Tasso Beer-Brined Pig Head Gumbo

Cooking with Beer by | Feb 2015 | Issue #97

Photo by Sean Z. Paxton

Gumbo is more than a stew, more than a gravy and full of history and Louisiana culture. Its origins are a mixing pot—some of the technique is French, its seasoning and flavors hail from Africa and Spain and its vegetables from the South—combining to create an unmistakable dish that varies from family to family. So here’s a great New Orleans-inspired dish to celebrate with on Fat Tuesday.

Tasso Beer-Brined Pig Head
Unless you live in Louisiana, tasso style ham is not an easy-to-find ingredient. The cured and spiced ham adds a wonderful flavor to almost any New Orleans dish: jambalaya, gumbo, étouffée, in sauces, incorporated into pasta dishes and more. This version deviates from the dry cure and uses a wet brine method instead. The heavily seasoned brine infuses a creole flavor into the meat, while also enhancing its tenderness.

Makes: 3–4 pounds usable meat and 2 gallons stock

Tasso Beer Brine Ingredients:
1 each pig head, 8–10 pounds, special ordered from your butcher
1 qt water, hot from the tap
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup dark dry malt extract (DME) or brown sugar
1/4 cup black strap molasses
1/2 cup paprika, sweet or smoked, ground
3 tbsp black peppercorns, cracked
2 tbsp cayenne pepper, ground
1 cup garlic cloves, peeled
2 each yellow onion, large, peeled
8 each bay leaves, preferably fresh, torn
1 bunch fresh thyme, whole
48 oz Red Ale, Amber, Porter or Smoked Porter, cold
1 qt water, cold

In the pitcher of a blender, add some of the hot water, along with the salt, DME or brown sugar, molasses, paprika, peppercorns, cayenne, garlic and onions. Add more water to fill the pitcher. Slowly increase the blending speed to high and purée all the ingredients to make a paste.

Transfer the seasoning paste to a large container or stockpot. Add any remaining hot water, along with the bay leaves, thyme, cold beer and cold water. Mix well.

Add the rinsed pig head to the pot face up, making sure it is fully covered with the brine. Place this into a refrigerator, kegerator or cooler filled with ice to keep the brine below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 3–5 days. Move the head around daily to make sure it has new contact with the brine.

If ordering a pig head isn’t your thing, substitute a bone-in pork butt for it in the Tasso Beer Brine.

To Cook:
Traditionally, tasso ham is smoked after it is cured. I decided to simmer the skull to cook it, while at the same time, creating a wonderful and flavorful stock. Follow the recipe on the following page to create the two products you need to make a Tasso Beer-Brined Pig Head Gumbo that will knock the Mardi Gras beads right off your neck!

Pig Head Stock Ingredients:
4 each celery stalks, washed and chopped
3 each carrots, peeled and chopped
3 each yellow onion, large, peeled and chopped
2 each leeks, washed and chopped
1/2 cup garlic, peeled
4 each bay leaves, torn
1 bunch fresh thyme, whole
2 tbsp black peppercorns, whole
1 each Tasso Beer Brined Pig Head
12 oz beer, the same style used to brine the pig head

In a 5-gallon stockpot, add the celery, carrots, onions, leeks, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns. Remove the pig head from the Tasso Beer Brine and without rinsing it, place it onto the prepared vegetables, neck side down. Add the beer, then top the pot off with cold water, covering the snout by a few inches.

Place the stockpot onto the stove and turn the heat to medium-low. Once the stock comes to a boil, adjust the heat to a very low simmer. Let the pig head cook for 7–8 hours. Check the water level periodically, making sure that evaporation doesn’t leave the head uncovered. If any scum or foam forms on top of the stock, remove it using a ladle.

When the timer goes off, turn off the heat and let the stock rest for about 30 minutes to make it easier to remove the head in one piece. Carefully strain the stock into the new pot or use pitchers or other large containers to hold it. Using two sets of tongs, pick up the head and transfer it to a sheet tray with rims. Drain any remaining stock into the new stockpot, leaving behind all the vegetables. Place the new pot back on a burner; bring the stock to a boil and reduce until the volume is about 2 gallons.

While the stock reduces, using rubber gloves carefully remove the checks, jowl (or neck meat), tongue, skin, eyes, ears, and all the muscles around the eyes, jaw, neck and snout that is on the skull. All this meat is edible and very tasty. Remove any of the fat and reserve it for the gumbo’s roux.

There are three plates of bone that meet and connect above the forehead. Insert a knife tip into the center of these three plates, and give the knife a twist to unlock the skull and remove the brain. Next, discard the skull pieces and peel the taste buds off the tongue, leaving behind the tender meat.

Now, chop up all the meat pieces into half-inch chunks, lightly season with salt, mix together, and set aside. This meat can be stored in the refrigerator a few days in advance of making the gumbo. Strain the stock and cool it down to room temperature, then refrigerate or freeze it until you are ready to make the gumbo.

Tasso Beer-Brined Pig Head Gumbo
This slow-cooked, heavily seasoned stew has a roux-based, gravy-like sauce that is further thickened with either okra or filé powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves). This dish is great the day of, but after a night in the refrigerator, it’s even better.

Serves: 8–10 people

Trinity Ingredients:
3 each yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 each pasilla pepper or green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 each red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 each leek, white and light green part, washed and sliced
5 stalks celery, chopped fine

Trinity Directions:
Prepare the onions, peppers, leeks and celery and place into a bowl. Set aside until ready to use.

Cajun Spice Mix Ingredients:
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp white peppercorns, whole
1 tsp black peppercorns, whole
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika, sweet or smoked
1 tsp thyme, dried
1 tsp sage, rubbed
1 tsp oregano, dried
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
2 each bay leaves

Cajun Spice Mix Directions:
In a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder, add the salt, peppercorns, cayenne, paprika, thyme, sage, oregano, garlic and onion powders and bay leaves. Pulse several times until you have a fine spiced powder. Place into a jar and reserve.

Roux Ingredients:
1 1/2 cup reserved pork fat from the pig head or vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Other Ingredients:
1/4 cup garlic, peeled and minced
8–10 cup pig head stock or other stock, preferably homemade
reserved Tasso Beer-Brined Pig Head meat
12 oz beer, the same style used to brine the pig head
1–2 tbsp filé powder
3 cup long grain rice, cooked and hot for service
1 cup pearl barley, cooked and hot for service
hot sauces, as toppings

Roux Directions:
In a large cast iron pot or a Dutch oven, add the reserved fat (or oil) and place over medium-low heat. Let the fat render for about 10 minutes, until it is mostly liquid, then add the flour and stir to make a thin paste. Resist the temptation to increase the heat, and continue to stir the roux until it turns a milk chocolate color (20–30 minutes).

When the color is right, add in the trinity and cook for 5 minutes, adding in about half of the Cajun spice mix. Then add in the garlic and cook for another minute. Next, add in the stock and beer, increasing the heat to medium-high and bring the pot to a boil.

Reduce the heat to a simmer and add in the meat, along with another tablespoon of the Cajun spice mix. Stir somewhat frequently, cooking the gumbo for about an hour. Taste it and add a teaspoon or two of the spice mix, a teaspoon of hot sauce and the filé powder. The balance of flavors is critical. Spices will be all over the palate; seasoning with salt might be necessary. Cook the gumbo for another few minutes to thicken.

While the gumbo simmers, cook the rice and pearl barley separately. Before service, fluff both with a fork, then fold the two grains together. Place a scoop of rice in each bowl, topping with a few ladles of gumbo and serve with hot sauce on the table. Pair with classic Louisiana beers, like Abita Amber or Turbodog, to cut the heat.