The pozole and the giant pig’s head

I admit I hadn’t really thought the whole thing through when I decided to make pozole with a whole pig’s head.

Josefina had suggested that using a pig’s head was the most authentic way to make pozole, and other cookbooks, including Diana Kennedy’s, had agreed. I had already made pozole with pig’s feet and pork shoulder and it turned out well enough. What if the pig’s head tasted better? Didn’t I owe it to myself to at least try?

So I took the subway and walked, in the rain and howling wind, about a half mile to the International Meat Market in Astoria, where I purchased a 9-lb. frozen pig’s head. Only after I was headed home — in a taxi, because there was no way I was trekking on foot with nine pounds of meat on my arm — did I realize that I didn’t have a pot large enough to cook it. Moreover, why did I not ask the butcher if he had anything smaller?

I called Fany. “Do you have a pot I can use that would hold a nine-pound pig head? I’m making pozole.”

Fany, who rents a commercial kitchen space, did not ask for further details bless her heart, and she offered the use of a 20-quart pot. “It needs to sit on two burners,” she said.

Three days later — after thawing the head in the fridge, cooking up a 12-quart pot of pozole corn, and taking a car to and from Fany’s kitchen in Red Hook — I returned home with the gigantic pot, ready for the next step. I placed the pig head in the pot and filled it with cold water. The head immediately started to ooze blood, turning the water pink.

I tried to move the pot to a more inconspicuous area of the kitchen — both for safety’s sake and because, let’s be real, I didn’t want to look at a whole pig head in water for the next several hours — but I couldn’t lift it. The pot was too heavy.

“Crayton!” I called into the living room. “Shaw!”

My husband and my friend, bless their hearts, helped me change the water two more times. (Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico had suggested changing the water “as often as is practical.”) We heaved the pot onto the edge of the sink and I slowly drained the pink fluid, then placed the pot on the floor and filled it up with several large mixing bowl’s-worth of cold water.

Finally it was midnight and time to go to bed. But I still had to put the pig’s head in the fridge to soak overnight.

Working quickly, because it was late and I was exhausted, I removed a middle shelf in the fridge and threw away everything but the essentials, while Crayton and Shaw measured the available fridge space. They placed the pig head on the bottom floor of the fridge, above the crisper. We wedged the pozole corn on a shelf above.

The next morning at 7 a.m., I changed the pot of pig-head water one last time, even though my back felt a little creaky.

Finally it was time to cook the head. I covered it in more fresh water and a little onion and garlic. It simmered away, uncovered, for about three hours. The aroma was intense: pure and clean and rich, like the best slow-cooked stew. It was the kind of smell that travels down the hallway of our apartment building and invites us when we got off the elevator. (We have several great cooks on our floor.)

More than one cookbook had cautioned about not overcooking the head, and so once the meat was tender and slightly falling off the bone, I turned off the heat. But then… how could I have not thought of this? How do I get the pig head out of the broth? The head was too heavy and well-cooked by now to lift out by the ears. They’d come off if we pulled on them.

Crayton and I carefully placed the hot pot on the kitchen floor and stared at it.

I grabbed the largest strainer I had, hoping to maybe scoop the head out from underneath, but the strainer barely fit over the snout. My tongs were too small, too, and I silently cursed myself for giving away the extra-large grill tongs we’d kept for years for no reason.


What we needed was a lever of some sort to lift the head out of the broth. But nothing I had was strong enough. And then I remembered the wooden spoon I’d bought in Puebla, for mole. It was about two feet long and made of solid wood. I bought it for purely sentimental reasons — it was the spoon I’d use to stir my dream mole pot someday, in my dream outdoor kitchen. I’d never used it for anything and it had also sat for years in my kitchen.

But right now it was going to lift a cooked pig’s head out of boiling broth.

I wrapped my hands in several layers of dish towels. Crayton used the wooden spoon to lift the pig head ever-so-slightly out of the broth. Trying to be as agile as possible (this is when yoga comes in handy), I squatted down and grabbed the head on both sides and then lifted it up. The head dripped streams of hot broth. I placed it a cutting board, where it released more broth, which puddled off the side of the countertop and onto the floor.

We’d done it!

But we still had to carve it. Or, I did.

None of the recipes I read had described how to carve the head in detail, and I was way too tired to consult the Internet. (I had just cooked a mo-fo pig’s head!) So, after letting the head cool off a bit, I took my sharpest knife and sliced off the meat as cleanly as I could, praying that there were no savory inner parts that I was missing. When I’d done a more or less decent job, I looked at the small pile of meat on the cutting board, and the possibly 20 quarts of broth on the stove. This was not going to be enough meat.

It would have to do. We boxed up four quarts of broth for the freezer, filled up our 12-quart pot, and tossed the rest down the drain, about 18 cups worth. (I know, I know. But seriously — where was I going to put it? I had no room in my fridge and several other recipes to keep testing.)

The broth, by the way, was the best I’ve ever made.

Crayton texted me a picture the next morning, when I got on a plane to Mexico. (Forgot to mention that I was also leaving for Mexico the very next day for two weeks.) “Breakfast pozole,” his message read.

pozole

My pozole recipe will be in my upcoming cookbook, with adequate advice about cooking a pig’s head. If you find yourself inspired to cook pozole now, here are a few other non-pig-head recipes to check out:

Pati Jinich’s Pozole Rojo
Pozole Blanco from The Latin Kitchen (recipe by Melissa Guerra)
Rancho Gordo’s Pozole Verde

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14 Responses to “The pozole and the giant pig’s head”
  1. Eileen

    This is a true classic. Lesley, you outdid even yourself this time I think. I have read all your posts. Making Chiles en Nogada was nothing compared to this! I could totally see every step of your bold endeavor. Only wish I had a bowl of that pigs head pozole for breakfast right now. And I wish you had taken a pic of the pigs head. Truly inspiring. Bravo, from the heart (er, maybe from the pig’s head?).
    Insert sound of hands clapping.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Eileen, I wish I could have sent you some. Crayton brought it to work, ate it every single day for lunch for a week, and still had leftovers. And I did take a few pictures of the head — the head in water, the uncooked head on the cutting board. I thought posting them might seem gratuitous. But maybe I will after all.

      Thanks for your support. I still think peeling a kilo of walnuts was worse. :-)

  2. extramsg

    Now I know why they sell half a pig’s head in the Mexican markets. ;-)

    btw, if you ever have an abundance of broth, just separate all the fat and then cook down the liquid as much as possible to make a demi-glace. You can reduce 18 cups of broth to probably 2 cups of demi-glace. It will freeze for easily 6 months or more and you can just use it to intensify other guisados, soups, etc, or rehydrate it and use it as broth.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks for the tip! I’ll remember that for next time.

  3. Don Cuevas

    That was a Kitchen Klassic, if there ever was one.

    I have had similar oversize cooking projects but I’ve yet to cook a pig’s head.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  4. Girelle

    Loved, loved this story! What an adventure :)

  5. Jennifer Sparano

    Your voice in this account of cooking the pig’s head was awesome. So relatable even though I have never made pozole or cooked a pig’s head.
    Can’t wait to read your cookbook. I look forward to reading more.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks Jennifer. Really appreciate your kind words… and I hope you buy the book! :-)

  6. Evelyn Theo

    Hi Lesley, it’s actually my first time to hear about pozole. Do you have a tutorial on how to make one?

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Evelyn: I don’t have a tutorial, actually. But I can tell you that the recipe will be in my book, to be published next May 2015. I’m sorry to make you wait until then! If I find a great tutorial on the Internet I will come back and post it here. Thanks again for your comment.

  7. Obt

    Agree. This is classic, maybe the best post in your blog Lesley.

  8. Jesica

    This is awesome! I can perfectly picture you, Crayton and the pig’s head staring at you two, all three of you in deep confusion. Love it!
    I remember my mom just buying separate parts without buying the whole head (the snout, the ears, the cheeks), just for the broth, and then serving it with chicken… en fin, that’s her recipe.
    Can’t wait for this cookbook to come out!

  9. Lesley

    Thanks Jes! Can’t wait for you to see it. And yes, I think in Mexico it’s possible to buy a small amount of pig’s head, but I couldn’t find anything similar here in Queens.

  10. Jorge Fitz

    Leslsey, I was laughing out loud while reading this post. I utterly enjoyed it, as I’ve gone through pretty much the same and could see my own kitchen floor with broth splashes, puddles (and –why not– muddy steps) all around the pozole pot! Some Mexican recipes should begin with something like this: “Invite a couple dozen friends over for dinner…” !!
    I love your endeavor going the exxxxtra (several “xxxx”) mile for authenticity, aroma, and texture sake. Mexican food is all about that!
    Thanks for sharing,
    Jorge Fitz

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