There has been a foot in my freezer for awhile now.
Nothing scandalous, it was just part of the take when I bought half a pig last fall.
I’d been planning to replicate the pied de cochon I had at Central Michel Richard a few years ago. It seemed such an elegant dish, from such a meager ingredient. The problem was, I had no idea where to start. The thing in my freezer bore no resemblance to the neat, tidy, boneless fried cylinder of pork I remembered.
I perused cookbooks and found a few recipes, but most of them were for soups/stews/stocks, in which the foot is steeped for hours to extract all the deep flavor and gelatin from the bones and cartilage. That wasn’t what I was looking for.
What I remembered was a boneless round of ground pork. A quick Web search turned up a Michael Ruhlman post in which he worked through April Bloomfield’s recipe for a trotter stuffed with cotechino. It included a walk-through on the process of de-boning the foot, and a recipe for the stuffing. This would be the basis of the process for me.
I wasn’t interested in stuffing it with cotechino. The sausage I really wanted to make was boudin, the spicy rice-and-pork sausage from Western Louisiana. The recipe in Donald Link’s Real Cajun (Clarkson Potter, 2009) would be what I based my filling on.
Taking the bone out of the leg wasn’t hard, but took awhile and required commitment to the cause. I ran a sharp paring knife along the inside of the skin, pulled the skin back, not unlike pulling off a sock, then repeated the process, inch by inch, until I reached the ankle. The ankle consists of a number of joints and tendons, each of which gets sliced to release the leg bone.
Then came the process of taking the meat off the bone. That was pretty easy, because there wasn’t much of it at all. That, in fact, was a problem.
When I started, the foot weighed about 2 1 / 2 pounds, and the cut end of the leg revealed a mass of muscle that raised my expectations. But that muscle didn’t run deep, and after I cut away the few nibs found throughout, I had five ounces of meat. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that most of the leg is bone, but it hadn’t occurred to me that to properly stuff the trotter, I was going to need meat from a whole other part of the pig. I grabbed about a pound of pork chunks out of the freezer.
So really, the foot is just a casing and delivery device.
Here’s how I modified Link’s boudin recipe: I took about 1 1 / 2 pounds of pork chunks, 1 / 4 pound of pork liver, a small onion (finely diced), two ribs of celery (also finely diced), 2 tablespoons of salt, 1 / 2 tablespoon each of black and cayenne pepper, covered the ingredients with water in a Dutch oven and braised them on the stovetop for about 90 minutes. Then I ran the cooked solids through a meat grinder and tossed them with 3 cups of cooked rice, 1 / 4 cup chopped parsley, a couple chopped scallions and some of the braising liquid.
Traditionally, boudin gets stuffed into sausage casings, poached for 10 minutes and sold at gas stations in Louisiana. Stuffing it in the leg meant it would need more than 10 minutes to poach, as it would take hours to get the skin tender enough to eat. I filled the leg with the sausage, then wrapped it up in cheesecloth to keep expansion under control during the braise. The package went into a roasting pan with enough liquid (the rest of the pork braising liquid and water) to submerge half the foot, and braised in the oven for four hours at 300 degrees.
When it came out, things got tricky. The braise melts all the connective tissue in the foot. That made it a big wobbly mass. I carefully lifted the leg out of the pan and onto a large plate and stored it in the refrigerator for two hours to allow it to set. Then I took off the cheesecloth, rolled the leg in rice flour and fried it. From there, it went on a platter with some garnish, and a sauce of equal parts spicy creole mustard and cane syrup.
With no bone in the leg, carving was a breeze. The braise made the skin meltingly tender, and the last-second fry crisped it up, so the dish was like having a spicy boudin sausage encased in a crispy chicharron, which is an even better combination than it sounds.
Of course, when people talk about eating a pig’s foot, they’re talking about gnawing on the hoof. People fight for the right to do that. By the time we got down to the now-gelatinous knuckles, I felt I had lapped the recommended daily allowance of pork fat several times over, so I ceded the honor to a friend. He compared the experience to getting every last bit off a chicken wing tip.
Was it worth the effort? Sure. Once. But if I ever have another foot in my freezer, I’ll probably just reach for one of those soup/stew/stock recipes.