“What do you want with a cow head?” asked the farmer selling beef at the Union Square Greenmarket. “We don’t sell cow heads here in New York—they’re illegal.”
Not to be deterred, I got on the phone and called my local butchers. It was the same conversation each time. First, they’d express shock and disgust at my query. And then they would curtly inform me that they could not ever, no way, no how get me a cow head as indeed, they’re illegal to sell in New York by order of the USDA. Something to do with eating cow brains having a connection to possibly getting mad cow’s disease.
So what’s a barbacoa-craving Texan in New York to do? I’ve made lamb barbacoa, but I wanted beef barbacoa. If I were at home, I could pop over to my local Fiesta grocery store and pick up a cow’s head in the meat section, nestled between the ground beef and slabs of brisket. But here my options were more limited, though I was advised that if I became friends with a farmer I’d probably have no problem getting a cow head.
I became friends with Elizabeth Karmel instead.
If you don’t know Elizabeth, she is America’s foremost female grilling expert, creator of Girls at the Grill, author of Soaked, Slathered & Seasoned and Taming the Flame and executive chef at New York’s best barbecue joint, Hill Country. And when she heard about my quest she graciously offered to help me get a cow head so we could make smoke it and make barbacoa.
She did indeed deliver, and last week a small group of us gathered at Hill Country to begin the two-day process of smoking a cow head in Hill Country’s smokers.
Back in Texas, a cow head traditionally is slow-cooked in the ground (though that’s a largely extinct practice now due to health departments’ intervention. Today, most cow head’s are cooked in an oven, slow cooker or on the grill). Elizabeth aimed to recreate this experience by wrapping the cow head in banana leaves and then containing the wrapped skull in two hotel pans.
For seasoning and moisture, we sprinkled a simple rub of black pepper, salt and cayenne over the skull and in its crevices, and added a couple of beers to the banana-leaf-lined pan. We also decided to smoke the tongue with the cow head, even though most barbacoa-making instructions call for it to be cooked separately. (Which makes no sense to me, but what do I know—I’m a cow-head-cooking virgin!)
I was struck by how simple the whole procedure was. Sure, the cow head was large and awkward and having three people available to help wrap it was advantageous. But save for a little mishap with one of the smoker’s shelves, there was little drama.
There was, however, much curiosity from those at the restaurant who witnessed our preparation. One of the pit masters said he wanted the teeth so he could have dentures made. Another took one look at the cow head and said he would never eat beef again. It was also amusing to note that those of us involved in eating and preparing the cow head were all women Kat Kinsman and the New York Times’ Jill Santopietro, were even wearing skirts as we pulled the meat from the skull), whereas those who were horrified by the cow head were all men. We were fierce!
The verdict? This was some amazingly tender barbacoa. And if I closed my eyes I could have been at a taco stand in El Paso. As we grabbed the meat from the skull and pulled it apart, you could smell the smoke and feel its moist tenderness. We stuffed the meat into flour tortillas and dressed our tacos with salsas, cilantro and onions. Each bite was a succulent treat. I even dared to try the eyeball— which was squishy and bland, and the brains—which had the smooth texture of sweetbreads.
If you have the time and the inclination, and the access to a cow’s head, I highly recommend you try this. Despite the savage-appearance of cooking a cow’s head, this barbacoa was ultimately a delicate treat.
1 cow head
Salt, pepper and cayenne
Two bottles of beer
Long banana leaves
Sprinkle the salt, pepper and cayenne all over the cow head
Completely wrap the cow head in several layers of banana leaves, securing it with kitchen twine.
In a banana-leaf-lined hotel pan, pour two bottles of beer.
Set the banana-leaf-wrapped cow head into the pan, and fold over pan-lining leaves.
Cover cow head and bottom pan with another hotel pan. Secure tight with kitchen twine.
Smoke for 24 hours, remove meat from head (will have to peel the skin off of the tongue), pull apart and make tacos!
Yield: 8-10 servings
Adapted by Lisa Fain from an Elizabeth Karmel recipe