I was raised by a French woman. So, it goes without saying, that I have eaten every part of a cow, sheep, goat… you name it. Brains and sweetbreads was what I requested for my birthday dinner growing up – served with a cream sauce in a puff pastry shell. Many every day meals included gnawing on bones and sucking marrow. Oh, marrow spread on toasts? To die for…
Whether it was lamb or rabbit on my plate, it was just a typical meal. It’s just the way it was and I didn’t know anything different.
In France, as in most countries during “olden times,” people ate what there was, and ate all of it. It was the most practical thing to do, and there was little or no waste. They were simply doing it to survive. This was in the days before the supermarchés, when family cooks frequented farmers’ markets to purchase what they didn’t have growing in their gardens or hadn’t already butchered. Meat, of course, was used in creative ways to put as much food on the table as possible. If they were eating pork belly, or oxtail, they weren’t doing it to be “gourmet.” If it was there, it was eaten.
Now I’m not saying that pigs’ feet should be deemed “gourmet.” But I personally consider them a delicacy, much like tongue, terrines, and pâtés. From their humble and peasant origins, creative dishes prepared with the less popular bits and pieces of animal are in the top ranks of what is culinarily priceless. Feet, liver, brains, tongue, thymus – all of that awful offal (I’ve always wanted to say that!) – is prized meat that deserves the highest regard in foodie circles. Think about foie gras – what is it but essentially lobes of liver? But cooked properly it is tender slices of gourmet heaven.
But I digress. So along with other parts of animals, my mother used to make pigs’ feet. Unfortunately, I’m the only person in my family who eats it. But I still make it every other year or so just to make me happy. So that’s what I did.
6 pounds pigs’ feet, mine were sliced but it doesn’t matter
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 leek, rinsed, coarsely chopped
6 or so baby carrots, halved
1 bunch parsley
1 tablespoon salt
Handful of peppercorns
Handful of bay leaves
Place everything in a large Dutch oven and cover the pigs’ feet completely with water. On the stove, bring the water to a boil, then turn down, cover the pot, and simmer for about 2 hours. Uncover the pot and let the feet cool.
When you can handle them without burning yourself, pour everything into a colander over another large pot to collect the broth. Taste the broth for seasoning, but don’t add salt. The broth should have a fairly mild taste – you don’t want it to outshine the pigs’ feet.
Return the broth to the stove and simmer for at least an hour to reduce.
Meanwhile, pick all of the meat, what you can find of it, and the little edible grizzly bits, off of the feet and place in a bowl. If desired, add to the collected meat some diced tongue from when you made tongue, see la langue.
Combine the meats with some of the broth, and pour into a lightly greased terrine or any rectangular loaf-style pan. If necessary, add a little more broth. You want a nice ratio of meat to gelatin. You don’t want it solid meat, but there also needs to be meat in all of the slices.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. The pigs’ feet meat and tongue dice will have solidified in the gelatin and are ready to eat.
There are two ways I like to eat pigs’ feet. One is to serve it as is, cold and sliced, with toasted breads and pickles and mustard, as part of an hors d’oeuvres platter.
Another way to serve pigs’ feet is as a salad. Coarsely dice the pigs’ feet and gently toss with oil and vinegar; they can also be served on a bed of greens with some good bread. On this day I made a basic vinaigrette with parsley, and poured it over the pigs’ feet just for some fresh flavor. Then I sprinkled on a few capers. Delightful!