Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stuffed Pigs Trotter

The first three stages, cleaning, boning, then lightly curing
Cold winter weather inspires me to cook all day - how better to while away a Sunday? I start my prep shortly after the breakfast dishes have been cleared away and then once the hard work is done, I can laze about, periodically poking my nose in the oven. The house fills with the perfume of some great joint of meat, percolating happily with bay leaves in some stock or wine or whatever. Next to a wee fire gaily crackling away in the hearth, I can gaze out the frosted window in lackadaisical bliss for the better part of the day knowing that a wondrous dinner awaits me. Nothing makes me appreciate a roof over my head more than a cold day and a hot oven. 

So when I have a whole day to cook, I like to tackle real challenges; the kind of cooking that most wouldn't dare. Say, for example, a pig's trotter. 

In his French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller writes about the importance of cooking difficult cuts and offal, and in this case specifically, tripe:

"It's easy to cook a filet mignon, or to saute a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter a la menuiere, and call yourself a chef. But that's not real cooking. That's heating. Preparing tripe however, is a transcendental act: to take what is normally thrown away and, with skill and knowledge, turn it into something quite exquisite."

I like that term 'transcendental'. What an inspiring way to describe cooking. For this is exactly how I feel about the humble foot of a pig. To the uninitiated, they can appear very daunting. Unlike most meat we purchase, heads and feet and such that would properly identify the living animal are removed. In Chinatown, this stuff is common, but as for standard grocery fare, a pigs trotter is as elusive as a passenger pigeon. This cut does not consist of much in the way of meat, but what it does have in spades is nourishing gelatin. Moreover, it happens to have a vaguely cylindrical shape that begs to be stuffed like a sausage. 

I was inspired by Marco Pierre White's famous nouvelle cuisine masterpiece, braised pig's trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels. Chef White describes his dish thusly (remember we're talking about a pig's foot here),  

"This is my favourite dish. If it had been a painting, it would be hanging in the Tate. It's simple and earthy, but it's also elegant and intelligent. You can't take it any further." 

Chef Fergus Henderson has a slightly earthier version of this for which he stuffs the trotter with mash potatoes. I didn't want to go the mash potato route, but I did borrow a few of the cooking approaches from his recipe. My version actually incorporates another dish, a French classic, called dodine de canard, which is a boned-out duck that is treated almost like a sausage casing, stuffed with minced duck and pistachios and roasted slowly (typically chilled and served cold). With all these different dishes swirling around in my head, I envisioned a browned and crispy pig's trotter, stuffed with ground pork, fennel seeds and the other typical trappings of a butcher's sausage. The trotter is then sliced into thick slabs and eaten with a little piquant green sauce and some steamed new potatoes on the side. Well, that was the plan anyway.
I am not going to annotate this recipe precisely - this is an instinctive dish.

The first thing I had to do was tackle the nitty gritty: prepping the trotter; no easy task. First the trotter must be singed with a blow torch to remove any leftover hair that the abattoir missed. Then they need to be boned-out. I have to be perfectly frank, I've cooked trotters before, but this was the first time I have ever boned-out a trotter - I believe it is a great way to test the mettle of a chef. The skin needs to be carefully peeled back from the bone, not unlike removing a glove, all the while using a very sharp knife, separating the bone from the skin. When you've reached the first toe joints, you give the main articulation a great wrenching until you hear it crack, then use a heavy knife to cut through the tendons. The toe joints and cloven hoof knuckle remain within the trotter. All this must be done without nicking the skin - else your stuffing will leak out. (I can happily report that my butchery skills are on the level and I successfully boned out the trotter without nicking the skin) Once the trotter is boned out, the bones go in a pot with some veg and a stock is made. While the stock is simmering, the trotters are lightly cured for a couple of hours in salt, thyme and juniper. Once the stock has been satisfactorily infused, strain it and set it a aside. Get your trotters out of the fridge and brush most of the salt away, then get them into an earthenware dish. Nestle a few whole cloves of garlic amongst them along with some thyme and peppercorns. Then pour in your stock till it comes about three-quarters of the way up the trotters. Then boil down a combination of a bit of white wine and dry white vermouth in a pan until the alcohol is mostly burned off, then pour that in with the trotters so that they are completely covered by liquid. Cover with a parchment paper cartouche and get a lid on or cover with foil. Into a moderate oven (say 350F) for about two and half to three hours. You want the trotter to be tender but not falling apart. Take it out of the oven and allow to cool enough to handle. In my case, I found the braising temperature was too aggressive. Only one of the two trotters survived intact enough to constitute stuffing; a learning experience. The oven should be cooler and the cooking longer. In any event, once cool enough to handle, I stuffed it with ground pork that was spiced and salted to taste similar to a typical butcher's banger (fennel seeds, white pepper, sage, bread crumbs and plenty of salt). I stuffed the skin, secured with butchers twine and then wrapped twice in plastic wrap and the a double wrapping of foil. This will bring the trotter back to its original shape (the braising makes it lose its shape). Then gently poach it wrapped in the plastic/foil for about 15 minutes. Then carefully unwrap and get into a hot oven for a ten minutes or so: this will crisp that skin up a little bit. Then to serve, slice into large medallions and garnish with a sharp green sauce made of capers, parsley, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. The sun was setting early (it is winter after all),and the required daylight for the photograph was fading quickly. This necessitated a hastily assembled plate which admittedly isn't exactly how I would have liked it. Such are the ins and outs of a food blogger.

The finished product: aggressive braising caused the toes to bust open

So in the end, it was a lot of work for a merely satisfactory pay off. I think the mastery of timing to get the trotter skin perfectly tender but not falling apart requires a few more attempts; the skin had just enough give, that in cutting into it, the stuffing would often make an escape attempt. In the end, the flavour was generously yum and the green sauce cut the richness perfectly. The kids wouldn't come near this but the wife and I quite enjoyed it with a bit of toasty bread. I happily gnawed on the toes till there was nothing left. I can confidently claim that although not perfect, the finished product was indeed transcendental. 

However, next time I buy pig's trotters, I'll likely do what I normally do with them: use them to flavour a stock or enrich a rillete: less work for a bigger pay off.

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