Sunday, October 25, 2015

Preserving Pork Belly as Rillons

Autumn is a classic time for preserving: apples are turned to sauce, late flushes of tomatoes are canned, herbs are strung and dried.  Moving from the garden to the pasture, fall also offers a number of ways to preserve meats during the cooler months.  Preserving meat might seem intimidating, but it's easy to get started with a simple and delicious recipe like rillons.
North Woods Ranch Fresh Pork Belly
A French bistro classic, rillons are cubes of fresh pork belly cooked for hours in fat until they are unctuous and tender.  Much like duck confit, the cooked pork belly can be stored under the cooking fat for months in the refrigerator.  Then the rillons can be warmed in a pan and served with a salad, eggs, or as a hearty hors d'oeuvre with crusty bread.
To start, slice the belly into two inch cubes.  Then season the meat with salt, tossing the cubes in the salt to coat the outside of the meat.  A mix of rosemary, thyme, black pepper, and bay added to the salt rub adds another level of flavor to the meat.

Refrigerate the meat for 12 hours or overnight.  This will allow the salt to pull the water from the fresh pork belly, producing a layer of brine on the bottom of the container.  Pour off the brine and rinse any excess salt and herbs from the pork belly.
Note the pooled brine that accumulates after 12 hours.
Pat the pork belly dry, then heat up a skillet and a sauce pot.  Grease the skillet with a spoonful of lard. For the sauce pot, add a cup of lard (or two if you're making a lot of pork rillons).  Brown the cubes of pork in the skillet in a few batches, adding the browned off pieces to the pot of warm lard.  By browning the pork belly first, the rillons will take on a rich, savory flavor that really pays off in the final dish.
Once all of the pork is seared, brown a few cloves of garlic in the leftover fat, then add a cup of dry white wine (like Noilly Prat) to deglaze the bottom of the skillet.  Scrape up all the drippings from the sauce pan and pour into the pot of lard.
There should be enough lard to cover the pork belly, but don't worry if a few pieces are sticking out on top.  As the belly cooks, it will render out its own lard, covering the final peaks of the pork.  Gently simmer the pork for about 3-4 hours, stirring from time to time.  By cooking the pork low and slow, it will cook off the water in the meat and help preserve the pork.
While the rillons can be enjoyed right away (be sure to try at least one piece hot from the pot!), they can be stored in the fridge by packing them in clean mason jars or crocks and covering them with the cooking lard.  To prep the jars, wash them in hot soapy water, then warm the jars in a 300 F oven for 15 minutes.  Put the pork belly into a warmed crock and pour over enough fat to cover them by 1/2 inch.

When it's time to serve, remove the rillons from the fat and crisp them in a skillet or on a baking sheet in a oven.  Rillons are wonderful as a charcuterie component to a cheese plate, on top of a salad, or served simply on bread with good grainy mustard.

Recipe at a Glance:
1 lb North Woods Ranch Pork Belly
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 fresh bay leaf, cut into strips
1 sprig thyme, minced
1 sprig rosemary minced
1 cup dry white wine
Several turns of black pepper
1-2 cups lard, plus 2 tbsp
4 garlic cloves, smashed

- Cut the pork belly into 2" cubes.  Toss with salt, pepper, and herbs.  Put into a nonreactive (ceramic or glass) container and cover with a lid or plastic wrap.  Refrigerate overnight.

- The next day rinse off the pork belly cubes and pat dry.  Heat a skillet with 2 tablespoons of lard, plus begin melting the rest of the lard in a sauce pot.

- Sear the pork belly on 2-4 sides (depending on the shape) until brown and crispy.  Put the browned pork belly in the pot of melted lard.  Add the garlic to the skillet and brown for 30 seconds.  Pour in the wine to deglaze the skillet, scraping up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pan.  Pour the pan drippings into the pot of lard.

- Simmer the pork belly for 3-4 hours at a bare simmer.  If using within a few days, store the rillons in the refrigerator, or store for a few months in the fridge following the method described above.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Berkshire Pork Cheek Agnolotti

October's dropping temperatures are the perfect excuse to prepare some warming braised dishes.  One often-overlooked (but very delicious!) cut is the pork cheek.  While a "pork jowl" is the whole outer side cut of the pig's face, including plenty of firm fat, the cheek is just the center muscle located on the interior of the jowl.  North Woods Ranch has beautifully marbled pork cheeks for sale, thanks to a lifetime of outdoor exercise, rooting for plants, and chewing in the pasture.
Berkshire Pork Cheeks
Pork cheeks are small, weighing only about a half pound or so, but still require a few hours in a low oven to tenderize the meat and collagen.  I just place them in a small casserole dish, cover them with pork stock, and add a bit of thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf.  Pop into a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes until the stock begins to simmer, then turn the oven down to 325 and let the cheeks gently percolate in the oven for another two hours.  The result is tender chunks of meat with a rich, slightly sticky texture thanks to the collagen breaking down into savory gelatin.
At this point, the pig cheeks can be cubed up and served as a stew, or the braising liquid can be thinned out and turned into a lovely pork soup with the addition of some vegetables or beans.  I find the meat very rich, so I like to shred or finely cube the cooked pork cheeks, then mix them with other ingredients.  With autumn in the air, I decided to use this meat as a filling for squash pasta.
Candy Roaster Squash
I came across this beautiful but bizarre looking 10lb Candy Roaster squash, thanks to a local farm I like to frequent at the market.  The Candy Roaster has very firm, sweet flesh when cooked, but sweet potatoes can be substituted in this recipe as well. 
Mixing equal parts roasted squash with shredded pork cheek, I seasoned the squash and cheek mixture with salt, plenty of black pepper (the robust taste of the pork cheeks can take it), and fresh minced sage.
This mixture became the base of my pork cheek and squash agnolotti pasta.  You can use homemade paste, or buy fresh pasta sheets at the market to save time.  I like making agnolotti as they are much quicker and easier than ravioli or tortellini.

Simply take a sheet of pasta, place two teaspoons of the pork cheek mixture along the bottom third of the pasta sheet.  Dampen the area on the sides of each mixture to help the pasta seal to itself.

Next, roll the bottom third of the pasta up onto the middle third, covering the little squash/meat dumplings.  Then roll the pasta onto the final third, sealing up the little pouches.  Press around the pasta filling with your hands to help form a tight seal.  I find it's easiest to roll 4 agnolotti at a time, but you can do more or less depending on your level of expertise.
And that's it.  You don't need to seal the lip of the pasta, as this creates a nice little nook for sauce to collect.  Then boil the pasta for 2-3 minutes until tender, saucing the agnolotti in a skillet with a bit of the braising liquid, some brown butter, and a few sage leaves. 
Autumn never tasted so good!
Berkshire Pork Cheek Agnolotti
Recipe at a Glance:
1.5 lbs pork cheeks
1.5 lbs roasted squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato
1 bay leaf
2 cups pork stock
1 sprig tyme
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Homemade semolina pasta dough, or store-bought sheets of fresh pasta
6 oz butter
Small bunch of fresh sage leaves.

Cover the pork cheese in the pork stock in a shallow roasting pan.  Add the bay, thyme, and some salt and pepper.  Cover the pan tightly with greased parchment paper, then foil.  Place into a 350 F oven for 45 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 325 and cook for two more hours, until pork cheeks are tender.

Remove the pan from the oven and uncover the pan.  Let the pork cheeks cool in the liquid while you roast the squash and make the pasta dough.

Shred the cooked pork meat and fat, then mix together with the mashed, roasted squash.  Season with more salt and pepper, and a small amount of minced fresh sage.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Form the agnolotti as described above.  When the water comes to a boil, add the agnolotti and boil for 2-3 minutes until dough is tender.  Melt the butter in a skillet until brown and nutty, then add 1/2 cup of the pork cheese braising liquid to the browned butter.  When the agnolotti are done, toss in the skillet with the hot butter/stock mixture.

Serve with a few leaves of fresh sage.