Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rillettes: Homemade French Charcuterie

For years, I've looked for rillettes [ree-YET] any time I was in France going back and forth to my work places in Africa, and at French restaurants in Atlanta. I was intrigued by this farmhouse specialty, which I first encountered in French cookbooks.

It's allegedly much easier to make than pâté or terrine, but fills the same niche in the appetizer course along with crusty bread or melba toast, Dijon mustard, and cornichon pickles.

Rillettes, a specialty of pork, duck or goose lightly spiced and cooked down slowly in its own grease and served spread on bread or toast, comes from the southwest of France. It's traditionally put up in the autumn and stored in small crocks in the cellar for use during the winter. An old-fashioned grandmother's (grandmère's?) kind of thing, it shows up rarely in the restaurants I visit.

Le Giverny, a fine and largely French restaurant near Emory University in Atlanta, offers "rillettes" as a starter. But what they actually serve is a baked terrine or maybe a country-style pâté, a perfectly good French dish -- but distinctly not rillettes.

Then Shorty's, a pizza-plus place with a wood-fired oven, which is one of my hangouts, recently came up with duck rillettes on their summer menu. Shorty's is a cook-driven restaurant, short on theme or atmosphere or pretense but long on hearty artisan cooking, good wines and beers. They are not at all French in style. One of their owner-chefs is in fact from New Zealand.

Their rillettes, laced with green peppercorns, are served packed in a small crock and topped with a thin layer of grease the way the real thing is. They are quite authentic and make an excellent, if slightly heavy, starter course.

So after all these years, this recent inspiration led me to make rillettes this weekend. They were guinea-pigged on some visiting family plus a friend from years ago who showed up with her new husband. I worked out the recipe with pork shoulder ("butt"), and now look forward to trying the fancier versions with duck or goose.

The seasonings approximate the "quatre-épices" ("four-spice") used in French charcuterie. The method is simply to cube the pork, keeping the fat and bone, season it for 24 hours with sea salt, herbs and spices, then slowly simmer it down with red wine as a starter.

It takes three or more hours cooking after one day marinating. The cooking requires occasional stirring, and the pot should be enamel, or at least stainless steel. Because of the cooking time, rillettes should be made when other cooking or kitchen tasks are going on. Make a lot, and store it. Cooking more is no more work than cooking less.

Rillettes should be stored several days to let the flavors mellow. They are served with bread or toast, small pickles and Dijon mustard.

They go well with a hearty, dry red wine. The closest available to the wine where rillettes are made would be a Malbec. Although those affordable wines come from Argentina, they are descended from Cahors, the largely Malbec grape wine from the southwest of France. But a fruity, and faintly sweet white wine will also work, like a German or Alsatian Riesling or a French Chenin Blanc.

Rillettes de Porc

3 1/2 pounds pork butt, including fat and bone
2 teaspoons sea or Kosher salt, plus more to taste
3 large bay leaves, broken in half
2 tablespoons lightly packed fresh thyme sprigs or 1/2 teaspoon dry
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
1/4 teaspoon dry ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground fennel
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup water
Extra grease, either butter or freshly rendered pork or chicken fat
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons drained green peppercorns

Discard any skin present, but keep all the fat plus any bone. Cut meat into 2-inch chunks. Mix with salt, herbs, and spices. Marinate in refrigerator 24 hours.

In heavy enamel (preferred) or stainless steel pan, simmer pork with wine and water, covered and stirring occasionally, until meat is very tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Remove bone plus bay leaves. Break up meat with wooden spatula. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until liquid drys down. If there is not much grease, add butter or rendered pork or chicken fat to make the mixture oily. Continue simmering, with occasional stirring, until meat is entirely broken down.

Add sugar and green peppercorns. After a few more minutes simmering, taste, and add salt as needed. The mixture should be just faintly salty so it will taste balanced when served chilled. Continue simmering 15 minutes more, stirring more frequently.

Pack hot into cleaned jars or crocks with lids. Press meat down so grease emerges onto surface. If too dry, pour in a little olive or canola oil to keep surface greased. Store in refrigerator.

Serve with bread, melba toast, or unsalted crackers. Accompany with tiny cornichon or other pickles and a dollop of Dijon mustard. A sprig of parsley or several slices of radish make a good garnish.

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