During the peak of summer, the garden’s are overflowing with produce here where we live in Wisconsin, and there’s just about nothing better than a big bowl of vegetable soup to celebrate the bounty of the season. The difference between a good soup, and a great soup though, is all in the broth, and one of the greatest soup broths we’ve ever tasted is made from one of the most humble parts of an animal: lamb or goat heads.
It may sound strange to the unfamiliar, but heads are traditionally used to make a number of classic broths and soups around the world, especially the famous posole from Latin America, made with a pig’s head and feet. Our version here is a simple lamb head broth used to make a variation on Italian Minnestrone, without the pasta. It’s delicious topped with a dollop of pesto to finish, and you can use any blend of vegetables available to you.
They big idea here, is that heads are excellent for soup, as they’re made of all kinds of diverse bones and working muscles concentrated together in a small area: the perfect blend for lending collagen, flavor and nutrients to a stock or broth. Heads are also economical, and a great deal for anyone on a budget. To sweeten the deal, both lamb and goat heads are the perfect size for a home stock pot, and don’t need to be cut in half to fit, like pig heads, which can require large equipment to cook with at home.
Another benefit that can’t be overlooked is that, while lamb and goat heads generally have less meat (mutton heads are wonderful) they’re also lean compared to pork heads, which are, by nature very fatty, and typically contain skin which can add a gamey or strong flavor to the stock or broth. Any heads from Shepherd Song will produce a mild, delicious stock for any kind of soup that even picky eaters will enjoy. You can keep the fact that it was made from a head to yourself, or share it proudly, depending on your audience.
Vegetables are the other part of our soup, and there’s a number of ways to go about choosing your blend. Chef Bergo’s recipe doesn’t specify particular vegetables, but they’re pictured above for reference. You should feel free to use any vegetables you have on hand that look and taste good to you. Pictured above on the left is a blend of cauliflower, carrots, fennel, kohlrabi, yellow zucchini, potatoes, onion, and celery. To avoid overcooking, green vegetables should be kept separate and added towards the end of cooking. For green vegetables, pictured above on the right are green string beans, green zucchini and lacinato (dinosaur) kale. Besides keeping the green vegetables separate, the only other key for success is making sure the vegetables are trimmed to a size that’s roughly equal, and will easily fit on a spoon.
Cooking and Picking the Lamb or Goat Head
First, you’ll want to roast (or smoke!) the head to help bring out rich flavors and remove fat, that would otherwise have to be skimmed from the final soup. The next step is picking the head. It’s a bit of a process, and chef recommends gloves to help speed it up and make for easy clean up. Any parts that feel like they wouldn’t taste pleasing to you should be discarded. In the top right corner is the yield of finished, cleaned meat that will be chopped for the finished soup. After slow cooking, the meat is more tender and delicious than a pot roast could ever be.
This recipe is by chef Alan Bergo. A chef from Minnesota, Alan is a 15 year veteran of the culinary industry, former executive chef of acclaimed Lucia’s Restaurant, and the Salt Cellar. He’s best known as a respected authority on Midwestern foraging. Learn more about Alan and his hunt for mushrooms, wild and obscure foods at his site Forager Chef.
Chef recommends using gloves to pick the meat from the head, since it can be a bit collagen-rich. Note that there is a discard bowl (top left) and a keep/finished picked meat bowl (top right) along with the finished, picked meat and mandibles.
- 1 lamb or goat head
- 5 qts water
- 3 lbs assorted vegetables, cut into ½ inch dice, or equal sized pieces, green vegetables reserved separately
- 2 cups cooked brown rice, or another grain, like wheatberries, farro, or wild rice
- 2 cups cooked white beans, or another legume of your choice, like lentils
- Basil pesto, (optional) to garnish
- 2 packed cups of fresh basil
- 1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds or walnuts, toasted and cooled
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan
- 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
- 1/2 cup 50/50 extra virgin olive oil
- pinch of salt
- For the optional pesto, combine all ingredients except the oil in the bowl of a food processor. Drizzle in the oil until the mixture is a coarse puree, then refrigerate.
- Roast the lamb head in a 375 F oven for 1 hour, then drain off the fat and put into a stock pot with the water, cover and simmer at the lowest heat for 5 hours. Alternately, cook in a crock pot, but you may have to adjust the amount of stock afterwords with more water. Cool the head, then pick the meat from the head and reserve. If your head had a tongue, peel and put with the remaining pieces of meat. Cut the meat into even-sized pieces and reserve. Strain the stock for bone particles and reserve.
- Cut the vegetables into small pieces that will fit onto a spoon. Pay attention to the vegetables you use so that they don’t overcook and turn to mush, firm vegetables, like carrots and roots, can be added first, green vegetables that will turn brown from too much cooking should be added towards the end of cooking, to cook until just tender.
- Bring the vegetables and broth to a simmer, season the mixture to taste with salt, and cook until the vegetables are tender and cooked through, about 20 minutes. Just before serving, return the lamb meat to the pot just to heat through. Garnish each bowl of soup with a spoon of pesto. The soup will improve in quality the day after it’s made.