Edible treats for holiday giving
If you were to close your eyes and envision a perfect celebratory winter holiday gathering, what would it look like? What are the traditions of your family? What are your cherished holiday memories?
I grew up in a Protestant household in a middle-class suburban neighborhood and my vision would hasten back to a more idyllic, less commercialized time, like a scene out of the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. The long dark nights of the winter solstice would be lit up by thousands of tiny lights, illuminating the streets of the neighborhood as bright as the Las Vegas Strip. A wreath would be adorning the front door. Stockings would hang from the mantel. A fire would be crackling in the fireplace. There would be a hint of pine smoke in the air, emanating from the chimney of Grandma’s tiny log cabin incense burner. Christmas music would be playing all day on the AM radio. The family would gather around the TV to watch the Andy Williams Christmas Special.
But my clearest, most evocative memories are centered on food. The rich aromas of roast turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing and gravy. The joy of licking sugary frosting off the beaters of my mother’s mixer. Sipping eggnog from a Santa mug. Trays of homemade baked goods: sugar cookies adorned with colored sparkles and little silver balls. Thumbprint cookies with dollops of fruit jam and lemon curd.
Throughout history, food has been a part of human celebrations, life passages and holidays. Holiday treats bring us pleasure. Holiday meals bring us together.
When I am invited into someone’s home for a holiday gathering, I like to bring an offering of some sort. I’m not much of a baker, so I tend to bring wine, homemade pickles or other savory treats. After the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey have made their final curtain call and walked off the stage, one of my first tasks is to prepare edible treats for holiday giving. This year, I made a big batch of pork rillettes.
Rillettes are a perfect party hors d’oeuvre: tasty, economical and easy to make ahead. Rillettes are called a “potted” food because they are traditionally served in a small pot, jar or ramekin. In classic rillettes, pork, duck, goose or rabbit is poached in fat until it is falling apart tender, then pounded with seasonings and fat into a coarse paste. The mixture is then transferred into small containers and sealed with a thin layer of fat. This technique had its origins in the days before refrigeration as a preservation technique. The fat layer sealed off the meat below and kept it from spoiling.
I just refrigerate my rillettes if I plan on consuming them within a few weeks. In the freezer, the rillettes will be good for months. This soft succulent pork spread can be enjoyed on crusty bread, crackers or Belgian endive spears. My version uses pork shoulder and is super easy to prepare. Packed into little canning jars, I can prepare a whole season’s worth of holiday gifts on a wintery afternoon. This is a very forgiving recipe. I once forgot to pull the pan out of the oven before I went to bed. I woke up to the luscious aromas of roast pork and realized it had been in the oven for 15 hours instead of 3 hours! Happily, it was still tender and delicious.
• 3 lbs. boneless, skinless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks
• Kosher salt
• ¾ cup lard or vegetable oil
• 6 bay leaves
• 9 fresh thyme sprigs
• 3 large shallots, rough chopped
• 6 medium garlic cloves, peeled and halved
• Freshly ground nutmeg to taste
Place oven rack at lowest position and preheat oven to 275 degrees.
Season pork lightly with salt and pack tightly into a roasting pan or casserole dish.
Pour in melted lard or vegetable oil until pork is barely covered.
Insert bay leaves, thyme sprigs, shallots and garlic halves into the pork chunks.
Cover pan or casserole dish tightly with foil and place in oven.
Cook until the pork is totally tender and easily pierced with a knife or skewer. This should take 3 or more hours.
Remove the pork chunks from the cooking vessel with tongs and strain the fat and oil into a heatproof bowl, reserve the liquid and discard the herbs and shallots.
Place the cooked pork chunks into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or use a potato masher) and slowly break down and shred the pork chunks. Slowly add back some of the fat and juices a little at a time until the mixture is soft and creamy.
Season aggressively with salt.
Pack into little jars, pressing down to eliminate air pockets. Leave at least ¼ inch of space above the pork. Smooth the surface, wipe clean the jar rims, and pour some of the remaining fat over, covering the pork ¼ inch. Close and refrigerate (if you plan to use within a week) or freeze (will be good for several months; defrost in refrigerator before serving).
Serve slightly chilled with bread or crackers, grainy mustard and little cornichon pickles. Don’t be shy about including a generous smear of the fat with the pork. The fat is delicious and, despite the dietary misinformation of the last several decades, is very healthy with a low glycemic index.
Contact Peter Glatz at email@example.com.