Rillette and Other Things That Start with “P”

[This entry is cross posted at]

I can’t be alone in occasionally wishing to forget all my troubles and become a wizened old half of a Boston marriage with leathery skin and piercing blue eyes. How comforting would it be to know the names of all the birds you hear singing while you press bits of colored glass into fresh concrete steppingstones in the side garden. Oh, the scarves I would own. When I told people it’s a waste to flush when they just “make water” I wouldn’t even blush. My home would be a shrine to rugged DIY projects and stuff with beads. People would look to each other and say of all manner of things, “I don’t know how to do that, but I bet that composting lady can show you.”

Of course, there’s no wand or Subaru dealership that magically conveys the air of brisk assurance I’m seeking, but if you want to feel as one with “all the violet tiaras, braided rosebuds, dill and crocus” there’s always putting food in decorative yet practical jars. I can do that.

I want to be clear that when I put food in practical jars I’m not doing so for practical ends. That involves precision. I’m doing it for a psychosomatic taste enhancing aesthetic that serves no other purpose using Tupperware could not achieve.

When poor, long dead, pre-Frigidaire, French peasants cooked meats for long periods they did so to break down sinews in otherwise unchewable cuts. When they chose not to trim fat from the outside of their tough cuts or even to add collected fats from earlier preparations it wasn’t to bite their thumb at cardiologists. That fat was needed as a preservative to keep stores in one of those omnipresent cool, dark places French people you read about in cookbooks always have in their house, probably next to the hearth. It was needed as high energy body fuel to burn on long days toiling in fields and growing crops to feed hogs to make more fat for toiling in fields. Since potted meat was likely served cool, dark place temperature rather than hot, it needed big flavors – onions, garlic, allspice, clove, pepper.

Nowadays tender cuts of meat are readily available, as are toothpicks. I have a fridge. The field toiling is done by John Deere. Big flavors… those are still useful, more so now that I can serve my jarred food cold all year round if that’s my want, but the other stuff went from raison d’etre to je ne sais appendix; useful in its time but now a reminder that we take food safety for granted and that we once needed an appendix.

I prefer the less desirable cuts of meat. People innovate where needs must. No crescendo of victorious culinary experimentation resulted in a properly seasoned lamb chop. Chop meat is/was fabulous so well enough was left be. Braised lamb shank, braciole, and Bar-BQ brisket are more than a means to stay alive thanks to frustration and innovation. Process refined peasant food while the prime cuts stagnated. Centuries of trial and error followed by a Tory respect for what works brought Bolognese sauce to the table. A filet is a filet is still a filet, but a rillette is more equal than others.

Le Mans Rillettes de Porc

  • 2-2 ½ lbs. fatty pork shoulder
  • 7-8 garlic cloves, smashed
  • ½ yellow onion, peeled and root stub removed
  • 1 leek, dark leaves removed, remainder halved lengthwise
  • 6-8 sprigs thyme
  • 20 or so black peppercorns
  • 10 or so cloves
  • 5-6 allspice berries
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 ½ cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • kosher salt

Roasted Bell Peppers in Oil

  • 3 bell peppers
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • kosher salt

Quick Pickles

  • 1 cup mixed vinegars (we used ½ cup distilled white, ¼ cup white wine, and ¼ apple cider vinegars but you can do rice, champagne, red wine etc. Just stay away from heavy vinegars like balsamic)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tsps. pickling salt
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, whole peeled
  • 5-10 black peppercorns
  • dill or other herbs
  • stuff to pickle

Rillette is stripped down pate, takes little hands-on time to make, and looks cracking in practical jars. This variation is from La Mans in the Loire Valley. Start with an admirable pork shoulder and cut it into 4” to 5” pieces.

Wrap the leeks, thyme, peppercorn, allspice (I thought I had allspice berries, didn’t, made do with a tsp. ground allspice, and all was well so you can get away with doing that if you must,) and bay leaves in a piece of cheesecloth to make a sachet. Tie it off with cooking string which I am assured is different from other string. Stud the half onion with cloves so it looks like a battle armadillo.

Put the pork in a crockpot and liberally salt, about 1 ½ tbsps. per lb. Add the smashed garlic, sachet, and onion armadillo.

Pour in chicken stock and wine. It should ¾ cover the meat. Add more if you need to – a little extra of either won’t break it – but 2 ½ cups total liquid ought to do the job.

Bring the liquid to a boil, turn the heat to low, cover, and cook for 6 hours. At some point after three hours check and stir everything around to make sure any meat that was above the water line gets a turn below.

In the meantime, preheat an oven to 400°. Place three bell peppers on a foil lined baking sheet or just a baking sheet – I don’t care if you make a mess – and put the sheet in the oven to bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and set the peppers aside to cool.

When they’re cool enough to handle, the skin should peel off easily. Remove the stems, skin, and seeds and pat dry with paper towels.

Lay them out and slice into attractive bite sized strips.

This next step is confusing at first because the picture is of peppers in Tupperware instead of decorative yet practical jars. The Tupperware was a temporary measure until I went to the store and bought more jars. Sometimes you have to make do. Salt and toss with extra virgin olive oil. The stronger and fruitier the better. Seal and refrigerate. Tossing the peppers isn’t easy to do if they’re in a jar so if you remembered to buy more jars first, salt and toss on a plate and transfer.

To make pickles, marry well. My wife makes fantastic quick pickles. She brings the mixed vinegar, water, and pickling salt to a boil. This time she used baby cucumbers, sliced radishes, and julienned carrots but in the past there’s been okra, red onion, green beans, all manner of things.

She puts the garlic and herbs at the bottom of some jars. Sometimes she’ll use a separate jar for each kind of vegetable. Sometimes she’ll put them all together. Add the vegetables, pour in the brine to cover, and seal. Let cool and put in the fridge for 2-3 days before serving.

Eventually, 5-6 hours will have passed and the pork will be ready for the next step. Turn off the crockpot.

Remove the meat from the liquid (do not discard) and let cool. Shred with forks if needed, but it should fall apart in your hands.

Put the pulled meat in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment and mix until spreadable, adding cooking liquid little by little until you get a spreadable paste, but don’t call it paste. Pork paste doesn’t sound appetizing. Rillette. Everything sounds better in French.

Taste for salt, add more if needed and mix to distribute.

5-6 hours is a long time, so by this point I had gone to the store. Pack the rillette in jars and smooth the top with the back of a spoon.

Traditionally rillette is topped with melted fat or lard.

When it cools the fat creates an airtight seal.

This is an age-old method of preservation. I’m not sure how long the jar was meant to keep, but modern food science is about more than cool, dark places and with plentifully stocked grocery stores we can afford to err on the side of caution. According to Pate, Confit, Rillette by Brian Polcyn with Michael Ruhlman, with the fat seal in place the rillette should keep about a month in the refrigerator. I wouldn’t let it go longer.

The problem with the fat seal is that there’s a fat cap on top of your rillette. Fat mixed into the pork is good. Fat topping it like icing on a cake is not, even if you say du saindoux comme la cerise un gateau.

It’s also awkward.

Minus some for tasting as I went, my butt yielded six and a half jars full. One was destined for snacks at my dad’s, another for the same at my mother in-law’s (mother’s in-law?), we were going to eat one as soon as it was ready, and I counted on going through at least one at home within a few days so I didn’t bother with the fat on all of them. Whatever you plan to eat in the first week will be fine without.

Seal or no, when you’ve finished the cooking/mixing process, let the rillette chill in the fridge for 2 days so the flavors marry or concentrate. I’m not sure how that works or what chemical reactions go on. I just know that it tastes better if you let it sit for a while.

Add fruit and cheese to the pork, pickles, and peppers and array it all on a handcrafted wooden cutting board your wife’s friend’s husband made. Charcuterie.

Your jarred goods are conveniently transportable if you’re the picnicking type. Just avoid public beaches. Otherwise, enjoy.

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