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.
My blog seems to be transforming itself into a food blog, winter will do that. There's not much that is more enjoyable than staying home, stoking up the wood stove and cooking something new. I do love to cook and I've gone through some intense cooking phases in the past though for a few years now I have mostly stuck with favorite recipes.
More or less, I taught myself how to cook by studying Howard Potter's copy of Escoffier's cookbook. This was back in the early 1980's. Certainly not the most efficient approach to learning to cook, but my way is to go to original sources first. Howard's copy was an abridged version and I soon bought myself an unabridged English translation of Le Guide Culinaire. I've found that often abridged works leave out the most interesting bits; the parts that a modern editor no longer considers relevant usually give a significant insight into the milieux. A favorite example (from memory) is from de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In his travels across America in the early 1830's he reached St Louis and the great plains. In and of itself I found this surprising, it seemed so far west in 1831. de Tocqueville drew bold conclusions from the open plains. His theory was that a great civilization had once inhabited the place and that by completely deforesting the landscape they had destroyed themselves. As evidence of how complete their destruction had been, he noted that the indigenous people had no stories of this great lost civilization. He took it as a warning for Europe not to deforest the landscape. This rather beautiful false theory is not included in any abridged version of his works. I have no similar example from Escoffier. perhaps someone else can suggest one; something that is omitted from the abridged editions that is somehow interesting. Like so many of my books, Escoffier is in a box in the attic in these temporary quarters. I have looked for him twice but have given up.
From Escoffier I learned how to make stock and the basic sauces and an authentic Boeuf Bourguignon. Looking back I realize that Boeuf Bourguignon was an astoundingly good choice of a basic dish to learn since it has served as the foundation for so many braised meat dishes since; stews, daubes and civets. If I am something like a one trick pony in the kitchen stews are my trick.
I can't help but feel a bit like there is a 100th monkey effect at play here. The claim made by proponents of the 100th monkey effect is that once an idea becomes known by enough monkeys (say 100), it has enough force to spontaneously spread to geographically isolated populations. Soon everyone will be hunting, cooking, eating and writing about Jackrabbits. Well, maybe not. But with the growing popularity of the local food movement, locavore hunting, ethical meat and butchering, slow cooking and whole beast dining, this kind of thing is bound to happen. There are so many classic European recipes for hare and those of us who like to hunt and gather our own food of course are quite likely to try substituting Jack rabbits for the European hare. But there seems to be a larger meat movement underway. For a time vegetarians seemed to claim the moral high ground but meat is where it's at these days.
Twenty years ago I made a rather personal decision that if I was going to eat meat I should be able to hunt, kill and butcher my own meat. This was pretty radical because no one in my family hunted. I didn't feel I had to hunt, kill and butcher all the meat I ate, but at least some of it. I like beef and pork and lamb far too much to swear it off for a rather abstract ethical position. Of course this killing and butchering business is not for everyone and I never really expected others to take it up, but for me it was essential. And now, after Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma hit the best seller list it seems like all of the sudden my non-traditional hunting friends and I are on the leading edge of a new food movement. Gerry is writing his own book about it and as far as I can tell, Gil is holed up on a farm somewhere in the mid-Atlantic states trying to reproduce the Jamon Iberico that the customs people confiscated on his return from Spain.
As for Jackrabbits vs. European hares. I saw many European Hares in Scotland though sadly I was not in a position to harvest them. All hunting and fishing rights in Scotland are owned by someone, and I was no one. Hank points out that you can buy Wild Scottish Hare from from D'Artagnan, purveyors of exotic gourmet meats and foods. It would be nice to do a side-by-side comparison of identical dishes prepared with Jackrabbit and European Hare. I like the looks of Hank Shaw's Sardinian Hare Stew, but maybe the comparison should be on something with a less rich sauce, something that would allow the flavors to really come through, perhaps a terrine. The European hare from D'Artagnan is not inexpensive, but the experiment would be worthwhile. If you try it, let me know.
When Gerry came last fall to hunt he left us a real present. He showed us how to make no-knead bread. It is so easy and produces the best rustic loaf you can imagine. The recipe is from Jim Lahey who runs the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC. The recipe Gerry left us was torn out of an issue of Men's Journal; the same article is available online. It takes about 10 minutes to make the dough. You let it sit for a day. Fold it into a floured cloth and let it rise for another hour and then bake it in a large cast iron pot for an hour. A key to the method is that the cast iron pot holds the moisture from the dough in while it cooks. You don't need a special bread oven nor do you have to mess with pans of water in the oven. It really is incredibly easy and makes a better loaf than we can buy in Laramie.
For a number of reasons I butcher my own game meat. It's hard work and usually takes me two days to butcher and wrap an elk for the freezer, this is after it has been quartered, skinned bagged and hung. I am a slow butcher. One benefit of hiring a butcher is that they will typically offer to make sausages as part of the order. Until now, I have not done so for myself.
Aside from the sausages, there are a number of downsides to hiring a butcher. For one thing, it's expensive. Last time I checked, it would have cost me $250 to have an elk butchered that had already been skinned, quartered, bagged and hung (that price did not include sausages.) For another, there's really no telling whose meat you'll get back. This is an issue because there is CWD in the deer and elk herd here in SE Wyoming. Even though there is no known risk to humans, I have my animals tested at the Wyoming state vet lab before eating them. I only want the meat from my own animal. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the local butchers never have enough space or time during the rush of hunting season to hang the meat as long as is needed.
Here is my recipe, sort of cobbled together from sources on the internet and an article in Saveur No. 31 (December 1998).
2 Natural Sausage Casings (about 4' long each)
2 1/2 lbs Elk (ground)
2 1/2 lbs Pork shoulder (ground)
1/2 lb bacon (ground)
paprika cover and mix 4 times
fennel seed cover and mix 3 times
oregano cover and mix 3 times
garlic 10 cloves (finely chopped)
red-pepper flake sparsely cover and mix 3 times
black pepper cover and mix 4 times
(coarsely cracked with mortar and pestle)
salt cover and mix 4 times
cayenne lightly dusted and mixed 1 time (optional)
Some things I did not have were fatback which would have been better than bacon and I would have used hot paprika instead of the sweet variety, but I was out. Choose a pork shoulder with as much fat on it as you can find.
The casings come salted and you need to rinse them and then soak them in cold water while you prepare the forcemeat filling. Grind the meat. I cook by taste and feel and have specified spices in my recipe very roughly. You obviously can not taste the uncooked forcemeat but you can fry up a bit to check the spicing as you go. My instructions "cover and mix" mean to evenly cover the meat mixture with the ingredient (you can see the size of the bowl I was using) and then to mix thoroughly. The Saveur article recommended chopping rather than grinding the meat though I did grind it. I did not have fatback pork to add and so used bacon. The fennel seed gives it a distinctive sausage flavor. The red pepper flakes are potentially hot though mine are not really. Reading the recipe you might think these sausages turned out overly spicy, but they are not. Of course that's a matter of personal taste,but for some reference I will say that I have never been a fan of very hot food that so many people seem to like.
Stuffing the casings was a new experience. You slide the casing onto the stuffing tube and then tie a knot in the end. I removed the cutters from the grinder and just used it to force the meat into the casings. As you go you twist them into the length of sausage you want. It is almost a three handed operation, pushing the meat into the grinder, cranking and holding the casing as it fills. After the first 4 feet of sausage, I added the cayenne and made a second batch that was hotter. Packing the second batch I realized the casings were more elastic than I'd thought at first and I packed them more tightly.
In the end I think the sausages would have been better if I'd had more fat in them, but leaner sausages do tend to be more chorizo like. When I cook them I usually just slice them open and pour in some olive oil.
The spicier batch is a bit more popular, though the less spicy ones are excellent for breakfast.