Despite its dairy-sounding name, head cheese refers to a terrine made from meat from the head of a calf, pig, sheep or cow. It does not involve eating the brain, eyes or ears of the animal. In the Middle Ages, the jellied meat became a popular food among peasants as it simply involved simmering the head of the animal in water to make a stock. When it cooled, the natural gelatin inside the bones allowed it to congeal.
This low-cost, low-waste dish enables chefs to use the entire animal and avoid wasting any of that heady flavor. The popularity of sustainably sourced, whole-animal cooking paired with a more open-minded clientele could explain why the once-downmarket food has gone from pauper to prince and is appearing on high-end menus all over town.
At the Palihouse’s courtyard hotel restaurant, Kris Tominaga serves head cheese in the form of schnitzel. The head meat is breaded, fried and served with shaved fennel, mustardseed, sweet onions, a scattering of capers and dollops of garlic aioli. The warm, crispy result is so satisfying, it could suggest that head cheese should never be served any other way.
8465 Holloway Drive, West Hollywood; (323) 656-4020, mardirestaurant.com.
It wouldn't be a buzz-worthy charcuterie program without head cheese. Gavin Mills makes the meaty-gelatinous combination, using heritage breed pigs from Marin Sun Farms in Petaluma, for the upscale downtown restaurant. Mills, who breaks down the whole hogs himself, braises the meat before rolling it in gremolata and slicing. But instead of placing it on a charcuterie board, Mills uses it atop his porchetta di testa pizza. Along with head cheese, the pie is sprinkled with mustard frills, chili and buffalo mozzarella. “We truly do use every single piece of the animal,” Mills says.
888 Wilshire Blvd., downtown; (213) 988-8880, mirorestaurant.com.
Order chef Kris Morningstar’s assiette de charcuteries at the Beverly Grove restaurant and, among treats such as truffled chicken liver and rillettes, enjoy a house-made, spiced head cheese.
8265 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove; (323) 746-5130, terrinela.com.
Church and State
Chef Tony Esnault brines pigs' heads for two days to make his homemade head cheese aspic for Arts District bistro Church and State. His entire process, which includes a complex series of simmering the heads in a white wine/vegetable broth, deboning, dicing, clarifying, seasoning and setting again, takes about three days to complete. The resulting gelatin terrine is a savory combination of the tender meat, parsley, garlic and vinegar.
1850 Industrial St., downtown; (213) 405-1434, churchandstatebistro.com.