How to cook a cow head in New York City

There comes a time in every girl’s life — when she’s ripping open the long-braised skull of a short-lived calf in order to better wobble out its beer-marinated brain — that she smiles contentedly and realizes she loves her life an awful lot. Then she goes for the eyes.

Well OK, not every girl’s life — but at least those of a troika of squeam-free dames including Hill Country’s executive chef and cookbook author Elizabeth Karmel, Homesick Texan writer Lisa Fain and lucky, lucky me. And it all happened because of Twitter.

I was a vegetarian for the majority of my 20s. I mention this because as soon as I put the words “smoke a cow head” in my Facebook status and on Twitter, anyone who’d seen me so much as stand near a tempeh patty during that era rang in to register their surprise and/or revulsion. Hey — I don’t shave most of my head and listen to Hole on repeat on my Sony Discman (much) anymore either. People change.

The phrase “smoke a cow head” was, on the contrary, a Twitter-based homing beacon to Elizabeth and Lisa, whom I’d never met and who it turned out had been discussing it amongst themselves, both pining for the barbacoa tacos they’d left behind in Texas. We met up at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party and strategized.

As an awfully big fan of offal and a serious low-‘n’-slow meat smoker, I’d been inspired both by Texas food writer Robb Walsh’s video account of backyard barbacoa and a recent soul-feeding whole pig dinner at I’d attended at Marco Canora’s Hearth restaurant. My efforts had gotten as far as sourcing a cow head from an upstate New York butcher (incurring some sharply pointed stares in the process) and deciding to dig a pit in the teensy scrap of virgin land I own in that neck of the woods. But it’s not as if I’d ever, you know, actually eaten any cabeza de vaca. At least that I’d ever been made aware of.

Lisa, on the other hand, had grown up feasting on — though never cooking — said noggin meat in her native Texas, but had been stonewalled by New York City regulations preventing local butchers from selling the heads of animals. Pesky bovine spongiform!

And lo, the heavens opened and on their meaty wings the angels bore Chef Elizabeth Karmel, who not only had commercial access to all regions of carcass meat; she’d also smoked it all. However, all instances of barbacoa had been in the traditional manner — the aforementioned outdoor pit, with the head swaddled in maguey leaves and then covered with damp soil to steam, so we’d have to improvise in the kitchen at her restaurant, Hill Country. She summoned us there on a Sunday afternoon soon after.

I’d no idea what to expect upon arrival. I mean, Elizabeth had outlined the methodology over the phone with me a few days beforehand — season the head (which she’d ordered “hide off”), wrap it in banana leaves, put that in a clam shell of two foil hotel pans, pour in a few beers, pop it in a smoker for a day and voila de vaca! I got that. I could process that. The big honkin’ x-factor was what it would be like to walk up on a great big, flayed, naked, dead cow head, still in full possession of its eyes, brain and tongue and wrap my own head around the notion of cooking and eating it.

And besides, I didn’t know what one brings to a barbacoa cooking — I grew up a place where every scrap of fowl or mammal came either pre-pattied or Saran-mummified against a pink styrofoam tray in the grocery store. I brought a long-hoarded bottle of Van Winkle Rye, just to be safe — and anesthetized if need be.

Turns out that need wasn’t. Pedrito, as we dubbed him, was indeed nude and dead upon a tray, but in my weird, weird brain — prone to anthropomorphizing everything from dust mites to pillow wrinkles — somehow processed this 16 pounds of lifeless flesh and teeth and nostril into something … oh look! He’s smiling at us!

We all find ways to deal. Feel free to judge.

With little preamble, Elizabeth, Lisa and I got to it, with Elizabeth leading the charge. We seasoned the whole head and tongue with a salt-and-pepper blend, tucked the tongue under the cow’s jaw, wrapped the whole thing in banana leaves and bound that in place with kitchen string. Then we made nests of additional banana leaves in two foil hotel pans, put the wrapped head in one, poured in three bottles of Lone Star beer to braise the meat, placed the second pan on top to form a clam shell and bound that tightly with more string. (See the slideshow below for a step-by step pictorial.)

When we finally looked up, the cooks — all men — were staring at the three of us with expressions calibrated somewhere between fascination and utter revulsion. Goodness, I was pleased. We toted Pedrito to the lowest-powered smoker in the kitchen and blew kisses as he embarked on his 24-hour, 210-degree tour of duty.

Rye was had.

One day later, we returned to Hill Country. I’d barely slept and had been fidgeting at my desk all morning with the Christmas Eve-level anticipation of cutting the strings to release the pans and leaf husk. Colleagues, having seen the previous day’s uploaded pictures of Pedrito in his raw state were giving me the hairy eyeball. “Those pictures nearly made me vomit! A little warning would have been nice!”

“I said they were a cow head before cooking. No one made you click on them.”

“Still. And don’t leave any cow brain in the office fridge when you come back!”

Frankly, I wasn’t counting on leftovers. And I certainly wasn’t counting on the utter abandon of four — the New York Times’ Jill Santopietro joined us for the unveiling — adult, professional, some might even say respectable women plundering this animal’s skull for its softened flesh. It was steaming still and we burned our hands through our latex gloves as we scooped meat and globules of fat from its contours, giddy and transfixed. It reeked gorgeously of beer and game and charred husk. Elizabeth methodically stripped the rough coating from the calf’s tongue while Jill sorted sumptuous cheek meat from gristle and bone shards. Lisa and I, as if on orders straight from Dionysus, cackled (maybe that was just me) as we plundered for eyes and brain, cracking through whatever matter was in our way.

I stuffed a pinch of impossibly rich, earthy and creamy brain in my mouth at some point and instantly craved cocktail rye upon which to spread it like a party pate, but it was at long last time for tacos. Lisa, a serious salsa maker, provided a glorious array of fire-kissed, tangy and mild Texas-style sauces for slathering over the moist, tender heaps of meat we’d formed on warm tortillas. For all that fuss and sweat, Pedrito had yielded only 1.9 pounds of usable meat.

It was worth every second we’d spent. This smoky, supple, gently gamy barbacoa was like nothing I’d ever eaten before and now hope to many times again in the company of The Whiskey Girls, as we dubbed ourselves. There was indeed more rye and there were no leftovers, save for the jawbones I brought home to make stock.

And oh yes, those jawbones spent a couple of hours in the office fridge. Tightly wrapped, of course — I’m not a savage.

This was originally published at Slashfood.

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