Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A mess in the kitchen

Yesterday I made pork rillettes. For those of you sane folk who don't like smearing your kitchen with fat, rillettes are like confit: meat, usually pork or duck, is long cooked in fat and then sealed in jars. Rillettes came about as a way of dealing with scraps left over from butchering the pig or dealing with stray bits of Donald. Unlike confit, which benefits from aging, rillettes can be eaten in a few days.

I'd seen several recipes for pork rillettes in my French food reading, and always been interested. But the ingredients are a bit daunting: most call for fatback or pork belly, easily obtainable if you have a farm, less so if you don't. I am on the record as not having enough acreage to support a puppy. And my usual market haunts have neither fatback nor belly.

Undeterred (or quite possibly just foolish), I asked the Berkeley Bowl butcher if there was any fatback or something like it in back. He gave me a funny look. Berkeley Bowl meat guys are accustomed to weird questions. They generally deal with this by acting surly. It is only after my shopping there week in, week out, for years that they will actually acknowledge me. And they do know me. I'm the white lady who buys chicken feet.

The butcher went in back, returning with a plastic bag filled with white pork fat. I thanked him profusely and took my bag home, where it joined the bone-in pork shoulder Madeleine Kamman calls for in When French Women Cook.

Kamman is a Frenchwoman who married an American and moved stateside. She ran a restaurant, then turned to teaching and cookbook writing. When French Women Cook is a memoir/recipe compendium. Each chapter is devoted to a woman she knew and that woman's particular recipes. The women are from all over France, and the result is a compelling work, evoking a time when abundant fish ran in healthy streams and everbody ate lots of fresh, unpasteurized dairy.

The writing is direct, even bossy at times. Originally published in 1976, each recipe gives amounts, seasons to prepare said dish, cost, appropriate wines and difficulty level. Most are difficult. I've had the book two weeks and prepared two recipes so far: the Duck with Basil Sauce, last week's anniversary meal ( A four-hour cooking extravaganza) , and yesterday's rillettes.

Kamman's recipe calls for the following:

--six pounds pork meat, 2/3 lean, 1/3 fat

--two pounds meaty pork bones (we are warned these are essential)

--1/2 pound fatback

--salt and pepper

--one teaspoon dried thyme

--one bay leaf

--1 1/2 teaspoons quatre-épices (a spice mixture of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and coriander)

The idea is to cook all this down in a pot for eight hours, shred the meat, and pack it into jars.

It soon became evident that my little bag of fat would be insufficient. Nor, I realized, was the bone in the roast going to provide enough gelatin. I consulted Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France, the bible of such matters, and found a recipe for pork confit. Wolfert advises making the confit with mostly duck fat. Relieved, I pulled the leftover duck fat from my last confit adventure from the freezer, then moved on the to bone problem. I had some chicken bones. I'd use them. I worried that French women were spinning in their graves from my heresy. I worried about combining chicken bones, duck fat, pork fat, and pork. There was a possibility this combination might not taste good.

It might be awful.

But then again, what are rillettes? For millenia, foods like rillettes and confit were an economical way to utilize scraps. A way not to starve during the winter months. They were not snobby, pickled ramps sorts of foods until the foodies got their snobby, moneyed, never-been-in-barnyard hands on them.

I decided to live on the edge.

I threw the fats into the pot to render. Sliced the fifteen-dollar Niman Ranch roast. Carefully added it to the gently bubbling fat. Skimmed. Added the meats. Took this picture:

Damn, that is scary ugly, eh?

Kamman instructs you to add the spices, which turned everything a muddy brown color, and let it simmer four to five hours.

I did so, but also consulted Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. Bourdain calls for similar ingredients--the same meats, the fatback, but no quarte épice. He says cook six hours.

I started at noon. By two the house began smelling good, a reassuring sign. I plucked some meat from its fatty bath and fed it to Hockeyman.

"This is awesome. Taste it."

"I can't. I have my retainers in."

"Take them out!"

I declined. After four to five hours one is supposed to uncover the pot and allow the liquid to absorb until "there is no more than one inch at the bottom of the kettle." (190) This would take an additional three hours.

By seven the liquid had barely reduced. I took the pot off the heat, waited until the mess had barely cooled, then began picking the meat out. It was so hot I more dropped it into the jars than shredded it. Then I made a mistake: I treated the meats as confit, ladling the fat through a strainer to cover. I let this cool, then sealed it up with duck fat:

Bourdain advises waiting three days to eat this. I reason that although there's lots of duck fat in there, we don't have to consume it all, and besides, how can you go wrong with duck fat?

The kitchen, meanwhile, was a disaster. Splotches of fat on the stove, the countertops, the floor. Three coffee cans filled with sludgy stuff, including much the Berkeley Bowl pork fat, which stubbornly refused to render. Two very slimy dishtowels, one gritty skimmer, one sweaty, unshowered cook. I did what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances: I opened a beer.

Thus refreshed, I tackled cleanup, wondering yet again what how those French farmhouse ladies kept their stone kitchens, with their enormous hearths, so nice and spotless (all these books say things like: "In Mme Reblonchette's immaculate stone kitchen, hung with her Grandmére's copper pots..."). I also contemplated how a huge pot of stuff could cook down into two small jars.

"Are you serving it next week?" Hockeyman asked. In an attempt at social life, BK has invited a couple over for dinner.

"No! God, no! They'll take it the wrong way! It's so pickled ramp!"

"They will not."

It's true. The couple in question are unpretentious people. But the husband is a highly accomplished cook.

"No way."

"You're crazy."

No argument there.


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