Some people might say an image of an animal head is unappealing, down right spooky. What I think is unnerving is the fact that we're disconnected from where our meat comes from. More and more, and I feel like most Americans just can't deal with the fact that the meat they eat had a life, let alone a face.
To me, the act of cooking, eating, and, (gasp!) enjoying a head is a kind of fist-pump in the air for sustainable, mindful eating, and a nod to learning old things. Some people will turn green just considering the thought of eating something made with a head, and that's fine—we're not going to run out of boneless white meat, fake meat, fake boneless white meat, or any permutation of the latter food scientists can come up with anytime soon. I can assure you though, heads are useful and they can be delicious, especially in soup, which brings us to the tale of a ram called butthead.
Shepherd Song: Purveyors of Fine Grass Fed Lamb and Goat
A few years ago my friends at Shepherd Song Lamb and Goat Meat donated a couple rams to the farm to mate with some ewes they'd previously given us that were too small for their needs (but very tasty, a small icelandic breed).
One of the rams was nice and docile, the other ram, was a butt-head, also known as a ram that will ram you. As funny as it sounds, a ram that has a tendency to ram things with it's head or be aggressive can be dangerous, and Jon—patriarch of the farm and experienced sheep wrangler, has had the broken bones to prove it.
So, for the good of the herd and human pelvic bones, mr. butthead had to go. There was a good amount of meat on him, and that meat wasn't from just any run of the mill wool sheep. Butthead was an heirloom breed called Isle d'France, a species of sheep designed for meat, not wool, as is the case with most commercial lamb.
The product Shepherd Song makes is best grass-fed lamb and goat I've had the pleasure to cook, so I try not to waste anything. After dispatching, the meat is hung, since it's easier to work with chilled and allowed to dry out for a few days. With no meat to cut up immediately, the "first harvest" as I call it, usually consists of a few different things: blood, caul fat, offal, and, the head.
Lamb heads: natures perfect soup bone
Think about it, lamb heads might as well have been created to make soup. In my world, the best meat soups and broths are made not from only bones, or only meat, but a combination of the two—something I learned when I tried to use only cheap marrow bones for stock back in the day. Clean-ish bones, even roasted for multiple hours on low heat will still give a pallid stock that's rich with gelatin, but lacking the dark cast created by caramelized proteins found in muscle.
Posole is a great thing you can make with a head, and after you puree some guajillos and vegetables into broth and simmer it with dried hominy and herbs, no one is going to think for a second that they're eating anything but a fine bowl of soup.
This is really just Mexican comfort food modeled after what I order at one of my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the Twin Cities. At it's core it's nothing more than meat broth with hominy, chilis and a few other things, with a crowing glory of garnishes to pick from so each person can compose their own bowl like a choose your own adventure book. Don't skip the avocado.
Smoked Lamb Head Posole
- 1 cup or 8 ounces dried Mexican white hominy
- 1 ram or sheep’s head with tongue, preferably an older, larger hogget or mutton since they contain more meat
- 1 lb lamb stew meat, diced ½ inch optional
- 1 large yellow onion diced ¼ inch, about 3 cups
- 3 large cloves fresh garlic minced, about 1 tablespoon
- 10 cups water
- 2 teaspoons fresh ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil or lard
- Kosher salt to taste
- 3 oz dried guajillo chilis
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
Garnishes (pick and choose a few)
- Fresh lime wedges
- Sliced radishes
- Diced avocado
- Shredded cabbage
- Grated queso fresco
- Chopped fresh cilantro to taste
Smoke the head and make the broth
- Season the rams head with salt and pepper and smoke in a smoker at 250 for 2 hours, then cool*.
- In a stock pot large or wide enough to fit the head, sweat the onion and garlic for 5 minutes until translucent. Add the heat, hominy, bay leaves, dried oregano, additional stew meat if using and water, cover and bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover and cook for 3-4 hours.
- The head may not be completely covered with water, so you’ll need to turn it occasionally to ensure even cooking. Cooking in a crock pot, depending on the size, would be great too, and could require less liquid to cover the head as the shape of the cooking vessel is similar to the head.
Building the soup
- Meanwhile, toast the chilis in a cast iron skillet in the oven at 300 for 20 minutes, then cool, break open, and discard the seeds.
- Put the chilis in a blender or food processor with 1.5 cups hot stock from the posole, and puree until smooth, then add back to the pot.
- When the meat is tender and the hominy has started to pop, remove the head and cool on a cutting board.
- Using gloves, remove the meat from the head when cool, including the tongue, and chop coarsely, peeling the tongue beforehand.
- Add the chopped meat back to the soup. If the soup seems too brothy, reduce it a bit more, if it's looking dry, add a little liquid until you like it. The soup should be brothy. Season to taste with salt, then serve, with garnishes on the side.
Thanks Nicole. Hope you're staying safe out there.
Amy M Yaich
As an American who lived in North Africa, and then married there... Lambs head is a regular part of our diet. Your Mexican soup sounds excellent, I can't wait to try it. I have a lambs head, that I cleaned myself after we butchered it, in my freezer... Just calling to be cooked.
I look forward to every one of your posts, I truly do. In this case, can I be a maniac and add the minor point that its a bit of a no-no to eat the central nervous system of a ruminant, especially outside of the US, because it tends to harbor prion diseases from the mad cow family such as Creutzfeldt-Jakobs disease. I guess Im super-sensitive to this because as a nurse, I have seen what these diseases can do to humans. So, just avoid eating the brain, eyes and spinal cord of sheep and goats and cows and all will be well. Otherwise, I adore your creativity and the fact that you aren't afraid to take a risk. Your recipe for dead-man's fingers blew me away!!
Thanks for that. as a raiser of some of Alan’s meat an organic farmerInever thought of that risk
Maggie, thanks for chiming in. As I type this, I’m stopped at a rest area in WI with a large buck in the back of my car. When I bring that buck home, how I butcher it will be quite different than how I butcher sheep.
Sheep get scrapie, venison get CWD, and cows, get mad cow—all terrifying prion conditions in their own right, but they’re not exactly the same.
Mad cow gave everyone a scare when it jumped species. When that happened, there were a lot of notifications and media coverage.
CWD and scrapie have never jumped species (knock on wood) with the exception of it being forced into analogous primates by injection directly into their brains by scientists in a lab.
With wild meat like the deer in my trunk, I’m going to strip the meat off without cutting through bone, because that’s what the DNR recommends if it hasn’t been tested. I discard the head. With farmed sheep, its essentially a non issue, if it was, we would have sheep farmers culling and burning their entire herds around the country, with widespread warnings about consumption. If you have knowledge of that happening in the US recently, let me know.
With venison it’s definitely something to be very aware of.
enjoy your venison, wish I were there!
Bravo! Fact. The detachment this culture has fostered between the land, the animals, the weather, the farmers and ranchers who all work together to provide sustenance is downright tragic! I almost did a painting decades ago showing all the sources for the ingredients and where they came from in the production of a cake. From the farmer who raised and cared for the chicken who laid the egg and so, to the pastry chef who was the one who baked the product to the worker at the bakery that sold it. Thank you for addressing this matter.
Thanks Kim. I try not to pontificate too much about ethics, but I have to from time to time. Your painting sounds lovely.
Just made it. This is soooo good! Never thought about smoking the head beffore