Ever since I picked up the Momofuku cookbook, I have been wanting to procure a pig’s head and make the pig’s head torchon that is laid out on page 200. I have made my way through most of the “easier” and “more practical” recipes, and have found myself eying the “Mt. Everest” of the Momofuku recipes: the one that requires a whole pig’s head. This weekend I finally got everything together, called up my friend Cody, and went ahead and did it. I think it goes without saying that there will be rather graphic pictures of a pig’s head in this post, so don’t say that you weren’t forewarned. If that doesn’t scare you off, kindly join me as we journey to the outer boroughs, tackle a crux of a recipe, and convert a part of the pig that usually gets thrown away into a refined and composed dish that you won’t see everyday.
In a city where you can get virtually anything delivered to your apartment 24 hours a day, it is surprisingly difficult to get a pig’s head in New York. I guess there isn’t enough demand to support Ed and Bob’s 24-hour animal head delivery service, which is unfortunate. But maybe there is, and no one has cornered the market yet! Any venture capitalists reading this blog? I think we might have something here. Give me a call!
After fruitless searches for a butcher who could get me a whole pig’s head in Manhattan, I expanded my search to Brooklyn. A local butcher suggested that I try Marlow and Daughters, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. A quick chat with their head butcher, and I was all set to pick up a whole, heritage bred, organic pig’s head from Flying Pig’s Farm. A far cry from Chinatown, this pig was.
Marlow and Daughters get the pigs sent straight from the farm, cut in half and cleaned. From there they break down the meat into the cuts that they sell at their shop. Let me tell you, they have some beautiful meat there.
When I arrived at Marlow and Daughters my pig’s head was still attached to the pig. I was trying to be sly with the camera for fear of looking like some sort of meat tourist, but I finally put all sense of modesty and propriety aside and snapped away as they brought out my pig and, well, removed the head.
As my pig was being butchered, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared in the background. When I commented on the music, I was treated to a bit of butcher’s wisdom: “You can’t listen to Peter, Paul, and Mary while you’re breaking down meat”. True. True.
The Marlow family also runs a restaurant right down the street called Marlow and Sons, where they prepare and serve the meat that they sell at their butcher shop. Kate and I had stopped in before arriving at the butcher shop for lunch, which wound up being two bloody Marys (excellent); a crostini with roasted shallot puree, cremini mushrooms, fried rosemary and parmesan; and a pressed ham sandwich with salsa verde, pickled onions, and Vermont Cheddar. Spectacular. We picked up the pig’s head and hopped back on the train to Manhattan.
On Sunday morning I loaded up my backpack with a 13 lb pig’s head, a 22 lb dutch oven, and about 20 lbs of roasting pans, camera equipment and a laptop. Feeling like I could use a little exercise before gorging myself on fried pig’s head, I set out across Central Park bound for Cody’s apartment. I think I can safely say that I was the only person hiking across the park with a pig’s head in his backpack at that point in time, but in New York, you never know.
After emerging from the park on the Upper East side, I was walking across 65th street when I randomly ran into my friend Ned outside the service entrance to Daniel [ed. note: for those of you who don't know Dainel, google Daniel Boulud]. Ned is a chef with Daniel’s catering company, and he was getting ready to head out to cater a party. He graciously offered me a tour of the kitchen, which is basically the culinary equivalent of being ushered backstage at a Rolling Stones concert to check out where the magic happens. So I toured Daniel’s kitchen with a pig’s head and stock pots strapped to my back. The day was unequivocally off to a great start.
The first order of business upon arriving at Cody’s was to get the pig’s head boiling. As you probably noticed in the photos, the head was already split into two pieces, which made it much easier to deal with in terms of pot size. The head needed to boil for 3.5 hours with some aromatics, so we salted the water, added 1/2 a head to each pot, along with an onion, 3 chopped carrots, and a bunch of chopped scallions. This was the easy part. After the heads had boiled sufficiently, the real work began.
There is really no delicate way to put it, but the next step was to remove and separate all of the meat from the head into “usable” and “not usable” piles. Meat, fat, and skin went into the “keep” pile. Bone, cartilage, membranes, and anything else went into the “discard” pile. This was a lot like breaking down a pork shoulder for pulled pork, but with a lot more “other” material that you had to go through to get to the meat.
The ratio of “keep” to “discard” wound up being about 40% “keep”, 60% “discard”, by weight. This was actually a much higher yield than I was expecting. There is a lot of good meat in the cheek, near the neck, in the tongue, and little bits all over where the muscles attach to the skull. The meat that you do get is extremely flavorful, and if you can get past the “anatomical” aspect of it, it’s really very good.
The only seasonings that go into the meat are salt, pepper, and finely minced, sauteed garlic. 1/4 cup per 1/2 a head is what Mr. Chang recommends, but you basically adjust the seasoning to taste once you break down the head meat.
The torchon is formed by laying down plastic wrap, and making a “carpet” of fat and skin to form the outer layer of the roll. The seasoned head meat is placed in the center of the “carpet” and is rolled up to form a log.
I didn’t get any photos of the rolling process, because it required both of us to manage. This is a double batch (the Momofuku recipe calls for 1/2 a pig’s head) and so our torchon was twice as long. After rolling it in plastic wrap once we split it in half to roll it more tightly. Our first attempt was a bit sloppy, but after double-wrapping we were able to get the rolls tight, with no air pockets. This is crucial for proper adhesion. If the roll isn’t tight, then the slices will fall apart when you go to fry them. We learned this the hard way, but it was easily corrected. Twisting the ends of the plastic wrap and tying them off formed a nice tight seal.
Once the torchon is rolled it needs to chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Once it has set, you can proceed to the “slicing and frying” step. And the “eating” step.
While you’re waiting for the torchon to cool, you can enjoy a snack that is a by-product of cooking a pig’s head: Crispy pig’s ear!
The ears boil along with the head, and should be removed before breaking down the head for the torchon if you want to eat them as a snack. Pig’s ear tastes like fried pork, but also has a little crunch from the collagen in the ear. Since we were heating up oil for the torchon anyway, we figured that a little chef’s snack was in order. The ears were sliced, dredged in flour, and fried until golden.
This was the second time I’d eaten fried pig’s ear, but only the first time that I’d made it myself. It was a great little snack, and between the two of us we made short work of both ears while we worked on the torchon.
Back to the torchon. The oil (we used vegetable oil, but any neutral oil for deep frying will work) should be heated to 375. When the meat has had sufficient time to chill in the fridge and you are ready, slice the torchon into 1-inch thick slices, dredge in flour, then in an egg wash, and coat in panko. Cook until golden, about 2-3 minutes per side.
The torchon itself is rich, flavorful, and crunchy, with just a hint of the sauted garlic. What really makes the dish special, however, are the garnishes and sauces that go with it. Sour pickled cherries and the spicy mustard sauce offset the richness of the meat, and really elevate the humble pig’s head to something quite special.
Unfortunately winter is not the season for cherries, so the local market didn’t have any. However, they did have great dried cherries that I figured would stand in for the fresh cherries nicely. In fact, they worked out better than I had expected, plumping up and retaining the signature sweet and sour flavor profile that comes when you dry cherries. They were so good that I was eating them on their own.
- 2 cups dried cherries (or 2 pints fresh, pitted)
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup rice vinegar
- 12 T sugar
- 2-3 drops vanilla extract
- 2-3 drops almond extract
Bring the water and vinegar to a boil. Add the cherries, sugar, and extract. Boil for 3-4 minutes, remove from heat and allow to cool in the pot. Use immediately, or jar and store in the fridge. Will keep for at least a month (probably longer).
- 3 T spicy mustard (Japanese or Korean if you can find it)
- 1.5 T mayo
- 2 T rice vinegar
Plate the torchon pucks, the cherries, and the sauce along with butter or Boston lettuce leaves. We ate these as little lettuce wraps, with a bite of pork, a couple cherries, and some sauce all wrapped up in the leaf, like Bo Ssam.
Cheers, pig, for giving us such a fine meal!