Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rillettes du Porc, Basic Pie Dough

Today's Les Halles adventure is a truly frenchified dish, rillettes du porc. This is the first dish I got really excited about cooking from the Les Halles Cookbook because it looks intimidating at first glance, but actually requires very little labor on the part of the cook. It's also the dish that Tony rhapsodizes about in the introduction to the cookbook as being the thing that convinced him to take the job as executive chef at Les Halles restaurant in the first place.

He tells the story in the introductory section of the cookbook, how he went to an interview with Jose de Meirelles and was unimpressed with the shabby, dirty looking restaurant, nicotine stained ceilings blazing in the noon New York sun. The interview concluded with an invitation to dinner at the restaurant. Tony decided to pass on the job, but mentioned the free dinner offer to his (first) wife Nancy. She, hungry for steak frites, insisted he keep the dinner appointment. When the two pushed their way into the now-crowded, darkened restaurant, it was clear a magical transformation had taken place. He stared, astounded at the menu at dishes he hadn't seen since his childhood summers in France, and the first dish he orders is "a crock of lovely, extravagantly fatty rillettes." By the time he finished dinner, he decided to take the job, and the rest is food-memoir-and-travel-tv history. (It's a good story, and better the way he writes it, so I encourage you all to buy the cookbook or get it from the library even if just for this three-page story.)

So what are rillettes du porc? Basically, it's boiled, shredded pork, stored under slices of fat, and molded like a pate to be served spread over slices of baguette as an appetizer. I'm making them this weekend for a family dinner next weekend in honor of dad's visit. My dad lives as an expat in a Middle Eastern country, and whenever he comes back to the US for a visit or business, the first thing he looks for is a big serving of pork. Rillettes seem like the perfect, porky gluttenous dish to serve him, particularly since Ramadan began yesterday, and he (a non-Muslim) is forced to snatch quick bites in his office while the rest of his colleagues fast. Rillettes also have to be made at least three days in advance to allow the flavors to marry, which is why I'm making them this weekend for next weekend's dinner.

On to the dish!

I knew just where I was going to get my pork for this dish--the Cedarbrook Farm stand at the farmer's market, which provides the most delicious pastured pork. I am a huge fan of their hot Italian sausage (of which they were providing free samples while we waited in the line--BONUS!) and their bacon. I was waited on by the must cherubic little boy who sweetly asked me what I would like from their truck.

"I need some serious pork from you today!" I said, to differentiate myself from the masses who were snapping up the Italian sausages after tasting the free samples (posers... I liked the sausage BEFORE it was cool). "Do you have pork belly?"

Angelic little boy conferred with his mom, who was working with the register.

"Not til September!" he reported.

What is this?? Pork belly not in season? I was not aware that there even was a season for pork belly, though I suppose it makes some sense. Well never mind, Whole Foods was bound to have something I could use. I ordered a pound of pork shoulder (though as I discovered it only comes in 3 pound packets) and a pound of back fat (hahaha, back fat back tack tack back fat back...). After obtaining some veggies, peaches, yogurt and butter from the market stands, I left Husband J with the bags while I ran to the Whole Foods to find some belly. Only when I got there, there was no pork belly to be had. I skimmed the butcher stand, remembering to check the refrigerated cuts section, but still no darn belly! Oh well, I decided, grabbing two pounds of bacon. What is bacon but pork belly that has been cured and sometimes smoked? I got the thickest, fattiest, least messed with bacon I could find, which would just have to do.

I was feeling a little despondent as I walked back to the house in the hot Sunday morning sun. But I had to remind myself that I'd done the best I could, that salted pork belly was probably not going to taste too different than non-cured belly, and that however you slice it, I was the winner in this situation, because I was the one walking home with TWO POUNDS OF BACON!!!

Only, I wasn't. I walked in the door, and found Husband J slicing up some peaches into little bowls of greek yogurt for our breakfast, and pouring coffee.

"Did you find the pork belly?" he asked.

"Nope," I said, "so I got bacon. See?"

I reached into the bag and got a handful of parsley. Bay leaf. Two slices of Norwegian Jarlsburg. Thyme. Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap. But no bacon. I'd left it at the register.

Gallant Husband J grabbed the receipt and trotted back to Whole Foods to fetch the bacon while I seethed, steamed and sweated, and used up all our ice in an ice bath to defrost the pork shoulder.

Pork Shoulder defrosting in its package. I looove you Cedarbrook Farm!

When the bacon arrived, I chopped it up into sliced chunks and threw it into the big stock pot.

mmm. Bacon.

The pork shoulder had about defrosted, so I cut the three pound cut into thirds, and chopped a third into chunks. The shoulder even had a layer of skin on it, which to my credit, I was NOT grossed out by. Mostly I thought to myself, "cool, skin" because although I am not awesome enough to actually slaughter a pig and cook it for my dinner, I feel that buying pastured pork with the bones and skin and all is a good way to get to that point.

Pork shoulder chopped. At the top is the branded or stamped bits of skin. To the right of those is my Whole Foods receipt, used to claim the bacon. To the right is my 8.5 inch Wusthof chef's knife. She is my very favorite knife. I call her "Vera."

The pork went into the pot along with some fresh herbs (parsley, bay leaf, thyme) and four cups of water.

I turned the heat on to low, and we are set to cook for six hours. Now there is something kind of morally reprehensible to me about boiling bacon. Bacon, like all the most delicious foods (onion rings, paneer pakoras, beignets, calamari, mars bars) should be FRIED. And I can't help but thinking of that bit in Better Off Dead where the mom boils the bacon and it turns green and disgusting. But the French have apparently been boiling bacon for centuries, and who am I to argue with the French and Julia Child?

Next, time to make some basic pie dough from the "miscellaneous meez" (ugh, so precious) section of the cookbook, for tonight's dinner of zucchini/tomato/leek quiche. There aren't any quiche recipes in the Les Halles Cookbook, but I do make a mean quiche, and am evangelical about handmade pie crusts. Premade does NOT taste the same, or feel the same, or ANYTHING the same as a simple, easy homemade crust. I have made plenty of crusts in my time, but now is a great time to try Tony's recipe.

Today it's time to try a crust technique that I've never done--pie crust in the food processor. I've heard it's the easiest, best way to make a pie crust, but what can I say... I'm old school and tend to use a fork. I put 2 cups of sifted flour into the processor, along with sugar, salt, a stick of butter and a beaten egg (really? Never used an egg in pie crust either). Blended all of this until it was a mass of crust.

Then I added a tablespoon and a half of water. when the crust came away from the sides of the Cuisinart, it was time to roll it into a ball, cover in plastic, and refrigerate.

Pulling away from the sides of the Cuisinart.

The pork continued to simmer on the stovetop, filling the house with pork-smelling goodness. I sat down for a break to watch a DVD of The French Chef with Julia Child that I got off Netflix (to husband J's dismay--he'd wanted either The State or Mad Men, both of which were ahead of The French Chef in our queue. But both had "long waits" so The French Chef it was). Julia was cooking tripes a la mode, holding up an entire cow stomach for our viewing pleasure. Between putting together the quiche (bacon, egg, cheese, veggies sauteed in bacon fat), the pork simmering on the stove (more than half fat itself) and the tripe on the tv, I was beginning to feel a little ill.

Once properly cooled, I rolled the pie crust out on my silicone mat. To my great dismay, the crust was a little too dry, and cracked immediately. I frantically patched it together, but by the time I had it rolled out and ready to get into the pie pan, it cracked again. I had to console myself with piecing it, bit by bit, into the pie pan, and pressing it together first with fingertips, then the heel of my hand for an even surface.


At least it was marginally in once piece at this point. I filled it with zucchini-onion mixture, then bits of bacon left over from the rillettes and cooked the way God intended (that is FRIED), then some halved cherry tomatoes from the market, and covered it with a mix of eggs, milk, cream, and cheese. Popped that into the oven for about an hour.

Some people would have arranged the tomatoes and zucchini artfully, perhaps in an elegant spiral. Those people can suck it.

By this time, Julia was showing us how to fillet whole fish, and roast and serve them by pulling their tails apart and stuffing them through their mouths, as if they were throwing up their own tails. I was feeling seriously sick at that point.

"I should have made salad," I groaned.

"Is the quiche ready?" asked Husband J.

Almost. The quiche was golden brown at the end of the hour, and out of the oven it came, ready for our dinner.

To my astonishment, frankencrust actually tasted really good. It wasn't rock hard, as I feared it would be, but buttery, light, and flaky, the way a good pie crust should be. It got a bit heavy at the edges, but that's it. I managed to get down a small piece of quiche, but that was about all the grease I could handle for one night. Husband J procured a dry riesling that was acidic enough to make me feel a little better. It was practically a salad.

After dinner, the pork was ready. I drained it in a colander, then, in batches, shredded the pork with two forks.

This really does not look appetizing.

Shredding the pork

"Feel free to shovel some still-warm pork into your face," recommends Tony when you get to this step. "You know you want to."

Well actually I was still feeling sick and did NOT want any pork. But I managed to feed some to Husband J, who gave it an enthusiastic double thumbs up.

Finally, the shredded pork gets stored in small plastic containers under a layer of back fat. It has to marry for three days, so we'll try one of the containers on Wednesday (with a SALAD) and report back on how it tastes!

Covered in back fat. Haha. "Back fat."

Lessons Learned: Pork belly has a season and it starts in September, which is not now. "Back fat" is hilarious to say. Don't leave your bacon at the Whole Foods, but if you do, it's easy to get back. Making too much bacon-centered foods in one day while watching Julia Child cook tripe will make you feel very sick, so try not to do that.

Next time: Tasting report on rillettes du porc.

1 comment:

  1. Elizabeth David sometimes used an egg in shortcrust pastry, describing it as "enriched shortcrust".
    Love your web-page.