Q.: I have come across a recipe for pork rillettes that I would really like to make, but I am confused. The recipe calls for a pound of pork fat, cut into thin slices, which is used at the end to top the containers of rillettes.
Is this the same thing as fatback? Is the pork fat raw? The recipe does not say anything about cooking the pork fat, so I am assuming it is cooked or cured in some way. Where might I be able to find this?
Also, it says to serve with cornichons. I realize this is some sort of sweet and sour pickle, but where might I be able to find these as well?
— Ben Savage
A.: First off, for those who aren’t familiar, rillettes is a type of spread made of meat that has been cooked a long time with herbs and spices, often in large amounts of fat, until it is falling apart. Pork is the most common type, but lamb, duck, goose or salmon also is used.
The cooked meat is shredded or mashed, placed into small crocks, finished with a layer of melted fat and refrigerated. The fat hardens as the mixture cools, creating a seal over the rillettes and allowing their flavors to meld. This is classic French bistro fare and I applaud your effort to make it at home.
Methods for preparing pork rillettes vary. Some call for cooking the pork in melted fat, others call for using very fatty cuts that will result in plenty of fat rendering out while cooking. Some recipes use this fat from cooking to seal the pots of meat, while others use freshly melted fat.
To find pork fat, you can check with the butcher at your grocery store, but you may need to go to a specialty butcher, or ask a farmer who sells pork at your favorite farmers market.
Butcher Tony Vitrano of Kirbie’s Family Meats & Catering in Stow said many shops aren’t breaking down whole hogs anymore, but rather they get portions that already have been trimmed of much of the fat, so it isn’t something shops always have on hand. He can get pork fat with some advance notice.
Pork fat trimmings are raw and you will need to render them by melting them and straining the resulting liquid fat to seal up your rillettes. Even though your recipe doesn’t offer instructions on melting the fat, I would advise it to achieve the seal that is typical for this dish.
Fatback is just what it sounds like — a layer of fat taken from the back of the hog. Thin slices of fatback are often used as a topping or cover for making pâtés or terrines, and they would work in this recipe too. But fatback also is raw, not cured. If you opt to use it instead of pork fat trimmings, I would recommend blanching the slices in boiling water before using them to seal up your rillettes.
Don’t use commercial lard. While it is pork fat, it probably has been homogenized and whipped to create its creamy texture.
Finally, cornichons are small pickles of the gherkin variety. They are not sweet gherkins, which are commonly found in grocery stores. If you can’t find them where you typically shop, look at a more high-end grocery or specialty store or order online, or substitute small dill pickles.
Got a food question? Lisa Abraham has the answer. Call 330-996-3737; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Ask Lisa” in the subject line; or write to her at 44 E. Exchange St., P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640. Please include your name (initials will be printed on request), hometown and phone number.