Pork Rillette

We’ve been doing a lot of French cooking lately. In part, inspired by our recent trip to France, and in part, trying to make something elegant and exotic out of ordinary everyday ingredients. I did a bunch of research before settling on this recipe, which is a combination of a couple of different sources. But it turned out SO GOOD that we will simply have to make this again. The best part of it all is that the actual hands-on time is minimal, maybe 30 minutes — and most of it is in the prep work.

“Rillette” is “potted meat”, I read somewhere. It is similar to pâté in that it’s a charcuterie item, and is composed of different cuts of (usually less expensive) meat, different spices, and longer cooking time. Actually, the next time I try this, I might want to try it in a crockpot — long cooking time with low heat settings. The trick to this recipe isn’t really about the spices to use or the cut of meat or the temperature and cooking time. Believe it or not, it’s the ratio of fat to meat. And if you’re worried about “diet” at all, this is not for you. On the other hand, the amount of fat is minimal if you were to consider how much of it you are actually consuming per portion. Anyway, it turned out so stupendously good that I just had to include the recipe. We brought a big pot of this to a party and it was gone within seconds! Yes, it is that good.

You will want to serve this with toasted brioche or ciabata (or some type of fluffy yet firm bread that will toast up nicely), and cornichons or pickles/olives or something that will cut through the fat.

The duck fat adds an incredible depth to the taste and richness of the following recipe. I also decided to render my own pork fat instead of buying lard. I would recommend doing the same. Rendering pork fat means getting a nice chunk of pork belly (recommended) or pork back fat, and cooking it very slowly over a low flame or low heat in the oven, and draining/reserving the liquified fat periodically, say about every 20 minutes or so until the fat is gone.

I am fortunate living in the Bay Area. I took a trip up to Ranch 99 and got almost all my ingredients there. The pork fat, a whopping 3 pounds of it, cost me all of 50 cents. The guy behind the counter does not get too many of these requests. 🙂 You can also do the same thing with duck fat, although that might be harder to come by simply because a duck is just a lot smaller than a pig. You would need a lot of duck to render a half cup of fat. Fortunately, Whole Foods sell rendered duck fat in 7-ounce containers.

I should also mention that if you go to Asian markets, you are likely going to get the pork fat or duck fat with the skin attached. Personally, I love fried pork rind; it reminds me so much of Grandma and childhood. You can find “chicharones” in almost any Asian/Hispanic market, but it’s really great to make your own. Unfortunately, I was watching my waistline, so the puppies and Annabelle ended up benefiting the most.

Ingredients:

3 lb. pork shoulder
1/4 Cup apple brandy (I used Laird & Company Apple Jack, which is about $20 a bottle)
2 bay leaves
1 small handful of thyme, leaves picked
1 Tablespoon of sea salt
20 or so black peppercorns
10 juniper berries
1 C. of fat (preferrably half duck half pork)
2 C. of chicken or pork stock (homemade is best)
1/2 C. chopped flat parsley

Cut the meat into 1-1/2 inch cubes. In a spice grinder, add bay leaves, thyme, salt, peppercorns, and juniper berries. Put the meat in a large bowl, and pour brandy all over. Add the ground-up spices, and toss really well to coat and combine. Cover the bowl with  foil or cling-wrap, and refrigerate over night — up to 24 hours if you can stand it.

When you’re ready to cook the following day, preheat oven to 275°F.

In a heavy large pan with a tight fitting lid (I used a 5.5 Qt. Le Creuset enameled cast iron pan), heat up a couple of Tablespoons of the fat over medium high heat, until hot but not smoking. Brown the pieces of pork lightly. Add the rest of the fat and let it melt. Pour in enough stock to almost cover the meat. Put the lid on and place in oven for three (3) hours.

About every hour or so, take it out and stir it up a bit. Add more stock if it looks too low.

When the three hours is up, pull the pork from the oven and let cool just enough to handle. I used my fingers to pull apart the meat, but you can use two forks to “cross cut” the meat if you want. The idea is to have the texture of pulled pork, say carnitas, but not too much finer than that. Don’t overdo the shredding, because you’ll do a little more in the next step. You’ll want a little texture to the rillette. Otherwise, it will end up as a pâté.

Mix the cooking liquid together again, if it has separated into broth and fat. Spoon about one Tablespoon at a time to the meat. After adding each Tablespoon of the liquid, mix the meat well. You will want the meat to be moist, but not soaking wet. When you have reached the desired consistency (I used about 3/4 of the cooking liquid), add in the chopped parsley and mix up more.

Next, pack this mixture into small ramekins. I got a bunch of  these cute ramekins at World Market (4 for $2.99). Compact these well, leaving about 1/4 inch from the top. Put these ramekins in the fridge to let them set, say about 10 to 20 minutes.

While the ramekins are setting, strain the cooking liquid through a sieve to remove any remnants. You want a nice “clean” layer of fat to seal the ramekins that doesn’t go down the packed meat. I ended up adding fresh rendered pork fat to the mixture. You want a fat layer between 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch to seal the meat.

This shoud last several weeks if covered with aluminum foil. (One website stated several months…) Since we don’t have any left, I can’t say for sure how long, but I would venture a guess of three weeks. Once you break the fat seal, though, you’ll want to consume it pretty quickly.

To serve, let it warm to room temperature, or pop it in the oven for a few minutes, and serve it with toasted bread and mustard and cornichons or pickled sweet peppers. We scraped all the fat off the top, but in France they serve it with the 1/4-inch layer of fat on.

It is such a nice way to spend Sunday morning in bed, with a glass of champagne or rosé.

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Mas de l’Olivette and Bagñol Sur Cèze

First, let me get the bad news out of the way:  the French may be great at many things, but they cannot make a good cup of coffee to save their lives. We tried a variety of coffee — some were even *recommended* to us by the locals — but all tasted like freeze-dried. Our friend Martin would call it our “morning cup of disappointment”. There was no Peet’s, not even a Starbucks. If you are a coffee addict, you must bring your own.

OK, well now that that’s out of the way….

We flew Air France, regular normal economy class. They boasted serving free champagne on the flight, but by the time the attendants got to our row all the champagne was gone. “You know the French” was what they told us.  Fine, we’ll just have a bottle of red then.  In what seemed like a great idea at the time, Michelle had pre-ordered us gluten-free meals. It meant that we got our meals before everybody else, so it made us feel like we’re in business class, but it also meant that the food was a little, shall we say, flavor-free. (Gluten-free = flavor-free). She plans on ordering Hindi vegetarian next time we travel.

I can never sleep on planes. We dozed off a few times, but I ended up watching three movies during the first leg (9 hours or so). Michelle spent most of her awake moments with her new toy, the Kindle. We took the “No Jet Lag” homeopathic pills, which worked great on our Spain trip but didn’t seem to work at all this time around. We switched planes in Paris and arrived in Marseilles some 12 hours later, very very very jet lagged. Then we had to figure out the train system because we had to get from Marseilles to Avignon. Apparently our regular credit cards don’t work in France unless it has a “chip” in it. Needless to say, we were so happy to see Martin, Tom and Mary Anne at the train station. My high school French still had not kicked in yet; fortunately most folks in the aviation industry spoke some English.

Martin and Tom had rented Mas de l’Olivette from the McSpaddens (http://olivette.yolasite.com/), and it was all the rustic charm it claimed to be. Martin and Tom stayed in the gîte (the 150 year old barn) and we stayed in the main house. The kitchen and pantry were well stocked and our first night there, albeit jet lagged, was most wonderful. Tom prepared an herb-crusted lamb roast for our first meal in France, and it was the most delicious and succulent thing I had ever tasted. I hate lamb. I can honestly say that I will never eat lamb again, unless it was Tom’s.

Bagñol Sur Cèze is a very cute little town with around 18,000 inhabitants.  The town is known for its old Roman ruins and the Marcoule nuclear power plant (!). We had lunch the next day in the town square at the only restaurant open because it was right around 2:00 p.m.  The French keeps very sensible working hours:  9:00 a.m. to noon, and 2:00 to 6:00 p.m.  We Americans should learn from them.

Market Day in Bagñol Sur Cèze was simply amazing! The entire town square and all the surrounding streets leading to the square were filled with vendors and merchants of all sorts and types. We bought olives and cheeses and sausages and breads and honey and cashews and herbs and vegetables. I loved the energy. I loved the people. Everybody was so warm and friendly. And they actually talk with each other, like real conversations, because nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere. It was Market Day; it was to be savored and enjoyed.  

Bagñol Sur Cèze is about 20 minutes away from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region which is world-renowned for its wine. It is said that some 13 varieties of grapes are grown in this region, but the unique (to me) aspect is that the vineyards all use these giant stones (“galets”), supposedly infusing minerals into the soil substrate to give it a very distinct flavor. We spent a very pleasant afternoon in the town and arrived home late in the evening armed with several (ok, many) bottles.

One of the most perplexing thing about France is the domestic water system. We had two temperatures: boiling and cold. Michelle made the mistake of doing laundry and 1) shrank all our shrinkable (i.e., cotton) clothes, and 2) turned everything pink because she washed my red shorts in boiling water. To add insult to injury, nobody could figure out the washing machine. Our clothes came out dripping wet because somebody had turned the spin cycle off. A typical laundry session took over 8 hours!

Probably the highlight of our trip was the visit to Bandol — a two-hour drive from Bagñol Sur Cèze. Bandol is a coastal town overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We had a late lunch at a cute little village before heading out to find Domaine Tempier, owned by the Peyraud family.  Domaine Tempier (as well as the rest of the Bandol region) is well-known for its rosé and red wines. But what was especially sweet on this particular visit was that we got to meet the 93-year-old “Lulu”.  Lulu was the original inspiration for Alice Waters (Chez Panisse fame) and the chefs of her generation, who brought “organic”, “fresh”, “seasonal”, and “local” back to the culinary vocabulary of our time.  Here’s one of her most famous recipes — Lulu’s bouillabase — along with a few pictures of her garden and kitchen:  http://www.gourmetvoyageurs.com/other-pages/recipes/bouillabaisse-lulu.html.  Martin had written to the Domaine ahead of time, alerting them to our arrival and of our admiration of Lulu, and voilà, there she was all dolled up and sweet and feisty! We all had tears in our eyes. To round off the day, Kermit Lynch  showed up during our tasting! I can honestly say that we rubbed elbows with the famous in Europe. 🙂

We cooked sumptuous meals every night, with the only exception our last night eating out at Paul Itier. What a delightful French country dining experience that was! We all had something different — Michelle and I had the seafood course — and were busting at the seams by the time we left that night. Our hostess (owner) was Jackie, who has an obsession with owls (yes, owl figurines were everywhere), but was the most gracious hostess ever. It was an eight-course meal, ending with (Jackie insisted) fig tart! This was one of the most memorable experiences of our visit to France, and further reinforced the notion that French folks from the Provence region are warm and friendly and gracious – pretty darn cool afterall.

I have been describing our visit to France as:  “If someone were to blindfold you and put you on a plane and drop you off in this lovely countryside and you didn’t hear anybody speak a word of French, it would seem as if you were dropped off in the middle of Napa or Sonoma or Marin”. But our trip was spectacular, not because of the sights and scenes — not even because of the food and wine, but because of the people and the experiences they gave us.  And we thank Martin and Tom for making this trip a reality. We really had a wonderful time.

For more pictures, please visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/lounge_lassie/