CHARCUTEPALOOZA CHALLENGE #8: SOMEWHERE, BECAUSE OF ME, THERE’S A PIG WALKING AROUND WITH A PEG LEG
I like pig’s feet. I eat pig’s feet. I have never made pig’s feet. Now that I have, I may no longer like pig’s feet.
I was excited about the idea of making a terrine out of pig trotters for Charcutepalooza for this month’s challenge. I called a great local farm to table place in Houston to source some pig’s feet. I had a whole plan worked out to drive down there, check it out, buy a little super-heritage hoof and come back with my quaint, happy pig prancing on a hillside trotters that smelled and tasted like some Alice Waters inspired watercolor.
This plan was derailed… mostly because I never made it to Houston.
With this challenge I have learned something about my city, the white-collar, $5 for a head of lettuce parts of Austin seem unusually averse to selling pigs feet. Sure they’ll ooh and awe and happily pay $15 a plate for them at whatever the latest haute-hip joint of the week is. But they will not sell them at the fancy stores, or even order them in some instances. After calling every high fallutin’ grocer I could think of and literally being laughed at a few times, after contacting a few of my buddies to try and order them for me through their restaurants (no, I didn’t want 26 pounds of trotter, thank you), I knew where I had to go. It was time for a trip to east Austin and the neighborhood Carniceria where I found them, easily and without accolade or judgment.
Now I’d like to clarify that on a fairly regular basis I’ve been one of those snooty types shelling out $15 a plate for trotters and, more often than not, I’ve really enjoyed them and thought they were worth it. They taste good, unctuous, piggy and rich. Not only that, I like the idea of cooking the whole beast. I was excited to get knee deep in some feet.
Then I opened the bag of trotters. How can I say this…? The fuckers stink. Like REALLY stink. Not stink like rancid meat, because they were fresh. No, they stink like something that’s been tramping around in shit its entire life. They stink like a stink that invented stink. They stink so much that next time somebody with a $4000 watch starts waxing poetic about “peasant food,” I want to make them smell one of these things and then repeat themselves with a straight face. Trotters stink a stink that makes calling them trotters seem a lot like serving a pig’s ass and calling it “circular prosciutto.”
No, these are feet. And a pig’s feet stink in a way that makes me realize that there was a time when my ancestors ate these things because they HAD to. Nobody ever said “Ooh, that piece there at the bottom of the pen, yes the one with the turds caked on it. Yes, I’ll take that.” It’s just that the best cooks figured out how to make them good out of necessity. I was about to find out if I was capable of this.
So I embarked. And at this point I think it’s worth noting that it’s no secret I enjoy a beer or two while cooking, let this be the first time I had one for courage while cooking.
I brined the trotters with pink salt, maple, brown sugar, black pepper and garlic. And they still stank.
I simmered some trotters with white wine, a bouqet garni and mirepoix. And then the kitchen stank.
I smoked some over a slow oak fire, and I secretly worried that they would make my smoker stink.
But then, a funny thing happened between hours 3 and 4 of cooking. The stink became, well nice. The smoked trotters looked and smelled just like hoofy bacon. The simmered trotters smelled porky and delightful. And the liquor was full of body, texture and complex flavors, especially after I steeped the smoked trotters in it for another good hour.
Shredding and chopping them also revealed several varied meaty, tasty textures with a gambit of colors from bright pink meat to deep brown smoked pork skin and soft translucent fat and tendon.
I chopped, molded weighted my bacony foot terrine and turned my attention to its companion terrine: heirloom tomatoes suspended in tomato water essence. Paul Bertolli talks about this in Cooking By Hand and I’ve been wanting to try it for awhile, including it in a terrine based snack when tomatoes are at their peak seemed like a natural fit.
After extracting the essence of the tomato, adding some gelatin and suspending a few heirloom varieties in it. I let both terrines set in the fridge overnight, tomatoes meeting trotters both wondering what their future held. The next morning, I was ready to embark on my dish: a sort of reimagined BLT with a crispy crumbed piece of trotter terrine over a piece of bib lettuce and the tomato water terrine with a little broken mayo vinaigrette.
My chef buddy Esteban came by the house to offer a few fortifying brews and a much more capable hand in the kitchen. We ate the pig terrine cold, it tasted of bacon and was really pretty damn good. The texture was what you might call “old world.” If my daughter ate solid food and I gave her a piece I’m pretty sure she would have never trusted me again. About anything.
But the smell of the thing was amazing, smoky, meaty, maybe a slight whiff of barnyard. But something entirely different than the full frontal nostril assault that I had endured a couple days prior.
But the real magic came in the frying . We dredged a very thick slice of terrine through an eggwash and breadcrumbs, doubling down just to be sure not to lose any of the gelatin. Then we combined it with the lettuce and the tomato water aspic.
Holy hell it was good. Heated through, the trotters became a soft, sort of gooey pork McNugget with little bits that spilled out as you ate it. The lettuce offered a freshness and crunch that softened the rich meatiness on top of it. It’s dressing, a broken mayo and lemon juice sort of vinaigrette further lightened things up. And the tomato water aspic was really what made it. Light. Porky. Reeking of fresh tomato. This dish tasted like what I imagine frying bacon in your morning garden would be like– especially if there was some nice ripe soil near by.
So yeah, Trotter BLT, I’m a fan. Knowing full well that they stink like a bastard…
Circular prosciutto anyone?