Slowly cooked pig’s eye ball is a surprisingly lovely thing.
Unlike what you (and I until recently) might think, once cooked the eye is not squidgy, jelly like or translucent but simply a piece of muscle, ie meat, very much like ham in fact.
Now don’t dare to look away. I swear this is true, after all, do you remember all those recommendations your optician tried to bestow on you? work your eyes and all that? well, piggy is no different.
But I’m ready to admin that yes, ladies and gentlemen, even I with my seemingly limitless love of offal, felt somewhat squeamish at the thought of dislodging an eye socket from the head of a pig. All in the hope of making the best Kholodets, or Brawn, I have ever made.
Now, what is Kholodets. Russians amongst you will no doubt know – it’s that quivering, most savoury of things that grace our tables on most celebrations.
Brits will most probably recognise the dish as Brawn; Americans – as Headcheese (the most unsavoury of dish names, conjuring up the image, well, years of teenage porn comes to mind, I’m sorry).
Essentially Kholodets is a meat jelly. Made with natural gelatine, ie from cooking pork trotters for good several hours, the success of the dish very much depends on the quality – and quantity – of meat then added in.
I have written about the beauty of trotters and Kholodets before briefly here. The dish is a staple of most Russian New Year’s eve tables. This wobblying creature, colour of deep river waters, is hated by children and adored by adults when eaten with khren, ie strong horseradish. Tears often stream in, from the heat of horseradish, from the cuddlying comfort of the jelly.
My mum used to make the jelly from trotters but she mostly added cooked shredded chicken meat to finish the dish. Any meat (or fish in fact) could be added in to make the dish in fact. Kholodets is one of those beautiful, left-over dishes that transform the unwanted into most sublime.
Oh and then there’s a question of how much jelly. My memory of most Soviet canteens (yes, I’m boasting to remember those) was that the ratio of jelly vs meat was about 4/5 vs 1/5 – favouring jelly of course. My mum – and many home cooks from my memory – would prefer more like 3/4 vs 1/4.
I like jelly as the next East London cockney lad is, but I like the meat to be dispersed amongst jelly with a bit more flair.
Hence, I commenced the year by making, well, a Canadian version of Kholodets - Jennifer McLagan’s Headcheese. Jennifer is a crusader of what some call – the Odd Bits, ie all those parts of an animal that seem less fashionable to eat these days. I have treated myself to a present of her latest book, called ehhh Odd Bits, for Christmas (yes, some buy flat screens, others books about meat scraps).
For me the interesting thing about Jennifer’s recipe was the inclusion of meat from the actual pig’s head and skin. I’m a sucker for interesting texture in food and so the idea of playing around with different bits of a pig’s head was irresistible!
So here we go, my attempt at
Headcheese for the Convinced* or
*Jennifer starts the book with the recipe of Headcheese for the Unconvinved:) allowing the reader to omit the more’ challenging’ parts such as tongue and skin and just include the meat. How gracious of her – but I would not recommend omitting anything. Stay with me.
Kholodets for those who know.
(Холодец для тех, кто понимает).
Firstly – start making this good 4-5 days in advance. You can make this dish in less but why rush.
Stage 1 – brining:
You will need:
1/2 pig’s head, brain and tongue removed (if you get them), well washed – note if like me you don’t have a huge saucepan you’ll need to ask your butcher to cut the head in 2 or 3 parts. Or, like me, you’ll be trying to saw it yourself, early in the morning with bits of bones and blood everywhere…
1 pig’s trotter, split
225 g course salt
180 g brown sugar
1 tbs coriander seeds, crushed
1 tbs black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 allspice berries, crushed
1/2 junier berries, crushed
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 large sprigs fresh thyme
4 bay leaves
about 4 l water
-make the brine by putting all the ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to boil for a few moments until sugar and salt dissolved. cool before proceeding to next step.
- cut off the ear and place with the head and foot and tongue in the brine, making sure everything is covered (I used a large plastic tupperware).
- re-fridgerate for 2 or 3 days.
Stage 2 – preparing meat and stock:
You will need:
2 onions, quartered
6 cloves (they get inserted into the onions)
2 carrots, peeled and cut in half crosswise
4 stalks celery, sliced
1 small fennel bulb, chopped – optional
1 head garlic, unpeeled and halves crosswise
1 lemon, halved
2 bay leaves
6 stems parsley
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp quatre epices (I made the mixture in equal measure of white pepper, nutmet, cloves and ginger powder, all minced)
- remove the porky bits out of brine, rinse under cold water, place in a clean saucepan. Add all the above ingredients. Peppercorns and juniper berries can be put into a tea ball and added to the pot (easier to fetch later).
- add enough cold water to cover the head. bring to boil and skim.
- simmer uncovered on low-ish heat for about 3 hours.
- note that the ear will be ready after about 1.5 hours – take it out.
- remove the meat from the liquid and set aside to cool somewhat.
- strain the liquid into a clean pan, setting aside carrots but getting rid of all the other veg. at this stage it may be helpful to weigh how much stock you have in ml.
- bring liquid to a boil and boil skimming if necessary intil it’s reduced to about 1.5 l.
- as soon as the head is cool enough to handle, get going on picking the meat. Cut out the eye, separate skin, separate the meat from the bones, cartliage and fat, removing any gristle or sinews as you go. basically just pick out and separate the bits you like and put them in separate heaps for now. The tongue needs to be skinned, which is fairly easy to do if it’s still warm-ish.
- you will want to use all the muscly pieces of meat and probably some skin, tongue etc.you can choose the proptions. I think I ended up with about 60% meat and 40% of ‘other’. I liked the result.
- once the meat is cooled, cut it into irregular pieces ranging from 0.5 mm to 2 cms. cut the carrot into 1 cm pieces.
- strain the liquid and leave to cool in a fridge over night.
Stage 3 – assembling:
You will need:
1.5 fine seasalt
3 tbs chopped chives
1 tbs chopped fresh tarragon
2 tsp red wine vinegar
- remove a layer of fat from the (now beautifully jellified) stock.
- poor the stock into a saucepan, add the spices above.
- you will most probably need 2 bread tins for making the final kholodets. prepare the tins by lining them with a double layer of plastic going double the size of a tin so that you can cover the jelly once it’s poured in.
- now spread the meat mixture you prepared earlier into the tins evenly (should come to just over 1/2 tin), pour the spiced stock. Taste. it will need to be well seasoned as you eat the jelly in room temperature. add salt, pepper and whatever else you feel like at this stage. mix well with your hand. tap the tins hard on the counter to expel any air bubbles and place the mixture into fridge to set – min of 2 hours to overnight.
- to serve take a tin out of a fridge 20-30 mins before hand, pull at the plastic to take the formed jelly, place on a chopping board and cut slices, just like bread, of 1-1.5 cm wide.
- served so well with pickles, hot mustard and toast – sourdough especially.
The main thing – the recipe has worked. Beautifully.