A friend’s recent birthday dinner featured Boudin of Chicken Livers, a lovely poached sausage based on chicken livers with toasted walnuts and shallots (from American Charcuterie by Victoria Wise which is a terrific book for anyone interested in making their own sausages, terrines, patés, and other meat products). In addition to these complementary ingredients, a hunk of “pork fatback” was called for — half a pound to be exact. To obtain this fat back, I extracted a hunk of badly butchered pork loin from the freezer, a refugee from a “Pork Processing Workshop” that I organized last October.
(“Badly butchered” because there were newbies wielding the knives breaking down two whole pigs that were meant to end up mostly as sausage, so the loin was not as plump and round as it could have been. Otherwise the meat was very good — young, tender, and sweet, having been raised organically and fed largely on beets for the last month of its life.)
First I skinned the loin, then lopped off the nice not-too-thick layer of fatback from the muscle, weighed an appropriate amount for the boudin recipe, then put the remainder with the skin and the loin, re-wrapped that up and returned it to the refrigerator.
“Boudin” is French for any sausage that is cooked (usually boiled or poached) immediately upon being stuffed (like hot dogs in America). Often the word “boudin” alone refers to blood sausage — boudin noir — which I understand is something like the “Spam” of French cuisine: a cheap and easily obtained meat ingredient that is associated with the cooking of the working class. When I visited Brian in Montpelier and requested a meal of boudin noir, he carefully explained to me that a French host might be embarrassed to serve such a low-class meal, even if they regularly prepared it for themselves. Perhaps Brian will comment with some clarification on this point.
Eric, Carol, Marcus, and Alison (behind the camera) lunch in Rennes on boudin noir from Blaize Cuisines. Marc points out that it was chilly and windy on the steps of the Univercité where we took this picnic on our way to Chartres to view the cathedral and then back to Paris. The rest of the picnic had been the remains in the refrigerator of our Gite from which we had just checked-out: cheese, cidre, and some chips and bread.
Brian, however, suffered no embarrasment serving us boudin noir on request, though the boudin that he and Valerie found for us came from a branch of Fouchon, the super-lux French food store (think Whole Foods crossed with Tiffany’s) whose flagship store is located on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. They were very good: earthy and nutty with a nice warm (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) spice-y overtone. On our recent visit to France, we were able to sample the boudin noir from Valerie’s parent’s charcuterie, which I thought tasted even better than Fouchon’s.
Assembled ingredients ready to grind for Eric’s Christmas boudin blanc.
Boudin blanc are their opposite in most every way, both in flavor and social status: a very fine and special white sausage made out of pork and/or chicken and/or veal ground very fine, mixed with bread and cream (pre-ground ingredients pictured on the right). I quite enjoy them as a special treat, and have twice made them at Christmas time with the added luxury of chopped chestnuts.
Boudin of Chicken Livers does not appear to be a traditional French recipe, but it sounded good in American Charcuterie, described as “a finer, more esoteric version of liverwurst.” I recommended the recipe to friends who had a growing cache of chicken and duck livers from their homegrown and butchered birds, and thus it became the feature of a birthday meal. My enthusiasm for the recipe led to my assistance with the preparation, which went fairly well until we got ready to poach the sausages. The raw sausages were loose and liquid in their casing despite the whipped egg whites used to bind the mixture. To “firm them up” I tightened the casing, and as they poached, and that whipped egg white started to do its thing, the sausage burst in the poaching water.
By that time, however, the meat had set, and the sausages were salvaged with the deft use of a strainer. The actual birthday dinner took place the following evening, at which point the boudin were fried in butter (as instructed), and served with diced rutabegas, sweet dumpling squash, and sliced potatoes. The boudin were quite good — very rich, earthy, with the added nuttiness of the toasted walnuts. The richness of the livers was compounded as they were liberally studded with small cubes of the fat back, though next time I think this should be ground instead to mix better into the livers, nuts, and shallots. I would definitely make them again (whenever we next have a surplus of chicken or duck livers…), and this time make sure the casings were loose before poaching. Dessert was a delicious and beautifully layered tiramisu that Alison helped to make.
Hot Sweet Steaming Sour
After that satisfying dinner we came home to 1 1/4 pounds of trimmed pork loin in the refrigerator, about 1/4 pound fat back, and about 1/2 pound pork skin for the weekend. And it was my turn to cook. A recent Cooks Illustrated issue had a “quick” Hot and Sour Soup recipe in it that featured strips of pork loin among the 13 ingredients, and luckily we had just roasted a chicken and would be able to make stock out of the carcass. Game on…except the recipe called for only one pork chop worth of pork, about 6 ounces total. What to do with the rest of the meat, fat, and skin?
The Chinese theme led me to think of dim sum, and I knew The Frug had some dumpling/pot sticker recipes. I’ve also always been interested in what goes into “traditional” Chinese restaurant dishes, like General Chow’s Chicken, beef and pea pods, or Sweet and Sour pork. Luckily we own a seminal cookbook of asian recipes: The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee published 1972. Craig “discovered” Virginia while at the NYTimes, and after taking Chinese cooking classes from her decided that he was “hopelessly trapped” into writing a Chinese cooking book with her. I suspect that he saw dollar signs, found a publisher (J.B. Lippincott) and then asked her to “consult” on it — his name is listed first, after all, and he writes about the history of Chinese cuisine in the introduction!
The birthday boudin had been on Friday night, so Saturday night would be Hot and Sour Soup and dumplings. Cooks Illustrated claims their Hot and Sour Soup is a 20 minute dish…I’m pretty sure that’s AFTER all the slicing and measuring of the 14 ingredients because it didn’t take no ‘twenny’ minutes to whip together. Maybe that’s because I was also in the middle of mixing two different dumpling fillings, and the rolling out The Frug’s Fun Gor dumpling wrapper recipe…
…yes, rolling out dumpling wrappers for steamed dim sum dumplings. It’s actually surprisingly simple, no more difficult than making fresh pasta, less work than potato gniocchi. Some of the recipes call for potato starch, wheat starch, and/or rice flour, which aren’t regular components of American pantries and therefore somewhat intimidating. But The Frug’s Fun Gor wrappers are made only of cake flour, boiling water, and lard. You mix the flour and water (including a little salt) rapidly in a bowl with chop sticks, then just as it forms into a dough add the lard in pinches, knead until smooth, then let rest for half an hour. After that, roll the dough into a tube, cut into coins, and roll each coin as thin as you can, place a tablespoon of filling, pinch closed, and there you have an honest-to-goodness dim sum pork dumpling.
The time for making dim sum is also spent measuring and chopping the ten to fifteen ingredients in the filling. I made the Fun Gor filling, which includes cabbage and other veggies in the mix with the pork, and I also mixed up The Frug’s Shu-Mei filling, which has the same flavors (ginger, garlic, sherry), but no veggies except scallions. Coincidentally the new Cooks Illustrated issue arrived with their own “Perfect Potstickers” recipe, similar to the Shu-Mei, and with no mention of mixing your own wrappers — they direct you to purchase gyoza wrappers — but DO include (it wouldn’t be CI without this) the PROPER way to way to fill and close the dumplings: make sure to press ALL the air out from between the wrapper and filling, otherwise you will experience the dreaded “ballooning” in your wrapper after steaming and all of your cook friends will laugh at you…
Since I had to grind the pork loin myself for the filling, I ended up grinding the pork skin along with the loin. A traditional Italian sausage called “Cotechino” requires pork skin, boiled then ground along with the pork (about 1 part skin to 9 parts meat and fat). This creates a gelatinous or ‘sticky” texture in the finished sausage, and according to Paul Bertolli in his masterwork Cooking By Hand this sausage is a part of “the grand dinner of boiled meats bollito misto.” I didn’t have time to boil this skin (and then cool it before grinding) as I’ve done for Cotechino, so I just ground it with the rest of the meat (it helped to mix strips with meat and fat as it went through, since the Kitchen Aid grinding attachment seemed to choke on too much of the skin going through at once…), and you couldn’t tell once it was ground pork. And even though I knew the skin was in the dumpling filling, I couldn’t tell that it wasn’t pure pork. Alison didn’t know, and pronounced the dumplings “excellent!” which just proves the old saying that you never want to see how laws and sausage are made, because then you could never stomach either.
The Boston Globe also printed an article on “Chinese Dumplings” at the same time and gives a wrapper recipe for about a hundred dumplings (3 cups of flour…) and calls for ice water and no fat. Their filling includes lots of cabbage (5 cups to 1 pound pork) and sake instead of sherry. I did used their dipping sauce recipe, only because it’s a little more complex than the typical soy – sesame oil – ginger – garlic – vinegar mix, including fresh chiles, and a mix of soy sauces (light and dark).
So: groups of ingredients get dumped into the soup pot, and in between those moments I smooshed a few coins of dumpling dough, scooped a few spoons of meat filling, and pinched the pocket together WITHOUT any extra air…
…and only an hour after the promised serving time, I got a plate of dumplings on the table, followed by a bowl of Hot and Sour Soup. Very good, very good. I loved the dumpling filling, much better than the gyoza skins — lighter, more translucent, and more delicate. I included a salad of fresh greens from the hoophouse to round out the meal, and in fact the dumplings with cabbage in the filling were Alison’s favorites.
Sweet and Sour
The next night I had half of each of the dumpling fillings left, so I mixed another batch of Fun Gor skins, and another mix of dipping sauce.
All of that was easy, but the main course this night would be Sweet and Sour Pork from the Claiborne book along with some simple boiled rice. The SnS Pork has lots of vegetables in it as well as the pork, but I did need to stop at the store on the way back home after catching a matinee of Brokeback Mountain (which is sort of sweet and sour itself) to pick up a can of pineapple chunks, a critical component.
The only hard part of the SnS Pork was slicing the remaining pork loin into appropriate strips, then coating them in cornstarch. After that it’s a matter of heating up some oil, frying the meat then setting it aside, pouring most of the oil out before applying high heat and stir-frying the vegetables and pineapples, then adding the sugar sauce, then the cornstarch slurry, then two Tbsp of “fresh” oil to “glaze” the dish before serving immediately. Claiborne would have you turn it neon red with food coloring in his recipe — I’ve left that out below. Also you DON’T really need a full cup of cornstarch to coat the pork, dole it out a few Tbsp at a time and replenish only if needed with another Tbsp.
And, behold, not too late, I presented Alison with a dish that could have come out of a cardboard carryout container, and it was just as good as I remembered, though it’s not a subtle dish at all: crispy strips of pork in a gooey sauce with chunks of carrots, peppers, and pineapple. It was a nice second course (with a green salad) after a round of the two kinds of steamed pork dumplings. The cabbage filling dumplings were again prounounced favorites, and I think that’s because the cabbage adds another dimention of texture and flavors to the filling besides just being a way to stretch your meat further. Eastern European dumplings (pirogi) also feature cabbage alone, as well as cabbage and ground meat stuffings.
So two pounds of pork loin had been turned into boudin, two dumplings, soup, and SweetAndSour. It took more than 20 minutes, but not that much more, and now I’ll make dumplings more often, because they’re way easier than I’d thought.
Sweet and Sour Pork
adapted from The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee
Sweet and sour pork is, of course, one of the best-known dishes in all the world. Like anything else, a good sweet and sour pork is one thing and an ordinary sweet and sour pork is quite another. This is an excellent one. It is best if all the recommended ingredients are used, but license may be taken. For example, substitute fresh or canned mushrooms for the dried ones, and so on.
1 pound lean pork, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
1 Tbsp dry sherry or shao hsing wine
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp cornstarch
4 dried black mushrooms, or any full flavor fungus
1/2 cup sweet peppers cut into 1 inch cubes (try several colors if available)
2 Tbsp sliced carrot
1/2 cup onion cut onto 1 inch cubes
1/4 cup thinly sliced bamboo shoots
1/3 cup drained pineapple chunks
1/3 cup pickled scallions, each cut in half (optional)
4 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed, and left whole
4 thin slices fresh ginger, peeled
1 1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sutar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp light soy sauce
vegetable cooking oil (preferably peanut)
Lightly pound pork pieces until flat, then place in mixing bowl with dark soy sauce and wine; mix with fingers.
Place three Tbsp. of the 1 cup of cornstarch on a small plate, and press the pork pieces into it on both sides to fully coat. Add more cornstarch as you use it up. It may not take the entire 1 cup to coat all the pork.
Reconstitute the mushrooms if dried, then discard any tough stems and slice the rest into thin pieces. Add these to the rest of the veggies and set aside.
Mix one cup of water with the sugar, vinegar, and light soy sauce in a small pot, and set it on low to heat up, stirring occasionally until the sugar is all dissolved.
Mix the 2 Tbsp of cornstarch in 1/4 cup of water to create a slurry
Heat enough oil in a wok to cover the pork pieces to the smoking point then drop the pork pieces in in batches so that they can each float free — watch carefully as there is little time between cooked and over-cooked. Remove cooked pieces and set on a papertowel lined plate. When all the pork is cooked, set this in a warm oven.
Pour all but 1/4 cup of the oil out of the wok, then re-heat and add veggies. Stir-fry for about 5 minutes until they’ve just lost their crunch.
While the veggies are cooking bring the sugar sauce to a boil, thoroughly stir the cornstarch slurry (some will have settled to the bottom) then add to the bubbling sugar sauce and stir for about 30 seconds. Then add 2 Tbsp “fresh” oil to the sauce to “glaze” it, then add to the veggies and mix together to coat.
From Claiborne’s book:
Customarily in America, the sauce and vegetables are poured over the pork before serving. We prefer to serve the pork on one platter, the sauce with vegetables separately, so that each guest may help themselves.
The pork MAY be cooked twice to make the pieces crisper. After the meat has cooked the first time, reheat the oil to smoking, then put back the pork for 1 to 2 minutes, or until it is brown and crisp.
I served the pork mixed with the vegetables — it seemed too awkward to serve separately, and it always comes from the restaurant kitchen together. And if you keep the pork cooking oil really hot, and cook in small batches, you can achieve that “crisp” pork (if desired — one of my batches did this by mistake!) without having to reheat the oil for a second batch.
2 thoughts on “Pork5Ways”
Good show! I guess that’s what you can do when you don’t have cable TV.
You should have mentioned that the reason we all look so uncomfortable eating our Boudin Noir… it was cold and we were in a howling gale.
Re: boudin noir, it is indeed the French Spam, sort of. It’s pretty much the cheapest thing in any butcher’s case, so most families probably eat it once a week or so.
Eric and Alison’s visit here was scheduled to coincide with that of my in-laws, the French butchers, so I passed along Eric’s request for boudin to my mother-in-law, Marie-FranÃ§oise, over the fone. She laughed nervously, as she can’t always tell when I’m joking (no one can — this is a common complaint). I explained that whereas virtually every European society has its own version of boudin noir (blood pudding in England, in sausage form in most other countries; blood mixed with rice in Spain, mixed mainly with onions in France, I think there’s bread crumbs in the Italian version…), it isn’t very common in America and strange people like my brother are willing to pay a lot of money to eat this in fancy American restaurants. She seemed relieved when she realized that since they would be closing the shop for vacation before they came down and since they were leaving on Saturday and they make their boudin on Mondays, there wouldn’t be any left to bring. (She may have also been slightly offended since their specialty, for which they’re semi-famous, is a more typical pork sausage smoked for 50 hours over smoldering algae and they were bringing plenty of that.)
We did end up buying some fresh boudin (it’s not cooked when it’s made) at our local butcher’s (who I do not think is a satellite of the famous Parisian store; I think they just sell some of the Parisian store’s stuff) and it was quite good. It’s particularly good with sauteed apples (or applesauce if you just don’t have the time or will to cut up an apple and sautee it for 5 minutes). I have not tasted Dominique’s (my father-in-law) boudin, as when I visit them I lean toward the patÃ©s and terrines.
Boudin blanc is traditional here at Xmas time but it is still not considered overly fancy. After all, it’s still boudin.
btw, the word “boudin” is a slang word, used mostly by children, that translates roughly to “fatso,” as boudins are a fairly fat type of sausage.