One of my favorite ways to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon is to browse through my old cookbooks. I have a fairly extensive collection, scattered in different places around the house, and there is nothing so pleasant than finding one of those old tomes that I had forgotten I even have and diving back into its old recipes, a little like happening on an old lost friend on the street and striking up a conversation.
So it was this afternoon. I thumbing through some of my older cookbooks that I keep down in the den and came across an old, yellowed paperback, copyright 1968, entitled Everyday French Cooking. In fact, that plain-jane title is a bit deceiving, as it this little book is, in reality, a translation and adaption of the Nouveau Guide Culinaire by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, one of the most influential French chefs of the last century. I leafed through the book and found a recipe for one of my favorite appetizers of all time, pork rillettes. I hadn’t had rillettes quite literally for years, since I lived in Paris in the early 1990s in fact. Seems like yesterday but, I suddenly realize as I write this, it was something close to twenty years now. Can it really have been that long ago? Anyway…
I quickly made note of the recipe in my head—rillettes are actually surprisingly simple to make—and whipped it up at my leisure this afternoon. It takes a long time but practically cooks itself. When it was done, I sat down to munch on a few pieces of toasted bread slathered with the stuff. Taste memories last a long, long time, I guess, because the unmistakable taste and texture was just as I had remembered it: wonderfully and deeply savory, with a creaminess that quite literally melts in your mouth. Served with a nice medium-bodied red wine, I almost felt like I had traveled back in time.
- 750g (1-1/2 lbs) pork shoulder, cut into cubes
- 750g (1-1/2 lbs) fat back or best-quality lard
- Salt and pepper
- A bay leaf
- A pinch of dried thyme
- A few cloves
Take the cubes of pork shoulder and mix them with the fat back or best-quality lard. (The authentic recipe calls for the actual fat, which renders in the cooking process, but since I had some very good quality lard around, I used that and it worked just fine.) Season generously with salt, freshly ground pepper, a bay leaf, thyme and—here’s where I parted ways with M. Pellaprat—a few cloves.
Place it all in a heavy pot (enameled cast iron works well) and add a good glassful of water. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove. Now you can continue cooking over gentle heat on top of the stove or, as I prefer, placing the pot in a slow oven (325°F, 160°C. Let the pot simmer for a good 3 hours or so, or until all the water has evaporated and the pork is fork-tender and lightly browned. If the meat hasn’t browned, you can raise the heat so it does for a few minutes at the end.
Let the pot cool down a bit, then strain the meat from the melted fat by turning the pot’s contents into a colander placed inside a large bowl. Remove the bay leaf and transfer the meat into a food processor, together with a ladleful of the rendered fat. Process, using the pulse function, until the meat is nicely minced but still has some texture to it—not yet a purée. Pack the mixture into jars, ramekins or other small containers and top off with the remaining rendered fat.
Let the containers cool completely, then place them in the fridge until ready to use. The fat will congeal and turn a creamy white color, forming protective layer on top of the meat. Use your pork rillettes as you would any spread, slathered over toasted bread.
The seasonings and cuts of meat used in pork rillettes can vary from recipe to recipe. Pellaprat calls for minced parsley, which I omitted. Some recipes I’ve seen call for cinnamon, nutmeg and/or mace. A few call for garlic or onion. I’ve even seen an intriguing recipe calling for five-spice powder, which sounds delicious. My ‘secret’ ingredient is actually not so secret, as perhaps the best known version of pork rillettes, from the city of Tours, calls for whole peppercorns and cloves. The traditional recipe calls for some bone-in cuts, from which the meat is stripped at the end of the cooking process. Some recipes call for pork belly, which has ‘built in’ striations of meat and fat, so you can reduce or even eliminate additional fat from the recipe.
Rillettes can be made from any number of ingredients. Goose rillettes are fabulous as are rabbit rillettes. For something a bit lighter, rillettes can be made from fatty fish, such as tuna or sardines. One particularly lovely example of the latter variety are rillettes made from fish are these smoked mackerel rillettes from fellow food blogger and professional chef, Sylvia of Citron et Vanille.