Pork Rillettes

I know many people are, let's say, perplexed about the ever earlier arrival of the holidays. They wait for a moment to catch eyes with me while I'm browsing the aisles at Target just so they can shake their heads and say, "every year it comes earlier!" They want to commiserate about the impending holiday music (it starts the day after Thanksgiving, in case you were wondering). Worst of all, they try to turn everyone else against the holiday season, too. "The whole thing has lost its meaning!" they moan. "It's become all about spending money and buying junk you don't need." 

I don't know how you guys feel, but I LOVE the holiday season, from Halloween through New Year's Eve and, maybe even through Valentine's Day. The holiday season is, as with most other experiences in life, exactly what you make of it. Nobody dictates that you must by cheap trinkets during the months of November and December. No one forces that extra turkey and all those cookies down your throat, causing you to gain 15 pounds. No one says you can't genuinely spend quality time with family and friends, giving thanks for your blessings, and giving meaningful gifts, together. 

It's true that the holidays can be hectic. So many celebrations in quick succession, gifts to buy or make, and parties to host and attend. For me, it's key to get ahead on the whole situation so that I don't get overwhelmed. I start buying gifts early, and I start getting my refrigerator and freezer ready to have last-minute guests. Every year, I dream of having a constant flow of unexpected friends all throughout November and December, people showing up at our door for a glass of wine, snacks, and a chat. It hasn't quite happened that way yet, but I'd like to be ready when it does.

Pork rillettes are a good start. Once made, I can keep them in the fridge for at least 2 months, and they even get better with time! Then, when people suddenly show up at the door- yay!- I'm ready with something homemade, impressive, and delicious at hand. If you're wondering what pork rillettes are, they're a luscious spread of pork cooked in its own fat until it becomes meltingly soft. In France, you can find pork rillettes anywhere, in small cafes, grocery stores, and butcher shops. Here, they're lamentably rare. Well made rillettes are even rarer.

I suppose that's because rillettes come from a time when people needed to preserve meat for the winter during the hog harvest in late fall. The salt and fat prohibit the growth of harmful bacteria in the mix and, when they're carefully packed and topped with a layer of fat, the lack of oxygen also limits bacteria growth. When properly made and put into crocks, rillettes don't even need to be in the fridge. They can simply be kept in a cool, dark place. Now, of course, we don't need to preserve much of anything since we have refrigerators, and access to all the meats and produce, all the time. Still, it's nice to put something up, even if you keep it in the fridge, just to have a little stock on hand. It's comforting.

Now, back to that proper rillettes thing. I've heard a lot of American people talk about liking their rillettes to be "less fatty." They want them to be "more like shredded meat than pate." This is all well and good but I don't agree. Rillettes in France are fatty and spreadable and, technically, the pork needs to be cooked in fat and packed in fat in order to be preserved. If I wanted shredded pork on toast, I'd braise some pork in beer or stock and be done with it. This is pork cooked so slowly, in its own fat, that it becomes meltingly soft. It shouldn't have browned at all while it cooks, and the shredded meat, when mixed with the fat, should turn into a not-quite-homogenous spread. It's not a low-fat dish, okay? And, correspondingly, it's intended to be eaten sparingly, with a good drink, and friends. 

To make these pork rillettes, you need to be vigilant, but not paranoid. I've found that, in home kitchens without very good ovens, a slow-cooker works best and even that, to be honest, can run a little too hot. You want to cook your rillettes on the low setting of the slow cooker, or in a 200 degree oven. They take a long time so, to avoid browning of any parts, you'll want to cover the fat and pork with parchment paper cut in the shape of the pan or slow cooker crock while they cook. If browning happens, don't worry, you can always pick out the little browned bits while you shred the meat. 

For the uninitiated, I recommend not fussing with keeping the rillettes unrefrigerated. Traditionalists would argue that you don't need to pressure cook the rillettes to do this, but modern food safety experts would say that you do. Either way, you need to re-heat the rillettes, pack them into sterilized jars, and strain the fat you want to use to top them. Just keep them in the fridge; it's much safer and it's less work.

Pork Rillettes

Makes between 4 and 5 half-pint jars. 

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds pork butt (not picnic, which is much leaner)
  • 1.5 pounds pork belly (a softer meat than the shoulder, to balance it out)
  • 32 grams (approximately 1/4 cup) Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp Quatre Epices (French four spice)
  • 2 tbsp Calvados or brandy (I used Calvados)
  • 1.5 cups rendered pork lard (but have a little more on hand, since it depends on the size of your pot)
  • 2-3 sprigs of thyme, 2-3 sprigs of sage, 1-2 bay leaves, tied up in a piece of muslin or cheesecloth so that they can't escape. A tea ball works, too, though you'll need to cut the herbs up a little to get them to fit.

Instructions:

  1. About 36 hours before you plan to make the rillettes, cut the pork shoulder and pork belly into large chunks, about the size of your palm. (Or have the butcher do this.) Sprinkle the salt evenly over the pork and toss to coat. Store in the refrigerator in a zip lock bag or a glass bowl with a lid.
  2. After 36 hours, put the pork pieces in the crock of a slow cooker, or in a heavy enameled cast iron pot (like a le creuset). Pack them into the bottom so they all fit in one layer, if possible. Spoon the lard into the pot or crock. Set the slow cooker to low heat, for 12 hours, or put the pork in a 200 degree oven. 
  3. Depending on the size of your pot and your slow cooker, you may need more fat than the recipe calls for, however the pork does not need to be completely covered. After the heat has been on for a few minutes, the fat will melt and you'll see how much you have. If it comes at least half way up the sides of the pork, you're fine. If not, add a little more. When you have the right amount of fat in the pot, add the cheesecloth or muslin wrapped herbs, and cover the whole thing with parchment, pressing it down onto the surface of the meat and fat so that it adheres. 
  4. You'll need to check the pork more often if it's in the oven, to ensure it's not browning. In either case, stir it as needed to ensure even cooking and as little browning as possible. The pork is done after 11-12 hours in the slow cooker, or 6-8 hours in the oven. You know it's done when it's completely fall apart tender, and shreds easily with a fork. 
  5.  Turn the heat off and allow the pork to cool completely in the slow cooker crock or oven, without disturbing it. I usually turn it off and go to sleep at night, and wake up in the morning to finish the rillettes. 
  6. When just warm, or at room temperature, remove the meat from the fat into a bowl and use two forks to begin to shred it. You should hold the forks so that the backs of the tines crush the pork, holding one in each hand. As you go, pick out any bits of pork that may have browned during cooking. Keep crushing and mixing and pressing the pork down until it starts to become a little more homogenous. As you mix, add about 1/2 cup of the cooking fat back into the bowl, 2 tbsp at a time, mixing it in completely before the next addition. Remember that, even if the mix seems loose now, you won't be serving it this warm, and the fat helps it stay more spreadable. Slowly add in the spices and the calvados and mix well. Taste, and add more if you'd like. 
  7. Pack the rillettes tightly into clean jars, getting as much air out as you can. You can use a long wooden skewer to run around the sides of the jar to help get the air out. Top the rillettes with about a half inch of the cooking fat. If the fat isn't liquid enough to spoon on top, heat it up a little bit. All of the rillettes need to be covered with fat in order to preserve their shelf life. For decoration, you can place a single sage leaf in the fat on top of the rillettes. Let cool before covering and refrigerating.
  8. Allow to sit for at least 1 week before eating. Allow to warm up slightly before serving with mustard, dried fruits or fruit mustard, cornichons, and bread or crackers. OR, keep in the fridge until Thanksgiving rolls around and you need to bring an appetizer to the party.