Last Friday we invited Charles Perry, beer of the month columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and seven other guests, for a Royal Wedding viewing and tacos de cabeza recipe testing party at Ecole de Cuisine, a fully equipped culinary school and test kitchen. The actual meal took place at the chef's table, concealed behind a moveable wall in the back of the kitchen. The guests represented a broad cross-section of Angelenos. Half of us had grown up eating offal and all manner of heads: fish heads, lamb heads and goat heads. The other half were relative newcomers to the cult of whole animal worship.
We wanted to document their honest reactions to tacos de cabeza before all the components are politely hidden in a corn tortilla. We chose a recipe with roasted goat heads, because it is probably the most delicious dish that will never be served at a British Royal affair.
Turn the page for more test kitchen notes, the recipe and a lesson on how to deconstruct goat heads for tacos.
We've lived in London's fashionable Islington, although not quite neighbors with Tony Blair, and we worked at Frederick's in Camden Passage, back in the day when there was strict emphasis on upper-crust British service. Yet, we were never asked to propose a menu for the Royal Wedding. Imagine what Prince Phillip would say.
As we pulled our goat heads out of the oven, all eyes focused on the roasted skulls. A Royal wedding cake, for all its multitiered architectural glory and leitmotif of garlands, lacked the visceral punch of a goat head triptych. Besides, we're in Los Angeles, where the fifth of May is a public celebration for the people. Testing a goat head taco recipe for Cinco de Mayo seemed much more egalitarian than gawking at monarchs.
A birria -inspired tablescape is a surefire conversation starter. Our guests all appreciated the idea of whole animal cookery. Joshua Binder, chef at DreamWorks studio, philosophized at length about nose-to-tail eating. When the dinner bell rang, the guests became slightly polarized. Binder politely nibbled on goat cheeks and sipped craft beer; he couldn't get past the sunken goat eyeballs staring back at him. Patricia Escusa, former pastry cook at Alain Giraud's now-defunct Anisette, asked her boyfriend, Medardo Winkler, former head cook at Neomeze, to crack open the skull. Both Escusa and Winkler are currently working as assistants here in the test kitchen.
According to Escusa, the head is a microcosm of the whole body. The eyeballs have the texture of slow-cooked tendon. The brain tastes like sweet breads with a creamier texture. The meat inside the mouth cavity is more moist and flavorful than anything cooked in a clay pot, since it's essentially cooked in a bone pot. Add bits of crispy skin, cheeks, and buttery tongue to a taco for a multi-course nose-to-neck tasting menu wrapped in a corn tortilla.
Goat heads are available at Latino markets and butcher shops. We purchased ours at Vallarta market in Pacoima. Unless you have a hacksaw at home, it's a good idea to ask your butcher to partially cut through the skull at the center.
Tacos de Cabeza
From: Farid Zadi
Note: Spice amounts are suggestions, so add more or less to taste. The goat heads can also be roasted on a BBQ grill with a cover. Place the goat heads on a baking sheet to catch meat juices and to mitigate flare-ups caused by dripping. You'll have to do a little more baby-sitting to maintain proper cooking temperatures with a grill than with oven cooking: open the cover now and then to release heat build up and to check for flare-ups.
3 goat heads
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 teaspoon coriander, ground
Salt and pepper
Water for basting as needed
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place goat heads, cheek side down, on a baking sheet. Season each side, including the tongue, with the spices, salt and pepper.
2. Place the tray in the oven, turn goat heads every 30 minutes to ensure even cooking, baste with 1/4 cup water if the pan juices start to brown too much. Roast for approximately 3- 3 1/2 hours. (See below for deconstruction tips.)
3. Serve with corn tortillas, chopped onions and fresh cilantro, and your favorite salsa.
(We apologize for the blurry photo. Goat heads are messy. There was fat and meat juice everywhere, including a good smear on our camera lens.)
The best way to deconstruct a goat head for tacos is at the dinner table, working in teams of two, nibbling as you go. Gently pull out the tongue and trim off the skin with a knife. Coarsely chop the tongue meat. Remove the cheek meat with your fingers, then pry open the mouth as wide as you can. Once you get past the bad dental work, you'll find bits of meat nestled in nooks and crannies inside the mouth cavity. You'll also get a glimpse of the brain. Cut the head in half with a hack saw or finish what your butcher started with a heavy knife and mallet.