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Lamb head cheese tray

Traditional Lamb Head Cheese

In most every culture in the world, when an animal was butchered, every single part of it was used. This makes meat eating more sustainable as nothing was wasted. This practice faded away with the advent of modern farming practices, which produced such bounty that cooks could afford to use only the easiest to harvest parts. Whether from nostalgia or desire to explore more interesting tastes than chops or steaks, the “nose to tail” movement is coming back in full force. Chefs are making use of every scrap of meat available and embracing cuts that might otherwise go to waste—including the head.

Casey Pikula, currently executive chef at Stem Wine Bar in Northeast Minneapolis, is one of those chefs. Pikula fondly remembers watching his maternal grandmother making head cheese, a cold cut that originated in Europe, from which her ancestors hailed. Pikula watched in awe as his grandmother split the skull, boiled the heads and peeled the meat from the bones, producing a dish he calls “absolutely delicious.”

Row lamb heads for head cheese

Ten heads yielded 4 lbs of head cheese.

 

Preparation

Lamb or Goat Head

There are many recipes available for head cheese, but Pikula didn’t use one. Instead, he felt his way through the process, which is documented below to inspire other “nose to tail” chefs to try it for themselves. “I don’t think chefs are really taking the nose to tail movement to heart,” said Pikula. “If you’re not making head cheese, then you’re letting this delicious meat go to waste.”

Processing the lamb heads 

Split lamb head

Split lamb head with cleaver

Step 1: Split the skulls and remove the brain and eyes. The brains were reserved for a terrine. The eyes were discarded.

Step 2: A rub was made with Madras curry powder, salt, black pepper, minced ginger, minced garlic and minced preserved limes that had been created a month or so beforehand. The heads were rubbed with this mixture and left to dry in the cooler for three days.

Step 3: After drying, the heads were simmered in water for four hours, along with aromatic herbs and vegetables to thoroughly cook all of the flesh, but also to make a stock that would be used later in the process.

Step 4: When the heads were fully cooked they were removed and allowed to cool.

Get Cooking

Meat Harvesting

Removing meat from lamb heads

Removing meat from lamb heads

Step 5: The tongues were removed and all the flesh was stripped from the skulls. The stock was strained and put back on the stove to be reduced to a demi glace, bringing it down from three gallons of stock to less than a quart. Half a dozen sheets of gelatin were added to the stock, as lamb heads do not contain a large amount of collagen like a hog’s head would. This was necessary to form a cohesive loaf.

Step 6: The tongues were skinned and finely diced. They were added to the rest of the head meat, along with pickled Fresno chili peppers, very fine preserved lime threads and the reduced stock.

Form a Loaf

Pulled lamb meat

Pulled lamb meat and tongues

Step 7: The mixture was put in a pan and pressed with weights on top overnight. The loaf was pulled from the pan the next day and portioned for service.

Serve

Chef Pikula served the headcheese on a charcuterie plate. It sold out that night!

Lamb head cheese tray

Lamb head cheese served on charcuterie plate

 

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