I think I’m feeling classical. I go through this periodically, when stir fries and improv stews à la Stéphanie aren’t enough. When I feel like in order to be a Good Cook, I need to make Things I Might Eat in a Restaurant. Extraordinary stuff.
Usually this mood inspires me to make something French—it’s my way of pretending I’ve gone to culinary school. I spend hours agonizing over the little details of a recipe, making sure I have exactly the right ingredients, and reading through books and websites to learn pro techniques. I usually spend so long on all of this that by the time I finish making dinner, The Hubs and I have long since succumbed to a tuna sandwich. We stick our extraordinary dinner in the fridge and go to bed.
This weekend I made rillettes de porc. I consulted Larousse. I consulted Julia. I consulted the quagmire online. I researched the best butcher in the area, and engaged the nice young man behind the counter in a serious discussion of Cuts of Meat. I went home and fiddled around with the right baking dish, and cutting the rind off the meat, and taking nice pictures, and coaching Grandma’s ancient appliances to the right temperature (not as easy as it sounds).
I put everything in the oven and went to my laptop to look at pictures of William and Kate while the fat rendered. Those two crazy kids, I thought. They sure looked nice, all dressed up. Just two ordinary youths getting married after living together for a few years. Like me and Steve. You know, except for the 200 million people watching. And the fact that the British taxpayers support their very existence, just…because.
Come to think of it, they're not ordinary at all. Which is precisely why even if you don’t really care—which I don’t—you probably couldn’t help taking a peek at the whole performance. What would that be like, just to be born (which we can all relate to), and by the lottery of genetics have your entire life mapped out before you even experience conscious thought (which none of us can relate to)?
No grappling with what to do when you grow up, no worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills, no angst over learning to do something really well, so you can Be Someone. No wishing you could revisit your education and do a better job this time, dreaming of one day riding a motorcycle through India but not really believing you will actually do it, or wondering what morels taste like but not being able to afford the restaurants that serve them. None of the things that occupy my mind and time. I’d have all of that handed to me.
I suppose we all want to experience something extraordinary. The need takes different forms for everyone. Some chase it in foreign countries, others look under church pews. I know some people who shoot it out of the sky and pull it up from the ground, and friends who drink it out of expensive wine bottles. Others try to give birth to it, and raise it in stable homes.
But for every attempt, we fall short. There is always an onlooker for whom your efforts are ordinary. When I lived in England, people asked me why I would choose it over America. In America, people ask me why I’m not still in England. I’ve always wanted to avoid good churchgoing family life, but for others it’s the ultimate goal. There’s no winning, really.
And so, back to the rillettes. I pulled the meat out of the oven, which had been bubbling away slowly, cooking in its own fat for hours. I strained it, shredded it, stuffed it into the bottom of a jar, and poured the fat back over the meat to seal it. The smell was warm and rich, and filled even the forgotten corners of the kitchen. I wished I’d had friends around to share it. We could spread it on the crusty bread I made earlier that day, with pickles and mustard. Or better yet, I’d make my own piccalilli. I could invite my friend Isabelle around for a Real French Person’s opinion.
Of course, for her it would be the kind of thing she grew up eating on her parents’ farm, a winter staple that her family would have put away in the cellar after a cold November day when they slaughtered a couple of pigs to last them through the next year. Her family and neighbors would have spent days butchering, processing, and preserving every part of the pig, not letting any of its hard-earned life go to waste. They would have made a perfect version of rillettes de porc, as well as paté, boudin noir, andoillette, cassoulet, hure de porc, gayettes de foie. You know, totally ordinary stuff.
Pork Belly Rillettes
- 1 lb pork belly, rind removed
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cloves garlic, bashed with the side of a knife
- 1 T salt
- 3/4 cup water
- Small jar with lid
Rub the meat with salt, and put it fat-side-up in a lidded casserole dish with the garlic, bay leaf, and water. Pop it into a 250F/120C oven for about 4-5 hours. All of the fat should be rendered into liquid, and the meat should be falling apart.
Take the meat out of the liquid fat and pull it apart with two forks until it is all nicely shredded. Pack the meat into a jar as tightly as you can, then pour the liquid fat over it. Ideally you want a good layer of fat over the top of the meat, to seal it in.
Put the lid on the jar and refrigerate for a week or so. Eat the rillettes on toast or crusty bread with pickles and mustard.