Friday, February 25, 2011

The odd couple

I have a feeling this one’s not going to be a crowd-pleaser–I’ll just get that out of the way right now. But because I foreshadowed the recipe here, and because my brother-in-law Toby insisted, and because, in general, this blog is an honest account of the food that successfully passes through my kitchen…I just had to.

It’s a pheasant and pig’s trotter pie. Yes, pig’s trotter–as in hoof. If you are a hunter, or you’re into nose-to-tail eating, or you’re just naturally curious, you may want to give it a whirl. It’s delicious–really, it is. If you’re vegetarian or kosher-keeping or faint of heart, you may want to click away now.

Fergus Henderson’s cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, has graced my collection for a while now, and I had the pleasure of trying this particular dish in his London restaurant, St. John, over Sunday lunch–and I highly recommend that experience if you’re in London. My English mother-in-law split it with me (‘atta girl, Pauline!). The one we enjoyed contained a marrow bone, which was lovely, but which I left out. In the name of moderation, I also forwent the suet crust that appears in the cookbook and instead used pre-made puff pastry dough; Dufour makes by far the best one I know.

First, the pheasants. The craziest thing is, I swore at the end of that blog entry that I would make the recipe as soon as someone sent some pheasants my way. When was that likely to happen? The very day I posted, Ben was on his way up to Connecticut to fetch our ski gear for the trip that never happened, and to check in on some painting in progress. The fantastic painter we work with, who is named Rock, has done several projects for us over the years, and it is because of him that the Blue House is no longer the grey house. In terms of the world’s top likeable people, he’s up there. He’s also an outdoorsman, and he knows we like to cook. Last summer he left us a stash of apple wood, hacked by his own hands, for us to use in our smoker.

On that particular December day, Ben chatted with him for a bit, and then drove off to run some errands, leaving our dog in the house with Rock. When he returned, Rock and the dog were gone, and on the kitchen table was a note:


Wet paint, so I put the pup in the guest house. He’s a cute little shit. Pheasants in the freezer.

Rock had shot the pheasants on a recent hunting excursion and had thought of us. When Ben returned to Brooklyn he handed me the note and the pheasants and the story–but he had not yet read my post about the pheasant and trotter pie and of course, nor had Rock. Seriously, I got chills! But most of all, I took this serendipitous alignment of events as a sign that I had to make the recipe, and soon.

As for the trotters, that part of the equation required a mere call to the Meat Hook in Williamsburg to line up. The Meat Hook is one of my most favorite places, powered by loud rock and an affable new generation of meatsters. They bring in the animals whole, from humane, sustainable local sources, so I can always count on them to supply any cut I need–but even everyday items like their coarse-ground beef (grass-fed), are life-changing. I get great advice from the butchers there when I’m wading into unfamiliar territory, but best of all, they don’t blink an eye when asked for something like trotters or tail or the skin left on. None of the concerned looks and “you sure you don’t want that trimmed off, sweetie?” I get from the old-timers in our neighborhood (whom I still frequent, by the way). Instead, what I got, from Sara the girl butcher, was: “Great–what’re you making? I’ll pick out the least hairy ones for you.”

But the recipe’s casual instructions could not have prepared me for the work of dealing with piggy feet. I have picked crabs. I could break down a chicken or fillet a fish blindfolded. Organs don’t faze me. I’ve got a stomach of steel, but it was tested that day by the sensory experience of plunging my hands into warm trotters. The recipe says simply to “pick the flesh and skin from the bones,” but the flesh in a trotter, aside from one or two little bits, is not what we typically think of as meat. In fact, it’s mainly skin and gelatinous fat. That’s what melts so silkily into the pie, once you break it apart, and what makes the whole thing so unctuous. I evolved a method: basically, I tried not to peer too carefully into the confusing bundle of parts, tried not to think too much, and just went by feel. Anything bony or gristly got pulled out and discarded, and anything yielding got shredded up to put into the pie. The recipe does note that you should do this while the trotters are still warm, and you must heed that advice, because as they cool–which they will unless you work lightning-fast–the natural gelatin begins setting and sticking to anything it touches.

That adventure out of the way, the whole thing came together beautifully. The coupling of main ingredients, bizarre at first glance, is actually brilliant–since anyone who has ever cooked pheasant knows how difficult it is to avoid a cardboardy texture. Gently bathed in trotter essence, the game birds can reach their full potential. As Mr. Henderson so eloquently describes: “This is a most rich and steadying pie.” And it was. We enjoyed it with Cara and Toby, my sister- and brother-in-law, in Vermont this past weekend, and its steadying properties were indeed the thing for a night of howling wind, which threatened to rip the house we’d rented apart at the seams, early rising kids, and ice skiing the next day.
Pheasant and Pig’s Trotter Pie  
Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast  
Feeds 6

  • 3 pig’s trotters, outer hoof and hair removed (skin on) 
  • A bundle of fresh herbs (I used parsley and thyme but would add sage) tied with kitchen string  
  • 1 head of garlic, skin on  
  • 2 bay leaves  
  • 10 black peppercorns  
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped  
  • 2 red onions, peeled and halved  
  • 2 carrots, chopped  
  • 1 bottle of red wine, such as an inexpensive Rhone  
  • 1 ¾ quarts chicken stock  
  • ½ lb. pancetta or unsmoked streaky bacon, cut into chunks (you can use up to 1 lb., which is what the recipe calls for)  
  • 2 pheasants, split in half at the spine and breast bone (you can use kitchen shears) kept on the bone, and sprinkled with salt and ground pepper  
  • 3 medium onions, peeled and sliced

This is best made the day before, as Mr. Henderson says, “to find itself.” Put the trotters in a pot with herbs, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, celery, red onions, and carrots. Cover with wine and chicken stock, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 3 hours, until the trotters are cooked and very tender. Remove the trotters from the pot, then strain the stock and set aside. While the trotters are warm, pick the flesh and skin from bones and discard bones. As you remove flesh, tear it into small pieces with your fingers and add these pieces back into the strained stock.

Preheat oven to 425˚F. Heat a large skillet and put the pancetta or bacon in. Cook, stirring, for about 5-10 minutes until some of the fat renders and the pieces brown slightly. Remove to a deep roasting pan. Brown the pheasants on all sides in the remaining fat, then move them into the pan with the bacon. Sweat the onions in the same skillet for a few minutes until they begin to turn translucent, and add them to the roasting pan, along with the trotter flesh and stock, and cover with aluminum foil. Put this in the oven for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 350˚ and cook for another 30 minutes. Remove, check the seasoning, and allow to cool in the stock.

When cool, remove the pheasant and pull the meat off the bones, keeping pieces relatively large but not unwieldy. Often, people find the leg meat of pheasants too tough to eat, but I found many useable bits, since they were braised in magic trotter stock. Discard any pieces that seem too sinewy, along with bones and other inedible parts. Put the pheasant meat back into the stock and store in the refrigerator overnight.

  • 1 package good-quality puff pastry  
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten, for glaze

Preheat oven to 375˚. Thaw puff pastry at room temperature if it is the frozen variety. Place meat mixture in a pie dish (if it’s shallow you will need two), ½ inch or so below the rim. If there appears to be a lot of liquid, hold some back; it will be congealed when cold but will melt when heated up, and you don’t want it to bubble over the sides. Cover pie dish(es) with pastry, crimping and trimming to fit around the edges. Cut a small hole in the center of dough, brush with egg yolk, then place in oven for about 40 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and puffed, and you can see filling bubbling through the hole in the middle. Serve immediately. We enjoyed it with roasted potatoes, and Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon.

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