Hello again, everyone. It’s an honor for me to host my very first smackdown. To prepare, I did “a Google” and learned that “Thursday Night Smackdown” was originally coined by Richard Wagner, in his lesser-known opera “Butterdämmerung” wherein the hero, Helmut, after being jilted by the beautiful Wilhelmina, spends a Thursday night pounding spätzle and jägermeister, and later gets his ass seriously kicked by a troupe of Croatian dwarves- wobbling unsteadily in patent leather pumps- who solemnly intone the Oompa-Loompa song (betcha didn’t know that Wagner wrote that, too) as they beat the living shit out of him. And thus did the sonorous “Donnersdagnachtuntergesmackt” enter our lexicon.
Now those of you who read my blog know that recipes to me are like literacy is to Sarah Palin: technically within my abilities, but a serious impediment to me just being myself. I only measure when absolutely necessary, which is pretty much only when I bake. Which is hardly ever, due in equal parts to my total, all-consuming loathing of measuring ingredients and my complete lack of self-control in the presence of sweet baked goods in my house. Seriously. I eat them until they’re gone. So it is with great trepidation that I undertake an actual recipe from an actual cookbook by an up-and-coming young chef named Thomas Keller who, on the basis of this recipe, might really have a shot at the big time someday.
Now I have the French Laundry cookbook, and it’s fun to look through, if a little daunting. But it is incredibly useful in a bar fight (which is good, because a brawl will surely ensue if you’re enough of a tool to bring a cookbook to a bar.) Bouchon is fun, and equally hefty, but somewhat less daunting for those of us lacking teams of glistening, highly trained minions who can spend days reducing and clarifying any goddamn thing we think might amuse us.
Now it so happens that I had a couple of trotters in the freezer, so when I got this gig I figured I’d take a whack at the “Pieds de Cochon et Mâche, Sauce Gribiche” on page 148 of Bouchon. And, true to the rules, I did it by the book. And I bitched and moaned the whole time, and not just because I had to go find my measuring spoons in THE GARAGE because that’s where I keep them because I’m so hardcore like that.
So, yesterday, I took the hocks, and blanched them, skimming the impurities.
ScumCam™ is go!
I washed and refilled the pot with more cold water, brought it to a simmer, and added exactly as many things to the pot as the big heavy book told me to. And I’ll be honest- having to be this precise with the AROMATICS that go in the COOKING WATER for a couple of FUCKING PIG’S FEET made me rush into the bathroom and claw at my medicine cabinet, vainly searching for the expired bargain-size jar of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Vicodin™” that I got behind Costco a while ago. This was made even more agonizing by the fact that I used our garden for almost everything in this meal, and the carrots I planted for the fall crop were late, because I had a very busy summer, so the carrots are tiny, and the recipe calls for “8 ounces (2 large) carrots” and so I had to wash, trim, and weigh like a hundred of our tiny, tiny carrots to get the right amount.
My carrots may be small, but I know how to use them.
Then I let it simmer for about two hours.
Plus, there was more scum-skimming!
Then I removed the hocks, and strained the broth into a couple of containers- one for the fridge, and one for the freezer. (I’ll be damned if I’m wasting perfectly good pork stock.)
Yep, there’s still a little hair on those. My bad.
I pulled the meat off the bones, separated the skin, scraped the fat therefrom, chopped the skin very fine, WEIGHED IT, and added the proper proportion along with the herbs, shallots, mustard, and other things the recipe required. Interestingly, the book says “It is important to work with ham hocks when they are hot; once they cool, they will be rubbery and impossible to deal with.” It helpfully suggests “Use a fork” to do all the required separating and pulling. That’s like going to med school and having the attending say “use a scalpel” and then leaving for Cabo while you stare at an obstructed bowel that needs resectioning, stat, and the patient is running a fever of about 200 degrees. These hocks were hot, slimy as fuck, and riddled with tendons, veins, and other undesirable stuff. I burned the shit out of my fingers, and probably added a goodly portion of my own blistered skin into the mix. Hungry yet?
Thursday Night Football
The mixture, as it is told in the book of Tom, was then swaddled in aluminum foil, and bound tightly, yea, and with much squeezing and caressing thereof.
Here’s where it started to smell like food.
Insert your gratuitous giant spliff joke here. My choice: “That’s how I roll!” HAHAHAHAHA
And then into the fridge overnight. This evening, I unrolled it and got busy making the gribiche.
Say it with me, now, people: “PORK LOG!”
Oy, again with the measuring. Seriously- I measured and minced oil, herbs, mustard, eggs, capers, and cornichons daintily into my spoons and dutifully dumped them all in a bowl- IN ORDER, like the book commands, and then whisked it all together. Then I broke most of my dishes with a hammer. That part was fun. Then I cut the log into six pieces, dipped them in flour, spread mustard on both sides, and dredged them in panko.
Actually, insert your witty caption HERE; I got nothing.
Into a skillet with oil to brown, then into the oven to heat through (removing from oven and flipping halfway) and onto plates expertly pre-laden with gribiche. Now The Book calls for garnishment with “a mound of mâche.” We have mâche in the garden, but our mâche pit is a little late, like the carrots, so I only cut the few big leaves that I could; I am damned if I’m going to torpedo all those buttery midwinter salads in the name of slobbering, sycophantic fidelity to a fucking cookbook and by extension the blog of someone I haven’t even actually ever met in person. So bear with me while I interpret “mound” to mean “a few paltry leaves artfully arrayed in kind of a flower shape, but from this angle it looks like a hat that a Muppet might wear.”
Looks pretty convincing, don’t it?
And so, as it is also often written, not so much in the Book of Keller so much as about the Book of Keller, it was good. Really good. The sauce and the meat formed a seamless continuum from rich fat to sharp vinegar, with the oil and eggs acting as a flawless liason. If you take the idea of pulled pork and a pickle and refine it to the point just shy of absurdity, this is what you get. Having said that, though, here’s my take on it, and what I think the takeaway is for the home cook. The basic techniques are perfect, but malleable. I would throw some more things in the pork broth for excitement- like star anise, ginger, cinnamon, 5- or 7-spice, and maybe a shot of espresso. Not to overwhelm, but to add depth and facets to the flavor. I would also just whack it into a terrine or small baking dish (or even muffin tins) possibly lined with bacon or prosciutto and chill it that way, then slice, bread (or not) and heat it. The round shape is purely decorative. For the sauce, while I loves me a vinegar pickle, my heart belongs to fermented pickles. So I would incorporate some of our homemade kimchi and a tine or two of sambal to give it tang, zing, and other comic-book sound effects. But this would be a truly badass lunch. No doubt. Or an excellent bridge course in a fancy dinner between say fish and some serious red meat. And we ate the shit out of it.
In honor of the occasion, I pulled out something that I thought would be a good match- a 1996 Colin-Deleger Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru “Les Vergers.” I almost went with a red, but since I used some of the pork stock to make a celery root-butternut soup, I figured this would be better with both dishes. And it was. This wine was a lot like the memory of a particular summer afternoon in 1992 that I spent out on a rocky cliff in Provence with a certain young blonde French woman of extraordinary beauty: the light, the rocks, the smells, her long, golden hair, the caresses of wind and skin, all rolled up into a Gordian knot of longing that tightens with each sip, and as the experience of each moment recedes into the past.
Like that, only with pineapple. We didn’t have a pineapple on the cliff.
Read it and weep.
Here’s a shot of the soup, just for laughs. My Son, pausing to breathe between gulps of soup and wolfs of hock, said “Dad. You make yummy dinners.”
Fall in a bowl. Get it?
Final score: Tom Keller: Vast, ultralucrative empire of haute temples, untold millions of dollars, legions of admirers.
Me: Amateur food blog with readership well into the low three figures. You do the math.
One last note: I was going to offer a prize to anyone who knew where the quote in the title comes from, but today’s modern age of The Google, that’s just not a challenge. So do yourselves a favor and go rent “The Loved One” this weekend. It may be a tad dated- the satire is not so edgy as it was back then- but where else are you going to find Jonathan Winters, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, James Coburn, John Geilgud, Tab Hunter, Liberace, and Roddy McDowall all in the same movie? For real.
And, to close, here’s the actual transcript of our conversation shortly after the “yummy dinners” line.
“Dad, will you tickle me?”
“After you digest for a few minutes.”
“What does ‘digest’ mean?
“It means that your body is taking everything out of the food that it needs to grow and be healthy.”
“And then it poops out what it doesn’t need?”
“So can we have ice cream?”