I remember as a kid sitting at my grandmothers table watching her eat head cheese with pure white vinegar. I remember being completely and absolutely grossed out by her boiling pork hocks and hooves for hours on the stove in her little Orangeville Ontario House. I know I had it as a kid and it made a lasting impression.
She had been raised to never waste anything ever. Using every part of the pig was as natural to her as was her use of every scrap of dried bread for bread pudding. (and seriously no wonder my love for that too!) She also always had a garden, constantly putting up pickles, and harvesting it throughout the summer season. I fondly recall her dog Brandie and I sitting in her garden eating all of the new peas, and green beans and getting in some serious trouble.
These memories came flooding back recently after a meal I had at Parts & Labour with friends. Their resident chef Matty had presented us with a very simple looking piece of head cheese served with pickled fennel & dijon mustard.
The moment I took a bite I knew I would be making it in the near future. . . . . .
So it began my search for head cheese recipes. I looked everywhere for something that sounded like what she made with the hocks. I couldn’t find anything similar so I worked through it to come up with a recipe that would put my own spin on it. This of course would include a hint of smoke…..
I started with 6 large hocks (3 unsplit) and my weber OTG. The challenge here was to use a wood that would provide a very significant smoke flavor that would last through the braising and boiling that would come next.
After going through my wood inventory I pulled out my Jack Daniels Barrel wood chips. These are very strong and pungent much like a mesquite.
One of the challenges of this project was to make sure the pork did not start breaking down the connective tissue where the collagen begins to dissolve to gelatin. Melting of collagen starts to accelerate at 160F and continues rapidly up to 180F. For head cheese you need that gelatin….. but I wanted the smoke first
I pulled them off about an hour and a half after smoking them at 225F-250F.
Into the stock pot they went with sweet onion, bay leaves, celery stalks, peppercorns, and water.
They simmered for 6-7 hours until the meat was falling apart and the liquid was reduced by half. . Throughout the simmering I skimmed off the top foam.
Once the simmering was finished I strained out the stock and set aside the meat. I placed the stock in a pot in the fridge to set up. My grandmother never left a lot of fat on her head cheese. I wanted to leave some of it in. I have a significant fondness for pork fat
Once the hocks were cooled off enough it was pork picking time. My grandmother always shredded her head cheese meat so thats what I did…
After wrapping it in plastic wrap and placing in the fridge I called it a night…
The next day I skimmed off some of the fat from the stock. It had set up nicely with the gelatin.
Now to bring it all together. I brought the stock up to a simmer added back in the pork, some carrots, salt & pepper, a bundle of thyme, and a bay leaf. I simmered the mixture for 1 hour. Then I removed the bay leaf and the thyme bundle.
I wanted an insurance policy for the final set up (and because I had introduced the carrots). Adding flavorless gelatin does the trick.
The loaf pan I decided to use was wrapped in plastic wrap to make removing it easier.
Into the fridge overnight. It had a beautiful texture that had great flavor. I would add more spices next time but overall I was extremely pleased with the results. I served it with plain white vinegar. Just like my Grandma would have done. I think she would be proud of me. ( And I am sure this will still gross out my brother. AKA the Brat. )