Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Petit Salé aux Lentilles

This will (probably) conclude the late winter pork fest, and end it on a lovely note, indeed. Petit salé aux lentilles-- simmered salt pork on lentils--is a traditional preparation from the Auvergne region of France, which is situated pretty much smack in the middle of the country, just a little south of center. The Auvergne is the source of some of the most celebrated French cheeses, including Bleu d'Auvergne, Fourme d'Ambert, Salers, Saint-Nectaire, and Cantal. It also produces some wonderful charcuterie, as Mary and I were forcefully informed by a rather aggressive Auvergate sausage vendor at the marvelous National Antiques and Ham Fair which we attended a few years ago on the Ile de Chatou just outside Paris.

I think the music of the name itself is as appealing as the comforting combination of savory pork and lentils. And I think it has intrigued me these many years because, well, it's not the sort of thing we eat around here--except that it is, since it's not that far a stretch from something like lentil soup with sausage, my old-time favorite dish at the Black Forest Inn, back in my Whittier days (I liked it because it was good, and because I was poor; good to see  it's still on the menu, and still cheap at a mere $4.50 a bowl).

Petit salé, "small salted," refers to the salt pork, and the recipes I've consulted indicate that this could be one or more of several cuts--pork belly, shoulder, hock, country-style ribs. The dish also usually includes smoked sausage--I'm a big fan of the uncured smoked bratwurst from Pastures A Plenty. The key to this dish is to make your own salt pork, and this is complicated, so please pay close attention:

Step one: Apply salt to pork.
Step two: Wait.

I can go through that again, more slowly, if you like.

Since I was on a mission to use up excess pork belly, that was my choice for this dish--also because it was the versions using salted belly that originally caught my interest. When we talk salt pork we're once again in the realm of a traditional method of preserving meat--as with bacon, ham, rillons and rillettes, confit of goose, duck, or pork--which we now appreciate for the unique flavors that those methods impart. We don't really put up a barrel full of salted fowl sealed in fat to last us through the winter, or have a slab of bacon hanging in the rafters. But to look at the amount of salt used in many recipes for this type of thing, you'd think we were still trying to preserve these meats for posterity. I see books and websites that literally call for burying duck legs in salt for days, curing pork belly in massive amounts of salt for days prior to smoking, and I just consulted a website where the recipe for salt pork called for over half a cup of salt per pound of belly--I used one tablespoon per pound....*

To make the salt pork, then: you'll need a piece of pork belly. I used a pound, and while I was thinking the finished dish would serve four, it was really more like three hearty servings; you'd want to do a pound and a half of belly for four servings. You'll want fairly lean belly for this--look for a piece that's about half and half lean and fat.

Starting with a pound and a half of pork belly: Cut the pork belly into three pieces. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt evenly over the meat on all sides. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, turning it over a couple of times if you think of it. Mine wound up sitting in the fridge for six days; the delay was the result of various life complications including the move, and a dog who for some reason enjoys consuming various utterly indigestible items, such as dish towels and bike gloves. But since it wasn't buried in salt, it did not become too salty. It was, in fact, perfectly seasoned after that time, but probably didn't change much after the first couple of days.

The simmering of the pork takes a while, an hour and a half to two hours, so plan ahead. You could also simmer the pork a day or two ahead, in which case cooking the lentils and finishing the dish will take around an hour.

I took one liberty with the classic method, which was to slice and fry the pork belly after simmering to brown it well, but on one side only. This gave an attractive appearance to the browned side, rendered a bit more fat, and lent a lighter texture to the belly. The veritable Auvergnate version would not be fried.

Petit Salé aux Lentilles
Serves four

1 1/2 pounds salted pork belly, in three pieces
1 small carrot, chopped
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 a rib of celery or a bit of peeled celery root, chopped
some leek tops, chopped, optional
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Place pork and aromatics in a large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour and a half to two hours. (Strain and save the flavorful stock; you'll need a cup of it to finish this recipe, and the rest will make the base of an excellent soup, maybe using leftover lentils.)

For the lentils:

1 1/2 cups green French lentils, such as lentilles de Puy
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib of celery or a bit of peeled celery root, chopped
some leek tops, chopped, optional
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the lentils and place them in a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, blanch for one minute, then drain and rinse the lentils. Return them to the saucepan (it should be large enough to accept the expanded lentils, pork belly, and a couple of sausages). Add the carrot, onion, celery or root, optional leek tops, a solid pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cover with water by two inches, bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes.


3 smoked sausages, like smoked bratwurst (smoked polish or andouille would also be good)

Remove the pork belly from the pot where it has been simmering and drain well. Cut each piece in half, as if you were cutting very thick slices of bacon. Heat a skillet and brown the belly slices well on one side only. Add the belly to the lentils, along with the sausages and a cup of the strained belly-simmering liquid. Simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Remove the sausages and slice them on the diagonal 1/2-inch thick.

Use a slotted spoon to place a bed of lentils in a large, wide bowl. Add a little broth, if you like. Top with a piece of pork belly and two or three slices of sausage. Serve with good mustard (grain or dijon), cornichons, and crusty bread or toast.


* Looking critically at recipes and methods is something I always try to do, rather than just following instructions slavishly, even though the preparation may be long-established and time-honored--well, actually, especially in those cases. Those are the dishes that often need updating. One of the things I'm most proud of in my book is the streamlined, accessible instructions for smoking, fermenting, making confit, mayonnaise, etc.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


Wendy Berrell said...

C'est bon.

Need to get your approach to trout and ramps. Will be here soon.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Wendy: My go-to with trout and ramps is to just grill the whole trout, slice and slowly sauté ramp whites until they're nicely caramelized, toss in the chopped greens, splash in a little cider vinegar or dry cider, serve over trout. Good fishing and foraging to you~ Brett

p.s.~ Wow, just realized that the MN regular trout season opens this weekend!