Traditionally, rillettes were intended to preserve meat or game, before there was such a thing as refrigeration. But this hearty appetizer - usually relegated to fall and winter menus - is now showing up year-round.
It's not the first time a peasant dish has been elevated to three-star status, but the humble rillettes is apparently on the minds of several high-end chefs these days including Andrew Zimmerman, who now runs the kitchen at Sepia in the West Loop.
"A rillette is typically any kind of meat, although it is usually made with pork or duck, usually shredded and mixed with some of its own fat to make a spreadable sort of shredded delicious meat paste," said Zimmerman.
Zimmerman has rabbit rillettes on his charcuterie plate. He starts by curing rabbit legs with a mixture of salt, pepper, rosemary, sage and parsley. After 45 minutes, the cure is washed off, and pure rendered duck fat is poured over the legs. They're baked in a 300 degree oven for more than two hours.
"We use rendered duck fat, which would be the obvious choice to go to. It has a wonderful luxurious flavor and it gives the rillette a nice moist texture and that is also the cooking medium," Zimmerman said.
The meat is shredded by hand into the bowl of a stand mixer, then whipped up to form a sort of paste; more duck fat is added if necessary. With the aid of two spoons, he forms the rillettes into tiny quenelles, and then plates it alongside homemade mortadella and some duck pate. Toast offers a natural base, while mustard and pickled vegetables provide a vinegary jolt.
At The Publican, which manages to make beer, pork and oysters sexy, the rillettes is a favorite of the chef.
"It's kind of a French version of pulled pork sometimes it's pork, sometimes it's rabbit. Different meats thats been slowly cooked; picked apart and then preserved by the fat that it's cooked in," said Brian Huston of The Publican.
Huston cooks duck legs, pork shoulder and belly in a giant pot, adds a bottle of white wine and some water, simmering it, covered. He skims off the fat from the top. After the liquid has reduced, he shows why the dish is labor intensive. Every bit of meat has to be pulled apart, both from the duck and pork. Plating is just a matter of assembling the rillettes into a small container, then topping them with some sort of fruity, pickled contrast.
"We always accompany it with a fruit or a pickle. And right now strawberries and rhubarb, pickled rhubarb. It's kinda the best of both worlds," Huston said.
As you can see, these are not light snacks, but they're great for sharing, and the flavors are so rich and intense, that a small amount will be just fine to taste.
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