In our plentiful culture -- at almost any price point and grocery budget -- we can purchase what it takes to make anything from macaroni and cheese, to beef stew, to golden melon gazpacho flavored with ancho chile powder. It's common habit for most home cooks to choose a recipe, read the ingredients, scan our pantries, make a grocery list, and then head to the market.
There we will find ingredients that are acutely specific to our needs and wants. Need almonds? We can buy them raw, toasted, smoked, salted, peeled, sliced, or pulverized into flour. Canned tomatoes? Our choices include whole, diced, puréed, roasted, with jalapeños, reduced to paste, or cooked into a sauce. Even meats are specifically cut and trimmed: beef short ribs with or without the bone, chicken thighs with or without the skin, and pork that's been produced to have lots, or less, fat.
In its complicated history, our food industry has evolved to be both consumer and convenience-friendly. Of course in countries that are less developed and less plentiful, this is not the case, but in the world that most of us live in every day, we can completely cook to the recipe.
But this has not always been so. And from such times when every food had to be cultivated and processed by hand, have come some of our favorite and oddly, our most luxurious dishes. Certain recipes, especially those in our most advanced cuisines -- French and Chinese in particular -- were developed from the thrifty need to use every possible part of a plant or animal. Stews and slow braises were the solution for using meat that didn't successfully roast or stir-fry. Stocks and fumés pull flavor from animal and fish bones. Beets grown below the ground are roasted and their green, leafy tops are wilted. Gelées come from the collagen found in animal skins and bones. Sausages make flavorful use of organ meats and leftover scraps. Vegetable soups are a way to make something fabulous with what's left in the garden at the first frost -- or found fading in the refrigerator's vegetable bin.
Because until recently our food was just so darn hard to grow, harvest, slaughter, preserve and cook -- nothing could go to waste, making our cooking forebears, by necessity, very inventive.
Consider rillettes -- "Ree-Etts" -- in which shards of deftly seasoned cooked meat or fish are combined with fat. The fat -- less costly and more plentiful than the meat or fish -- softens the texture and extends the other ingredients. The result is a soft paté, usually served at room temperature, spread on pieces of baguette or toast.
Despite pejoratives as an elite treat, in fact rillettes and patés have rustic origins. Made with game, pork, rabbit, fish, and even vegetables, these dishes were invented to use precious scraps, while at the same time, adding wonderful flavor plus preservation.
Today rillettes may seem old fashioned. I think that's partly due to the effort required to cook pork or duck rillettes from scratch; you first need to cook the main ingredient using a confit technique, in which the pork or duck (or rabbit or goose) is poached in fat (here's the method). Once cooked, the meat is shredded and combined with some of its own fat, a step that can give us nutritional pause since we're no longer likely to think of rendered animal fat as a main ingredient (even though rillettes are eaten sparingly, as you would a piece of brie on a cracker).
But in fact we can take a modern approach to both the making and the ingredients and then rewarded with a satisfying and luxuriously flavored hors d'oeuvre.
Making Rillettes In A Modern City Kitchen
I was first introduced to rillettes on a trip to France, where they're sold in almost any traiteur, the deli-type markets found in every neighborhood. They're an instant hors d'oeuvre, served on rounds of French bread with cornichons and a glass of chilled white wine.
Returning home from France to my New York kitchen, I wanted to make my own rillettes and went through my cookbooks in search of recipes. Interestingly, none are in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, although I've come to appreciate that this is probably due to rillettes being a rustic and country food, not classic French haute cuisine. But I found several options in books that specialize in regional French cooking, such as Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France, one of my favorite cookbooks. Her recipe for classic "Rillettes of Shredded Duck" includes an intimidating instruction: "Prepare up to 1 week in advance." Less a hurdle is her recipe for "Salmon Rillettes" that uses both cooked and smoked salmon and requires only a three-day minimum for curing in the refrigerator.
I've never tried either recipe, discouraged by the time required from the making to the eating. But I've never lost my appetite for rillettes, nor my ambition to make them, and so recently, when I cooked our recipe for Slow Roasted Duck Legs, I planned ahead: realizing that while I was making the ducks for dinner, I could simply add four extra legs to the roasting pan and then use them the next day to make rillettes.
I made the rillettes with a very simple method I found from Tom Colicchio back when he was the chef at Gramercy Tavern.
Ingredients (makes about 1 cup or 6 servings)
4 duck legs with thighs attached, that have been either slow-roasted or cooked using a confit method; have the legs be at room temperature or chilled, making it easier to remove the meat from the bone
1/4 cup duck fat, plus extra for sealing (the fat should be either room temperature or chilled so that it has solidified and is no longer completely liquid)
Freshly ground black pepper
- Remove the meat from the legs, discarding the skin and bones.
- Shred the duck meat into shards and place in a food processor. Add 1 tablespoon of duck fat and 4 or 5 grinds of black pepper. Pulse a couple of times, adding more of the remaining fat so that a paste gets formed; don't over-process and avoid liquefying the duck meat. (You could also do this step by hand with a fork.)
- Taste and adjust for more pepper. If the duck had not been seasoned when originally cooked, you may also need a little salt.
- Transfer to a ramekin and top with a layer of duck fat to seal the top. Store in the refrigerator where they will keep for about two weeks.
- Serve at room temperature with rounds of French baguette and cornichons.
While duck may be the best known, rillettes can also be made with almost any fatty meat, especially pork belly. In her wonderful book, Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes, Jennifer McLagan includes a recipe for "Spanish-Style Pork Rillettes" that is seasoned with both hot and mild paprikas, fennel seeds, and sherry.
But rillettes can be successfully -- and quickly -- also made with canned sardines, smoked trout, or my favorite, a combination of cooked and smoked salmon. In these, cream cheese or butter takes the place of rendered pork or poultry fat. The challenge when making fish rillettes is to avoid making what is effectively a compound butter. So keep in mind that the purpose of the fat is to help the fish and other ingredients hold together, with just enough extra so that the finished result is extravagant and luscious.
Sardine rillettes are not fish-flavored butter, as you can see in this recipe adapted from Dorie Greenspan's recent book, Around My French Table.
Ingredients (makes about 1 cup or 6 servings)
2 (3 3/4 oz.) cans sardines packed in olive oil, drained (King Oscar is a good brand)
2 1/2 oz. cream cheese, regular or low fat, slightly softened
2 shallots, finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 scallions, white and light green parts only, halved and thinly sliced
Juice of 1 medium lemon, about 1 tablespoon, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh chives or flat leafed parsley or 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh dill
- In a food processor add the cream cheese, shallots, scallions, several grinds of black pepper, pinch of cayenne, fresh herbs, and half of the lemon juice. Pulse until the cream cheese is fully softened and all the ingredients are combined. Transfer to a small mixing bowl.
- Add the sardines, and using a spatula or fork, gently mix to combine.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more lemon juice and black pepper as you like. Both the sardines and cream cheese are probably salty so you shouldn't need to add more salt.
- Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and chill for several hours or overnight.
- Serve as a topping for rounds of baguette or crackers or use to stuff small tomatoes.
As much as I've loved my duck and sardine rillettes, the best I've ever made was with fresh and smoked salmon, from a recipe by Susan Loomis, author of Cooking At Home On Rue Tatin. It is easy to make, needs no confit cooking -- just some steaming for the fresh salmon which you can do in the microwave -- and it produces a salmon spread that is a year-round delight. See our link to the recipe.
A final tip: don't skimp on any of the ingredients. Use good salmon, fresh chives, and good butter because each of them matters.