Monday, March 23, 2009

Rillettes de Porc

This is just about the simplest of all patés to make. It's really just fatty pork slowly simmered with a few seasonings until it's falling apart. Then you smash it up with your hands, beat it with a spatula, and pack it into ramekins. The area around the city of Tours in the Loire valley is known for its pork products, particularly rillettes. A little crock of rillettes, with its constant companions, grain mustard and cornichons, is often served with an aperitif. Or it may be part of an assiette de cochonailles, a things-made-from-pig plate--a bit of ham, dried sausage, a slice of terrine--served as a dinner first course or casual lunch.

We often simplify even further, making lunch out of a lump of rillettes, some crusty bread, a few salad leaves, maybe a piece of cheese. This is such a simple, honest dish, so evocative of its rural origins and a frugal way in the kitchen that does not trade flavor for economy. In other words: It is cheap, delicious, and reeks of terroir.

As with all very simple preparations, the quality of its few ingredients is all-important, and here the pork is practically all there is to it. Therefore, use only the best natural or organic pork you can find. It calls for an inexpensive cut, pork shoulder, so it won't break the bank. We're lucky here in Minnesota to have a number of excellent local producers whose pork is widely available--
Pastures A Plenty , Hidden Stream Farm , Chase Brook Natural Meats , to name a few.

Rillettes takes advantage of the scrappy bits of pork, the butcher's left-overs, and of the pig's good fat, as well. The pork for rillettes should be at least one-third fat. That's all the more reason to use only excellent natural pork, as anything suspect that is fed to an animal is concentrated in the fat. And I'm sure I hardly need to say it, but please avoid at all costs the so-called "enhanced" pork often sold at the big-box grocery stores, industrial product injected with water and various salts, to make it "juicy," because all the flavor has been bred out in the effort to transform the noble swine into "the other white meat...".

The fat of a well-raised pig is dense, white, and creamy. It renders into exquisite lard, a venerable fat with a thousand uses. In the context of a diet rich in the whole blessed variety of local, seasonal foods, and of a life rich in interest, exercise, and joie de vivre, it can be enjoyed without fear, without guilt.

You can eat the rillettes right away, but they are best if allowed to age for a day or two and, sealed with a layer of fat, they'll keep for at least a couple of weeks, improving with every day.

Vive le cochon, and would you please pass the mustard?

Rillettes de Porc
makes enough to fill three four-ounce ramekins; this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled

1 pound pork shoulder, at least one-third fat, cut in 1-inch cubes
3/4 tsp salt
coarsely ground black pepper
bay leaf
pinch quatres-épices
three sprigs fresh thyme

Place the pork, salt, bay leaf, thyme and spices in a heavy saucepan. Add water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, cover, and cook until the pork is falling apart, three to four hours. You may need to add more water during this time.

At the end of the cooking all the water should be gone, but only just at the very end--you don't want the pork frying in its own fat. When the pork is done it will crush easily with a fork. Let the pork sit, in the pan, overnight.

In the morning, roll up your sleeves and wash your hands. Now, dig right in to the solidified mass of rillettes and crush the pieces with your fingers. Working methodically and joyfully, you may be reminded of the mystical communion experienced by the whalers in Moby Dick as they worked together to render the blubber, their arms immersed in liquid fat, their hands glancing off each other as the ship rocked on the cold, gray sea; you may not.

Work the pork with your hands until it is fairly a paste. It will be pretty melted already, but put it back on a low heat to melt it thoroughly. Remove three tablespoons of clear fat and set it aside; this will be used to seal the top of the ramekins.

Now, transfer the rillettes to a large bowl, and working over ice (or a snowbank, deer skull optional; it really has been a rough winter here*), beat the rillettes with a wooden spatula until it is quite cold and it forms a homogeneous mass. Taste for salt as it cools--you'll probably want to add a pinch or two, as it will taste less salty as it cools. Add another grind of black pepper, too.

I followed the basic recipe laid out by Jacques Pépin in A French Chef Cooks at Home. Once the rillettes are nearly done, he says you should, " it with the wooden spatula for 1 or 2 minutes to whiten it and make it more fluffy." Then he says (I love this part): "Remember, it should not be too fluffy. Therefore, do not overwork it." What more do you need to know? I'm not sure I would call this "fluffy," at all, never mind "too fluffy." It will be white and paté-like, and you will be tired of stirring it. So stop, already.

Divide the rillettes among three 1/2-cup ramekins. Pack it in nice and tight. Melt the fat you have saved, and pour it over the top of the rillettes, turning the ramekin to cover the top completely. Refrigerate. About an hour before serving, take a ramekin out of the fridge to warm and soften just a little. Serve with crusty bread, grain mustard, cornichons; or with a salad.

A glass or two of cold sauvignon blanc from the Loire, such as sancerre, pouilly-fumé, quincy or reuilly is especially sympa with rillettes.


* Actually, that's a souvenir from the Wisconsin woods; Annabel found it for me a few years ago when we were fishing on the lower Kinnickinnic River.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

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