Homemade hogs’ headcheese is a fine thing. A common Cajun treat made during fall boucheries (communal pig-killings), commercial versions are sold year-round today, both by artisanal butchers and large-scale producers. Headcheese is like sausage: enthusiasts recognize subtle variations lost on the average eater and often swear loyalty to a particular maker. But most folks will agree that homemade is (almost always) better.
In a home kitchen, the pig’s head is an unwieldy object, but thankfully, other pork parts substitute nicely for the head. Pork butt (technicallly part of a pork shoulder, which is part of the pig’s front leg) and pigs’ feet are easier to find and lots easier to handle.
Homemade “headless” cheese
3-4 lbs boneless pork butt, skin on if available, cut into 3-4 inch hunks
1/2 lb pork liver
2-3 pigs’ feet, cleaned & split lengthwise
salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper to taste
7-8 branches of fresh thyme, tied together with kitchen string
1 small yellow onion, chopped fine
3 bunches green onions, chopped (white & green parts)
1 bunch parsley, chopped fine
3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
8-10 small foil loaf pans (1-lb capacity)
Rinse the pigs’ feet, then place in a saucepan of lightly salted water. Boil until the feet are completely tender & beginning to fall apart. Remove the feet, reserving the liquid in a 1-quart measuring cup. Skim the fat from the liquid as it cools. Wait until the feet are cool enough to touch, then separate meat, skin, and fat from bones. Discard the bone. Chop skin and fat as finely as possible and reserve.
Place 1 tsp salt, pork butt hunks, liver, fresh thyme bundle, and reserved liquid from feet in a large pot. Cover with cold water and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce heat slightly and cook at a low boil until the meat is tender enough to shred (as long as two hours, depending on the size of the chunks). Once tender, remove meat with a slotted spoon to a baking tray; wait until pieces are cool enough to handle.
Shred the meat coarsely (using fingers or two forks); pay special attention to the liver pieces, mashing them completely. (Meanwhile, continue to cook the boiling liquid to further reduce it.) Shred some of the meat finely, and leave a few bits in larger chunks. A variety of textures is desired.
Return the shredded meat and reserved chopped feet to the boiling liquid. Add chopped onion. Increase heat and boil until the liquid reduces; the shredded meat should be barely submerged in the remaining liquid. Add chopped parsley, green onions, salt, black pepper & cayenne pepper to taste, and simmer for 5 minutes more (be sure to taste at this point for seasoning). Put gelatin into a bowl and ladle in 2 or 3 cups of boiling liquid from the pork mixture. Whisk the gelatin until completely dissolved in the hot liquid. Return the gelatin mixture to the pot, stirring to incorporate it throughout the pork mixture.
Remove the mixture from the heat. Carefully ladle the solids into the foil pans, dividing evenly. Top off each pan with the remaining liquid. Use a fork to press on the solids lightly, ensuring that the meat is submerged in the liquid. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until the gelatin sets.
Try it on fresh french bread for a headcheese poboy, sliced with Ritz crackers, or cut a thick slice and place atop a hot bowl of buttered grits. Or eat it cold with beer…