Monday, March 12, 2012
More Fun With Pork Belly: Rillons
Prior to the era of nose-to-tail/free-range/locally sourced/compassionate carnivorism, before this time of intense scrutiny of all things ingestible, when it seems as if there's a semi-professional charcuterie in every other pantry, pork belly was basically just the punchline in a hoary old Midwestern gag. "Pork belly futures up a quarter," in the daily radio report from the mercantile exchange (on WCCO-AM eight-three-oh), epitomized all things quaint and farmy, and a way of life which, to the residents of the burgeoning metropolis, was about as relevant as covered wagon days.
All we knew of actual pork belly was bacon, and since that was the chemical-laced, water-logged, pre-sliced stuff hermetically sealed in plastic and cardboard, sometimes with only a representative single slice showing through the packaging, we surely didn't know that it was cured, smoked pork belly; hell, we might not have even known that it came from pigs.
Enter the cult of bacon, the time of lard love, of reverence for homely cuts and eating low on the hog. Pork belly has found its time to shine. And shine it does, what with all that fat, it really can't help it. In fact, while it was ardently embraced by chefs eager to elevate the rustic and the local, it may have already begun to decline. The problem with pork belly has nothing to do with its inherent lovableness (see above, that endearing fat), but perhaps that it's hard to coax subtlety from something that is so wholeheartedly what it is. Like an overly cheerful companion on a long car ride, its very virtues can become cloying. I recall a dinner not too long ago when I plated up a beautiful meal of braised pork belly for Mary and me, and we both started in with yummy noises a'plenty; but before we had finished half our portions we both set down out silverware, patted at our shiny chins with our napkins, and in unison uttered, "Woof." The richness was just a little too much.
But lately I've discovered a new and excellent way with pork belly. What I've "discovered" is in fact an extremely old method of preparation, one that, as with duck or goose confit, was originally a method of preservation: rillons, a specialty of the Loire River valley in France. It's marinated chunks of pork belly which are browned and then simmered a good long while in fat. Now, if you're anything like me you're already thinking that sounds pretty good, but here's the clincher: the result is remarkably light and highly, highly edible. The lean meat becomes as tender as a well cooked pot roast, and the fat turns ethereal. This is seriously good pork, mes amis.
As with confit of fowl, the method is extremely simple, though the process may seem daunting, involving as it does large quantities of hot fat. But here you can do quite a small batch, using a pound and a half of meat or so, and it's very manageable, and well worth it. Because the cooking liquid isn't pure fat but rather a combination of fat, water, and wine or cider, it's not unnervingly oily. Bonus: since the chunks of belly render as they cook, you actually end up with more fat than you started with, and that lovely, fragrant lard is a splendid cooking medium for eggs or potatoes, or for making authentic and delectable flour tortillas. Mary used some in cornbread that we had last night with our brisket and beans.
I've made rillons twice in recent weeks. I took my basic method from an intriguing website I've just started reading, Cuisine Campagne--hey, she's tapping birch trees this week! Very cool. It's in French, but you can "translate" it, and while the resulting English is pretty tortured, you can get the gist. In my first try I used white wine and a combination of duck and pork fat; second time around, I kept it ultra-local with cider and all pork fat. Both times it was excellent, I really can't compare. Both the wine and cider add a tangy note to the finished dish, which further mitigates the unctuousness.
How to serve: In the Loire, rillons are often part of an assiette de cochonailles--a platter of pork pieces--served as a first course or filling lunch. You might get some pieces of rillons, a little pot of rillettes (I'm not sure what that rill- root means; anyone have a guess?), some sausage or a slice of terrine, some ham, headcheese--much like the now ubiquitous charcuterie plate, but entirely cochon-centric. With highly flavored red meat products, you might automatically think red wine would be the thing to drink--think again: in the Loire white wine rules, made from the sauvignon blanc (Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Quincy) or chenin blanc (Vouvray, Saumur, Touraine) grape varieties. The crisp acidity of these wines goes beautifully with the assertive pork flavors.
I turned my rillons toward Alsace: the first batch made a nice addition to the choucroute garnie I recently wrote about. The second time around I also matched pork and cabbage, but this time the rillons stood alone on a bed of oven-braised fresh red cabbage (which was local stuff, Wisconsin-grown, purchased at Seward Co-op). Here's how that worked: I had the rillons luxuriating in the solidified cooking fat in the fridge. I pried a few pieces out and let them sit at room temp so most of the remaining attached fat could melt off. I shredded a couple cups of cabbage and spread it in the bottom of a baking dish, placed the rillons on top of that, stuck it in a 400-degree (guessing) oven. After five minutes or so I stirred the cabbage so it was evenly coated with fat released by the rillons, and baked for 25 to 30 minutes, until the rillons were very well browned and the cabbage was tender with still a little bite. After removing the rillons I added a splash of cider vinegar and some salt and pepper to the cabbage; serve it forth, it was great. (The little galettes in the pictures were a spur-of-the-moment concoction of potato, apple, and shallot tossed with butter, cider vinegar and maple syrup, baked in little tart molds; not a bad result for a first try, but it could use some refinement.)
There you have it, more reasons to love our friend the pig. I ordered too much pork belly for the smoking demo I did at the Hay River Transition Initiative event, so things have been very porky around here, indeed. In the fridge I've still got a couple pieces of salted belly that will become petit salé aux lentilles, another traditional, rustic French dish that has always intrigued me, but which I've never made. You will likely see the outcome right here.
1 ½ pounds pork belly in 2-inch cubes
¾ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon confit spice (i.e., quatre épices )
1 bay leaf crumbled
½ teaspoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon duck fat or lard
½ cup duck fat or lard
¾ cup dry hard apple cider or white wine
1/2 cup water
Mix the pork belly with salt, herbs and spices, and marinate several hours at room temp or overnight refrigerated. Heat oven to 325. In an ovenproof dutch oven or large saucepan brown the belly pieces well, on all sides, in the 1 tablespoon of duck fat or lard. Add the additional ½ cup of duck fat or lard, the cider or wine, and the water. Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The pork should be very tender but not falling apart.
Remove the pork from the fat to drain on a wire rack if you want to use it right away. To store, place the pork pieces in a glass or ceramic container and pour the fat over them. They will keep for two weeks or more in this way.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw