Smoked in Texas: Smoked Sturgeon Headcheese
In the video above, chef John Tesar of Spoon in Dallas raises the smoked-filled glass dome to reveal one of his signature dishes. It’s a headcheese made of apple wood smoked sturgeon. The presentation is dramatic, but the that’s only the beginning. The smokiness of the fish is deep. It seeps into the gelatin which allows the flavor to coat your mouth as it melts on the tongue. The dollop of caviar is an uneccessary but welcome garnish to an unforgettable dish. The $18 price tag might seem steep, but that’s equal to the cost of a pound of beef ribs at Pecan Lodge. I assure you that both are worth every penny.
Daniel Vaughn: Where did the idea for the dish come from?
John Tesar: The public was so pork crazy. I love that, but I was thinking about how to bring that mentality to the seafood world in a respectful way.
DV: How did you arrive at headcheese?
JT: My father was Eastern European and he would eat headcheese and my mother made this jellied eel. We had a house at the beach and we’d go comb for eels under the full moon. I learned about how gelatinous eels were. She made this thing from gelatin and the boiling water from the eel, and the eel picked off the bones. That’s really what headcheese is. So, my father and I ate all this jellied stuff. As a kid I was disgusted by it, but one day I had this cathartic moment about how to bring the pork world into seafood and I thought about smoked eel and sturgeon. Originally we did it with sturgeon and eel, but it’s just easier to control it with just sturgeon. We just smoked it and made it into a seafood headcheese.
DV: What’s the process you go through?
JT: I brine the sturgeon for two or three days with lemon, dill, garlic, shallots, water, sugar, and salt. We lightly smoke it in our Alto-Shamm smoker for twenty minutes. Then, we trim out the blood muscle, pull the meat and chop it just like a pig’s head. That goes in the dashi with some gelatin, chives and dill. The dashi is how we keep it specifically seafood. I didn’t want to use a meat stock. When it’s done we top it with the creme and the roe.
DV: Where is the fish from?
JT: We use Passmore Ranch. These guys went to Texas A&M and moved out to Sacramento and started a sturgeon farm. They gave me a sturgeon and we fell in love with it. Sturgeon is meaty so it’s the perfect application for the headcheese.
DV: And all that smoke under the dome?
JT: We use a smoking gun to fill the glass dome with apple wood smoke. It sets the tone for what’s coming. I also think it’s apropos for Texas with all the barbecue and smoked meats here.
DV: All the cool chefs have pig tattoos. Do you have a fish tattoo?
JT: No. I have a Red Hot Chili Peppers tattoo and an Eskimo tattoo that covers up an old girlfriend’s name.
DV: You’re a big Chili Peppers fan?
JT: It’s from 1992. I lost a basketball game to Flea and the bet was that I had to get a tattoo. I figured I might as well get a Chili Peppers tattoo.