I hate cookbooks that:
a) are based on a television show
b) contain more than two fonts per page
c) require you to own a microwave and a food processor
d) call for a specific breed of goose
e) call for the flower of anything
which rules out most cookbooks published in the last ten years. I also have a deep suspicion of the kind of cookbook from an earlier era that assumes you live in a French country house in the nineteenth century. You know, that tells you to place the cabbage in a stone crock with a floating lid, or to store your sourdough starter on the cellar stair, or assumes you have a local butcher. Also they are written in that terse, telegramatic style without any comforting articles, you know, “fat should cover meat” instead of “the fat should cover the meat.”
Speaking of the French, though, one aspect of French cuisine I have been curious about is charcuterie.
Charcuterie was an invention born out of necessity. The preservation of meat led to the discovery that preserved meat tastes good. From this discovery came sausage, bacon, ham, terrines, pates, and confit, all of which require an 19th French country house to make. Or do they? My discovery that I could make my own sausage in a studio apartment kitchenette emboldened me to attempt confit. I’ve never had confit in my life, but Paula Wolfert describes it thus:
“Confit is one of those unique ingredients that permanently enlarge your awareness of flavor, and is one of the few things that can accurately be said to add another dimension to any dish in which it is used.”
I like dimensions. And I like bacon, ham, and sausage, so how bad could it be? Clearly this was a food I was missing. So I put aside my prejudice against cookbooks, and adapted this recipe from Paula Wolfert’s “The Cooking of South-West France.” (Note: I deliberately left out the words that normally precede that book title: “incomparable,” “classic,” “work of genius,” etc, not because I don’t believe them, but because I haven’t read the rest of the cookbook. Maybe if the confit works I will.)
I do actually have a local butcher, so foolishly thought it would be no trouble to procure a pork shoulder (boned) of 1 ½ to 2 lbs, as the recipe required. Clearly my local butcher does things differently from Paula’s. In the display case, between the green fake parsley, were neat lines of New York strip steaks, stuffed chicken breasts, shrimp kabobs… in other words, prepared and processed food. The most pristine raw ingredients were the packets of assorted dog bones (which I have happily used to make beef stock).
With no hope of success, I asked the butcher if he had any pork shoulder. He asked me to repeat myself, and then pointed at the neatly trimmed and trussed pork butt roasts, each weighing in at about 6 lbs. I asked if I could perhaps get about 1 ½ pounds of a pork butt roast instead. You might as well go into a salon and try to buy a third of a dress.
Irritated at my unreasonable requests, the butcher conferred with his colleagues. He came back and suggested I take two pork steaks, which were ‘the same thing,’ if I was planning to roast it. “I’m making confit,” I clarified.
“Confit. You know, charcuterie. Pork preserved in lard, salt and spices.”
No one told him about confit at butcher school. Nor what to do with customers who wanted an unfashionable cut of meat. So I did it, Paula, I crumbled, right there at the first step. Knowing full well the next “butcher” was 20 miles away in McKenna and probably would give me the same treatment, I bought two pork steaks. I boned them and cut them into smaller portions, and that’s where this recipe begins. And if I say they are pork shoulder, they are pork shoulder.
Truthfully, the reason I wanted pork shoulder is because charcuterie is famous for its ability to breathe life into the tiredest, trimmest, most flavorless cuts of meat (which is to say, pretty much all of them, if you shop at a supermarket). I wanted to see the transformation from lean misery to lush delicacy. Instead I’m going to see what happens when you preserve two perfectly decent pork steaks in lard for two months.
Stolen and adapted from “The Cooking of South-West France,” by Paula Wolfert
Makes enough to fill a 1-quart container.
1 ½ – 2 lb pork steaks
2 Tb coarse (kosher) salt
Large pinch dried thyme, or 1 sprig fresh (I used fresh)
1 tsp whole peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 cups good quality lard
½ small head garlic
2 days in advance, bone the steaks, which will require cutting them into smaller portions. This is okay.
Roll the pork pieces in salt combined with thyme and pepper. Place in a deep non-corrodable bowl, refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for 36 hours.
When ready to cook confit, remove marinated pork pieces from bowl, wipe off salt and exuded juices and pat dry with paper towels. Tie each piece with string to preserve compact shape during cooking.
At this point, you’ll need the lard, which is another something you should have prepared in advance. I hope you read the recipe through before you started. Anyway, I used leaf lard from my farmer’s market, which requires slow careful rendering. It makes a beautiful white fine-grained fat that smells delicately of bacon. You can read how to render it in my ‘Moroccan Chicken Pie” post.
Place the lard with 2 Tb water in a crock pot or large, very heavy pot such as an enameled cast iron casserole, says Paula. Myself, I used the slow cooker I got for Christmas a few years back and it worked a treat. Melt the lard over low heat; as soon as it has melted, slip in the pieces of pork. The lard should cover the meat fairly well. Add the half head of garlic stuck with the clove.
On low heat, heat the lard to a gentle simmer. Maintain a simmer for 3 hours, adjusting settings as necessary; during this period, it should be uncovered. The temperature of fat should never exceed 200 degrees (not having a thermometer, I just kept it on low and hoped for the best).
Remove the vessel from the heat. For best results, let the pork cool in the lard for one hour. Remove pork pieces and garlic with a slotted spoon; set the meat aside to cool slightly.
Ladle off the lard into another saucepan, leaving the meat juices behind. Heat, uncovered, over medium high heat to boiling, constantly skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Slowly boil 5 -10 minutes, or until spluttering stops and the surface of the fat is nearly undisturbed. Watch carefully and adjust heat if necessary to avoid burning or smoking; fat that is allowed to reach smoking point will be ruined for confit. Remove from heat, let cool a few minutes.
At this point, put the pork (string removed) in a plastic tub with a lid, and ladle still-warm lard on top. The pork should be covered completely. Seal the tub, write the date on it, and hide it in the refrigerator.
In two months time, I will provide the second part of the recipe, because that is how long we have to wait for the pork to mellow.
In other cooking news, I roasted my first pheasant. I was inspired by ‘Danny, the Champion of the World.’
And I made absinthe. I don’t need inspiration to do that.