Minor adventures of an old Gunks climber living in Wyoming.
Saturday, 27 February 2010
Growing up, my family would drive from Delaware and later New York to Louisiana to see my fathers parents for a couple of weeks each summer. My grandparents, Wilmer Otis Caldwell (Tieb) and Vera Lola Caldwell (nee Payne), lived out in the country ten miles west of the tiny town of Waterproof. Waterproof lies low behind the levy guarding it from the flood waters of the Mississippi River, it was obviously named in a moment of optimism. My grandparents ran a little country store with a gas pump outside west of town. In the early to mid-1960's, before farming became completely mechanized the local plantations grew cotton. Later, as factory style farming took over, most all of them switched to growing soybeans. In those early days weeds were controlled by field hands with hoes, not pesticides; when they were hoeing or during cotton picking time, a white driver would drop a truck load of black men at my grandparent's store for their lunch; sometimes twenty at a time. The tiny store would be packed, shoulder to shoulder with sweaty men, and my grandparents quickly sliced meats and cheeses, making sandwiches as fast as they could for the hungry crowd. Sitting up on top of the deli cooler was a 2 1/2 gallon glass jar of Pickled Pig's Feet. The contents of the jar were obviously feet and that jar was always a curiosity and wonder to my sister and I. It could not be easily explained. Almost forty-five years later I've cooked my first pig's foot dish.
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Fergus Henderson waxes poetic about pig trotters in his astounding cook book The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. He writes, "These are one of the most gastronomically useful exterminates. If your butcher has pork, there must be a trotter lurking somewhere. They bring to a dish an unctuous, lip-sticking quality unlike anything else. The joy of finding a giving nodule of trotter in a dish!" Henderson calls for them in at least seven different recipes in his book. Penelope may be alarmed to know that one of them, his recipe for Jellied Tripe (which calls for four pig trotters) looks especially good to me. I do not believe I have ever eaten tripe before; and I must say P has been enthusiastic about my recent cooking adventures so I am not being fair.
In his description of the merits of pig's feet Henderson uses the word unctuous. It's funny how you may have lived a life and have almost never noticed a word before, and then suddenly it seems it's everywhere. I took notice when Dan Barber used it in his beautiful talk A Surprising Parable of Foie Gras. When I watched the video of the talk the first time I stopped it and backed up to hear him say it again. As an adjective to describe a person it is rather an insult; used to describe the gravy in a stew or the texture of a rich stock it is flattery.
It's not just Henderson who praises the pig foot. In his River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes about the "glutinous stickyness" and "gelatinous texture" of a stock or terrine liquor to which a pig trotter has been added for good measure. Of course gelatin comes from boiled bones, skins and tendons of animals so it is natural that adding a pig's foot to the broth will add texture and nicely thicken it. When I saw the pig's feet on the shelf at Safeway the other day I grabbed them and in the process proved Hugh wrong (a result he'd hoped for). It seems that even if pig trotters can not be purchased in supermarkets in the UK, they can be found in American supermarkets, even rather pedestrian ones like the Laramie WY Safeway store.
The day after I bought the pig trotters, Reynaud's book Pork & Sons arrived in my mailbox. Like his terrine book, it is beautifully put together. Not to be outdone by Henderson, Reynaud's book has ten recipes calling for pig's feet. Except for the slab bacon, I had all the ingredients (if not the required quantities) for his recipe for Pigs feet with walnut oil and caramelized onion. I only had three pig's feet while Reynaud's recipe calls for ten, which I misread as six - the recipe serves six and, on the next line calls for ten pig's feet. I do not believe I own a pot big eoungh to hold ten pig's feet.
Some days in the kitchen are pure hell. Each imperfect solution to an unanticipated problem slowly but surely diverts you further and further from your original intention. Trying new techniques with only a vague impression of how they are supposed to work adds to the pressure. Problem solving certainly is a key component of the creative aspect in cooking and yet, when the solutions don't come easy, when time is of the essence and when the techniques are new it can be an emotional roller-coaster. Each successfully completed step or imperfect solution results in unwarranted optimism, each new obstacle seems it will surely lead to total failure. Learning can hurt your head. Forging new patterns of though and opening unfamiliar neural pathways is not easy.
The main problem was that I (obviously) had far too few pig's feet for the dish I was attempting. When the feet were done and I picked the meat from the bones I had no more than a few tablespoons. This was a problem. I did have more than a gallon of rich gelatinous broth. Aside from a large frozen shoulder roast the only pork I did have was a couple of rather large frozen chops. I poached one of the chops in the stock and when it was thawed and mostly cooked I chopped it and added it to the tiny pile of meat. One step further form my intention, but the dinner was saved. I sliced some of the pig skin into thin strips and fried it and added it to the growing pile of forcemeat. Of course the meat from the pork chop did not compare in tenderness or flavor to the few tender bits from the feet, but I had enough to feed the two of us. The recipe says to soften some onion in walnut oil and then to add the meat and salt and pepper to taste. The cooked mixture is then wrapped in plastic wrap in a sausage shape and, while you make the caramelize onions, is cooled to set. Mine did not set. A problem. The final step would have been to slice sausage shapes and to reheat under the broiler. To solve my problem I simply put it in an oven proof pan an reheated. An imperfect solution and another step further from my intention. Did I fail to include enough fat or soft tendons when picking the meat from the bones? I thought I had been generous. Should I have added some of the gelatinous broth to the mixture? It seemed quite soft as it was.
An hour later than I'd hoped, I served my pig's fee topped with a balsamic vinaigrette and the caramelized onions. We ate it with a light salad, bread and a glass of wine; Pinot Noir for me and a Chardonnay for P. It turned out to look nothing like the image in Reynaud's book, but it was a delicious meal none the less. I put the leftovers (what turned out to be two small servings) in a small terrine and added three chopped prunes and a few walnuts. The sweetness was a good addition and I enjoyed it for dinner alone for two more nights. (P is in the Canary Islands at a conference.)
Perhaps the best result is the stock. I got more than a gallon of rich unctuous liquor. As promised, it jelled in the jars as it cooled to room temperature.