Dr W pitched up with two kilos of pork belly a few weeks ago, having spotted it on offer at the butcher’s. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know that there are plenty of options here for cooking this particular cut – it’s one of my favourites. Mind you, who wants to roast or casserole in this weather? Time to experiment with some charcuterie.
Rillettes (pronounced ree-etts) are a kind of coarse pate, made from gently cured meat poached in stock and its own fat (and, in this case, some fat from a duck) for hours until it becomes soft, falling into shreds. The fat is there to carry the flavour to the tastebuds, to provide some really world-beating texture, and as a preservative; once you’ve sealed your rillettes into sterilised jars, covered with a layer of the creamy fat, nothing will be able to get in there, so you’ll be able to store them in the fridge for months. I’d recommend, in fact, that you don’t eat your rillettes as soon as you’ve made them if you can possibly help it; a week or so in a jar will allow the flavours to develop fully.
Traditionalists will tell you to cure your meat with nothing but salt and pepper before cooking, and to avoid adding extra flavourings to the meat as you poach it. Traditionalists are, in my experience, a bloody miserable lot. My brother (currently right off pork, as he recovers slowly from swine flu) makes spectacular rillettes at Christmas, which he packs with lots of crushed juniper berries. I like mine garlicky and boozy, with plenty of aroma from a generous scattering of herbes de Provence, and some bay, lavender and thyme from the garden. To make your own (reduce the amounts if you want, but this keeps very well and makes an excellent gift – given that it’s mildly fiddly, you’ll be rewarded for making a large batch), you’ll need:
2kg pork belly
1kg pork shoulder
2 bulbs garlic
2 heaped tablespoons herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons salt
6 fresh bay leaves
1 small handful (20g) thyme
1 small handful (20g) lavender leaves
750g rendered pork fat (I used duck fat from the confit I made earlier this year – you can also substitute goose fat here)
2 glasses white wine
Pork stock or water
Cut the pork (leaving the skin on the belly) into long strips about 1 inch square, and put it in a large mixing bowl. In a mortar and pestle, grind the salt, bay, thyme, lavender and herbes de Provence together. Rub the resulting mixture all over the strips of meat, cover and refrigerate for 48 hours. Curing the meat like this before cooking (you’ll notice that the confit the duck fat came from was cured in a similar way) gives it what the French call a goût de confit – a very specific and delicious flavour you only really find in confited meats.
When the meat has cured, chop the strips, retaining the belly skin, into smaller pieces, about the size of your thumb. Put the meat and any salt and herbs from the bowl in a large casserole dish with the unpeeled garlic bulbs, chopped in half across their equators, and pour over the wine. Carefully pour over stock (I happened to have some pork stock in the freezer, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it – water will be fine) until it barely covers the meat, then spoon the rendered fat into the casserole dish. Heat the oven to 150°C and bring the casserole dish to a very gentle simmer on top of the stove. Pop it into the oven with the lid on and ignore it for five hours.
Remove the casserole from the oven and remove the meat and garlic from the liquid ingredients with a slotted spoon, putting them in a large mixing bowl. Leave the liquid in the casserole to stand and separate while you work on the meat.
When the meat is cool enough to handle, use your fingers to remove the skin from the belly pieces and discard it – it’s done its work now and will have given up its gelatin to the cooking liquid, which you’ll be using in a bit. Shred the meat (now lovely and soft, with all the fat rendered out) into another bowl, and squeeze the garlic from its skin into the bowl of shredded meat, discarding the skin. When all the meat is shredded evenly, use a ladle to skim all the fat from the liquid in the casserole, and put it in a jug. You’ll be left with a glossy stock in the pan. Stir two or three ladles-worth of the stock into the shredded meat to moisten it, and pop the rest of the stock in the freezer for another day. Now ladle the liquid fat into the shredded meat bowl and mix everything in the bowl thoroughly and evenly, reserving a couple of ladles of fat to cover the rillettes in their jars. (Exactly how much you’ll need depends on the size of jar you’re using.) Taste the contents of the bowl for seasoning – this recipe benefits from some robust salting.
Pack the rillettes into sterilised jars, leaving half an inch of room at the top of each one for the fat you’ll seal them with. (I also popped some in a terrine dish for serving to friends later in the week.) Pour fat into each jar/dish to cover, seal, and refrigerate until you come to eat them. I like to let the rillettes come to room temperature before spreading them on chunks of baguette, with some caper berries and cornichons on the side to cut through the velvety fat.