made some doenjang jigae. Being on somewhat of a doenjang binge and with mustard on my mind, I was reminded of my cousin’s miso salad dressing I had as a kid. The miso salad dressing tasted like honey mustard, so I figured an agar-based doenjang mustard gel would work nicely.
A common element between the mustard, pickled parsley root, and headcheese was allspice. Since allspice and cinnamon go hand in hand, the choice of a cinnamon stick skewer made sense. The tempura batter specified by Achatz was super light and when fried provided a nice crispy texture. Using a blowtorch, I set the top of the cinnamon stick ablaze to release its aroma.
To plate the bite, I used an old wire whisk (a great idea from Martin over at Alineaphile) to achieve some semblance of the original served at Alinea that comes nestled in the “squid” by Crucial Detail. The squid is “designed to hold a delicate course in an upright position. Six thin wires distribute weight evenly and allow air flow around the dish.”
Overall, the tempura headcheese was a success and a lot of fun to research and implement. Deep frying headcheese and having the gelatin not melt tickled me pretty good. I also achieved my goal of highlighting texture for this challenge. The fried tempura batter provided crispiness and the pickled parsley root provided crunchiness. Everything worked from a flavor standpoint as well. The combination of headcheese, pickle, and mustard was immediately familiar, and the addition of doenjang added a sweet note to the bite.
I don’t know if I’ll be making these again any time soon due to the amount of time required, but I’m confident enough to try Achatz’s pheasant and sweet potato recipes now that I’m familiar with the general strategies. I’m also walking away with a great tempura batter ratio. Out of all the CharcutePalooza challenges thus far, this one has been my favorite as I’ve learned the most from it.
Doenjang Mustard Gel (adapted from here)
Mise En Place
- 30 g yellow mustard seeds
- 30 g brown mustard seeds
- 60 g doenjang
- 1 g white peppercorns
- Pinch allspice
- 70 g white wine
- 70 g vinegar
- 45 g shallot, minced
- 3 g agar
- Combine all ingredients and refrigerate overnight
- Transfer all ingredients to a saucepan or pot over high heat and bring to boil
- Quickly transfer all ingredients to a blender and blend for ~2 minutes
- Quickly transfer mixture into a small mold (must set to at least 3 mm thickness) and refrigerate until completely set, ~2 hours
HEADCHEESE – pickled parsley root, doenjang mustard, smoldering cinnamon (adapted from here)
Mise En Place
- Headcheese, cut into a 2 cm cubes
- Pickled parsley root, cut into 2 cm X 2 cm X 3 mm rectangular prisms
- Doenjang mustard gel, cut into 2 cm X 2 cm X 3 mm rectangular prisms
- Cinnamon stick, pared down thin enough on one end to skewer the ingredients
- Flour for dredging
- Tempura batter
- Skewer the pickled parsley root onto the cinnamon stick, followed by the doenjang mustard gel, and lastly the headcheese
- Dredge the ingredients in flour and shake off any excess
- Coat the ingredients in tempura batter and let any excess drip off
- Holding onto one end of the cinnamon, dip ingredients in 190 Celsius oil until golden, ~2 minutes
- Drain on paper towels and season with salt
- Take a flame to one end of the cinnamon until smoldering