The sweetest meat is closest to the bone. Although the Chinese did not coin this aphorism, they certainly live (and eat) by it, as exemplified by my family’s eating habits. At yum cha, my grandmother would methodically and joyfully (gluttony is a trait that runs rampant up and down my bloodlines) reduce spare ribs and chicken or duck feet into a neat, ever-expanding pile of delicate white bones, clear of all meat and cartilage. At an early age, I too was taught to tear flesh off bones and crush shells between my teeth to get at the “best” bits, which were always those hardest to obtain. Once, in my grade school cafeteria, I was mortified when my dining companion commented on how funny it was that I kept eating chicken wings long after the meat was gone. Mortified, because in third grade I didn’t want to be “different” (who does?), but I also couldn’t understand how someone with fully functional eyesight could not see the very visible scraps of meat still attached to the wing bones.
To a very small extent this embarrassment has survived into my adulthood. When served bone-in meat dishes at fancy restaurants, I often ask to get the bone to-go for my non-existent dog, so I can gnaw at it in the privacy of my own home. Other than that one lapse, I am for the most part proud of my ability to get at every tasty tidbit of meat on a bone and every succulent morsel out of a lobster. Like learning to make charcuterie and to appreciate offal, eating every scrap of meat is one of the ways I show respect for the animals that die for my enjoyment and sustenance.
I suspect the Chinese love affair with the hard to eat bits originated in frugality as much as in respect. Regardless of the source of this obsession, its influence can be seen in all Chinese cuisine from street food to banquets. There are some Chinese delicacies, chicken feet or fish heads for example, that are impossible to finish eating without a mound of soiled and shredded paper napkins piling up next to your plate. The few bites that you work so hard to get are incredibly delicious and usually more than worth the entire undertaking. But sometimes I’d prefer to walk away from a Chinese meal without grease stains on my clothing and animal bits in my hair. For this month’s terrine challenge I chose to turn a traditionally messy Chinese dish, jellied pig feet, into easy-to-eat, slice-and-serve presentation.
At the butcher, in addition to pig feet, I picked up a tongue, two pig ears and, as suggested by Cathy Barrow a pork shank for added meatiness. I brined the meats for 24 hours as called for in the Charcuterie head cheese recipe, but chose to omit the pink salt. After blanching the meats to rid them of impurities, I put them in a pot to simmer with onion, ginger, garlic, star anise, several tablespoons of both dark soy and light soy, and water to cover. This concoction is very loosely based on the recipe for Chinese-style pig’s trotters in The River Cottage Cookbook. At this stage I was careful to avoid over-seasoning the liquid, knowing it may need to be reduced at a later time.
|clearly our "big" pot wasn't big enough - I finished it all up in a stockpot|
After about three to four hours on the stove, when the meat was tender and the ears offered only the mildest resistance when pierced with a chopstick, I removed the pieces and strained the liquid, which should have absorbed enough gelatin from the pig skin and cartilage to bind my terrine together.
Last month, I had written about how sausage making was finally coming more easily to me. I think my arrogance seriously angered the charcuterie gods, who decided this month to make me pay. My memory of everything after the meat finished cooking is hazy. I remember it was very very very hot that day. I remember shredding meat off the pig feet and realizing why glue is made from animal hooves. I remember ken coming home from work to find every surface in the kitchen - walls, appliances, pots, pans - sticky with the gelatin which seemed to have found its way into everything except into my cooking liquid. The damned thing would not gel.
Ken somehow wrestled me down off the edge of depression and convinced me to put the terrine aside completely until the morning (and he cleaned! Once again, I am struck by how lucky I am to have him). The charcuterie gods must have been satisfied with my penance, because everything pulled together the next day. After reducing the broth by about a third, it gelled up nicely. From there, the process was straightforward, if a bit messy. I combined the shredded trotter and shank meat with slices of pig ear and diced tongue and pressed the mixture into a terrine. I kept one ear intact so I could form a decorative stripe of pig ear through the center of the terrine. Once the stock was poured over the meat, the entire thing was weighted and put in the fridge until ready to be unmolded and served.
Since presentation was a big part of this months challenge, I wanted an appealing spread of accompaniments. Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking opens with a chapter on the Philosophy of Chinese Cooking in which she describes an overriding characteristic of Chinese cooking to be the “conspicuous juxtaposition [of]...flavors, textures, colors, food types, and cooking methods.” It was with this principle in mind that I chose the dishes which would accompany the terrine. From Tropp’s book*, I made fire-dried walnuts, which were crunchy, meaty, and slightly sweet and bell pepper pickles with vibrant colors that contrasted their subtle sweet-soy seasoning.
*I see the irony that my Chinese recipes come largely from Western writers. I have a theory which I won’t go into today, that often the best culture-based cookbooks come from outsiders to that culture.
|adorable mini-bell peppers I found at the greenmarket|
Szechuan cucumber pickles, from Su-Huei Huang’s Chinese Cuisine contributed a bold spicy flavor with bright vinegar overtones. And finally, the meal was rounded out with stir-fried bitter melon. All, of course, served over a bowl of steaming white rice.
The terrine was good, although I’d do some things differently next time I make it. For one, the gelatin itself needed much more robust seasoning. I was so worried about adding too much soy the first day, that I overcompensated, and ended up with a slightly bland binder. Also, next time I would probably leave out the ears. The crunch was slightly disconcerting (which is odd because I am quite fond of another Chinese dish, pressed pig ear terrine), and there was a slight off flavor to it which I couldn’t help but associate with ear wax. If I ever get around to making an actual headcheese, I will need to find something more palatable to do with the ears. These complaints are just nitpicking, though. Altogether this was a nicely balanced meal, where each component complimented the others. I’d never had a terrine over rice before, but found it to be a very pleasant combination. While mostly holding its shape, the gelatin melted just enough to season the rice beneath it. The dish was complex in flavors and textures, and perfectly showcased the terrine.
|unfortunately it didn't slice as cleanly as I'd hoped|