In The Recipe Lab: Fergus Henderson’s ‘Trotter Gear’

100110-demian-pig-trotter-1These recent wintery days have had me thinking about great cold-weather meals that I have had.  One such memory is from Christmas 2006 when the boss and I spent the Holiday kicking around Paris.  We had no agenda (an no relatives to visit) other than to wander the city for a couple days with only an eye for old churches, quaint shops and eating some great food.  On Christmas eve we found ourselves eating dinner at a little brasserie near the Jewish quarter.  I ordered the cassoulet, as the traditional french dish had been on my mind during this trip.  The cassoulet version that I was served was spectacular.  A deliciously braised mix of duck, sausage, beans and a pig trotter (I said ‘near’ the Jewish quarter, not ‘in’ the Jewish quarter).  The trotter fell apart and all of its fatty bits got mixed into the dish, lending it’s yummy goo to every bite.  Whether it was the pleasantness of the easy-going holiday, the candle-lit dining room or the trotter magic, I will always remember this cassoulet as a benchmark of delicious French comfort food.

Also during that time I had the great pleasure of working in the kitchen at London’s St. John Restaurant from the fall of 2006 until the fall of 2007.  Chef Fergus Henderson and the St. John crew were simply awesome.  They taught me much about butchery, restaurant service and good, solid English cooking.  Which, other than noticing the ubiquitous presence of peas on every pub plate, I knew very little about.  While at St. John I stuffed an army of suckling pigs, deboned pork shoulders, cleaned venison livers, marinated sliced ox hearts, peeled lambs tongues, cooked blood pudding, butchered rabbits, wood pigeons, geese and grouse… to name but a few.  And I also got a lesson in pigs trotters.  We would braise stacks of trotters and then work through the tedious task of deboning them while saving the goo for addition to pies, roasts, etc.  Convergence possibilities perhaps?

I haven’t used pigs trotters since, but my recent thoughts of cassoulet had me thinking about them again.  And it didn’t hurt that Sam Sifton had written about them recently in the New York Times (although his article, under ‘The Cheat’ series, starts talking about cheese as a substitute for trotter gear which, to me, is not so much of a cheat as just a bit of a bummer).   So I decided to explore trotters on my own (regardless of how squeamish Americans are about such things).  Armed with thoughts of meals past and Fergus’s ‘Beyond Nose to Tail’ cook book I set to the task.  Disappointed that Fairway does not carry pigs feet, I hoofed it (bad pun) down to Esposito’s in Hell’s Kitchen and picked up a few.  My plan was to follow Fergus’s ‘trotter gear’ recipe while also doing my own variation to see if I could taste a difference and discern the merits of one over the other.

100110-demian-pig-trotter-2Adjusting the proportions of Fergus’s recipe accordingly I compiled the ingredients for the braise.  For the variation I decided to try to replace the Madeira in the recipe with red wine.  Madeira, while being a stronger flavour, also has a slight sweetness to it.  So I doubled the amount of red wine (from 125ml of Madeira to 250ml of wine), cut back on the chicken stock and added six prunes to raise the sweetness level.  I also made the addition of 1 gram (about 1/2tsp) of salt to both recipes (not sure why Fergus’s recipe doesn’t mention salt…).  I then covered each with foil and put them into the oven for four hours of lazy heat.

100110-demian-pig-trotter-4When I pulled the trotters out both recipes were sufficiently ‘wobbly’ as Fergus had instructed to look for.  The ‘trotter gear’ pan is on the left and my variation is on the right.  I then gave them a little while to rest and cool down before I set to processing them.

The first thing you will notice when working with trotters is that pigs feet have a LOT of little bones.  I guess this is common to most all feet but rarely do I come this up-close-and-personal to pedal anatomy.  So it is completely understandable if this takes a moment to get used to.  Maybe it might help if you try to picture it like a kind of pig ‘Jell-o salad’  or something.  You know the kind your grandmother makes where it sits there in a big jiggly lump but the inside is full of hard chunks of apple and un-ripe pear. Only this is pig goo with bones in it.  Doesn’t help?  Oh well.  But, hey, bones are bones.  You’ll deal.  Once you get into it the fleshy bits fall apart very easily and the work goes pretty quickly.

100110-demian-pig-trotter-5Processing each recipe involved separating out the components.  In the above photo the ‘trotter gear’ recipe runs along the bottom and my variation runs across the top.  The pig goo is on the left, Braised vegetables are in the middle and bones, etc. are in the container on the right.  The bones, of course, get chucked.  The vegetables, while having done their duty could always get used somehow.  Maybe blitz them for addition to a soup or as a sauce to accompany pork chops?  Up to you.  But the stuff on the left is the main product that we are after.

And the verdict?  Upon tasting I must say that Fergus Henderson’s ‘trotter gear’ is very very good.  Seriously good.  This is super-condensed deliciousness.  It will make you love pork.  If you already love pork, it will make you love it more.  It will open your eyes to the big wide porky world out there that goes largely unexplored beyond the overcrowded bacon land.  Fergus is correct in that a dollop of this added to stews or meat pie filling will enhance the flavor exponentially.  Truly a winner.

My variation was also very good.  Although a bit different.  The change in alcohol brought a very ‘wine-y’ character to this recipe.  In a nice ’coq au vin’ sort of way.  But the wine may give it almost too much personality in that direction.  Added to a recipe, it might muddle the taste of any dish that was not already wine-based.  Whereas the Madeira lends a lovely sweetness to the pork but otherwise stands back and allows the pig to do the taste-talking.  I also think that the addition of the prunes was not assertive enough in that it did not end up tasting very sweet.  I might try my variation again but this time either with port in place of wine or with many more prunes.  Or maybe apples?  Grapes might be interesting too. 

The possibilities are endless.  As are the possibilities for the use of Fergus Henderson’s ‘trotter gear’ in your cooking life.  So get to it.  Don’t be afraid.  People have been using this stuff in their cooking for thousands of years.  Go chat up your butcher.  Buy a few trotters. And reconnect with humanity’s long tradition of flavor.

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