culinariaeugenius in pdx: the head cheese

(Vegetarian Alert: Probably not your favorite post.  Trust me.)

My recent Portland trip was a tale of head cheese. Or rather, gluttony.  When with others, I want to try as many foods as possible on the rare occasions I get to PDX, but always feel limited by issues like, oh, the existence of other people who might have other interests, like seeing Portland or not eating and drinking.  When left to my own devices?  Well, then there’s nothing stopping me.

As I was staying nearby, I decided I would drop by Higgins for a quick drink before heading out to a wonderful little place for Ethiopian food, Bete-Lukas.

And as these things go, I soon found myself eating presskopf terrine: the carrot-studded triangle made of gelatin and pork cheeks at 9:00 in the above photo, as well as the rillette underneath it, and two different pork and rabbit patés (with hazelnuts, not butts as a friend suggested, and pistachio) in front.  These were circled by some lackluster pickles and mysteriously useless fennel hardtack biscuits, a variety of sausages, as the waiter so brusquely put it before he rushed away, leaving the bartender to offer to explain them to me.  (It’s called presskopf, she stressed, P-R-E-S-K-O-F-F.)

Service issues aside, the cocktail hour kept me entertained.  It had been a while since I had anything in aspic, and I’ll admit to being fascinated by aspic, in all its gruesome toothsomeness, since my first luxurious and careful study of Roger Vergé’s 1986 coffee table tome Entertaining in the French Style.  (For in 1986, I couldn’t believe that anyone could ever eat like that, and I pored over the recipes and delicious photos like a cultural anthropologist but never cooked a thing from it.  Now that is a cookbook worthy of a page by page cooking-blogging project.)

Me. And me now.

Free, I buzzed away to my wholly vegetarian meal at Bete-Lukas.  Strongly recommended for those interested in Ethiopian food.  And who isn’t?  The place has a lovely intimacy, and the food is prepared well and with a very nice variety.  It’s been many years since I’ve had fosolia, that particularly buttery green bean stew, and I couldn’t get enough.

But the real fun started the next day, when I, newly loaded down with Ikea bookshelves, made my way back through the city.  A friend had recommended Ned Ludd for brunch, and since it was on MLK, home of myriad Ethiopian markets at which I had planned to stop on my way, it worked out perfectly.

Ned Ludd is a quirky little place, a former wood-fired pizzeria that now cooks a wide range of non-pizza foods in the large brick oven as its sole heat source.  I was expecting a creepy little bbq shack, and instead found an open but warm green-walled bistro with stacks of wood under the counters and French country tchotchkes occupying the shelves with the kitchen equipment.  A mural of Ned Ludd, he of Luddite fame, overlooks the restaurant.

I hadn’t planned on ordering yet another charcuterie plate, no I hadn’t.  But see that little guy behind the counter in the upper righthand corner of this photo?

Yes, this guy.  What in the world was he doing?  As I settled down with the menu, I was immediately distracted by this handsome man hammering away at something I couldn’t see.  What in the world is that man doing, I asked my waiter.

Cuttin’ hedz. (I warned you, vegetarians.)

He was making porchetta di testa, which can be translated eloquently as “cured rolled face.”  Inspired by an old photo at Nostrana restaurant with a recipe encircling the photo’s frame, Chef Jason French told me, he was preparing this old school head cheese.

For porchetta di testa, the meat from the pig’s head is stripped away, chopped and herbed, then wrapped in the skin, cured, and braised.  There’s some gelatin, apparently, like presskopf, but it’s mainly the fat that holds it together.

Since it would (clearly) be a while before it was ready, Chef French advised me to order the coppa di testa instead, which is basically presskopf, but for different seasonings: bay, clove, allspice, thyme.

And it (center) was delicious.  I also couldn’t help myself and ordered the pickle plate, with good celery, carrots, bright yellow cauliflower, gold beets, and delicious red chard stems.

Pickled chard is the wave of the future, let me tell you.  We had it at Olympic Provisions a couple of months ago, and I have to say that I liked the lengthwise, thin cut there.  It had completely fooled me into thinking it was a quick pickled rhubarb.  (Teaser: I made two variations on it yesterday and will report.)

Anyway, the headcheese came with some rather too thickly cut cured duck and lovely seeded bread, as you see above, and very fine prosciutto, rillettes, and a cute little cup of boiling hot pork confit.  Spiced apples and pickled mushrooms rounded out the service with a lump of whole grained mustard.

The brunch, and by now it was nearing 2:30, so I hesitate to call it that, was so pleasant that I stayed to linger over a sour cream panna cotta set in a half-pint mason jar with a rhubarb gelée topping and to chat with Chef French about his restaurant, philosophy, and interest in food writing.  Look for his upcoming article in Meatpaper!

He urged me to come back soon for dinner, and you know what, I will.  Gotta get a head.


One thought on “culinariaeugenius in pdx: the head cheese

  1. Chris 11 April 2011 / 7:04 am

    Okay, my last comment for the day, I swear! Last week I ordered a Red Wattle hog from Heritage Farms NW and I’m getting the head! I’ll have to make headcheese with it straight away as I have zero room in the freezer for it.


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