Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Petite Salé

Petite Salé

On our first visits to France we kept noticing these shrink-wrapped trays of what looked like ham, dark lentils, sausage, and herbs in every little grocery we went into. Then Tante Babette introduced us to homemade Petite Salé, which is what those packages were- pre-mixed dinners much like the ones you can buy now at Central Market for Tortilla Soup, etc. Naturally I wanted to delve deeper into this lovely mystery and found out that what Babette's mother did back in Toulouse was brine-cure her own pork for this classic Southwestern dish and then use this "lightly salted" pork in the lentils-and-sausage mixture which takes its name from the pork used to flavor it.

This pork can be made from the "picnic ham" (my favorite, the front leg of pork), the shoulder or "boston butt", or the loin. If you make it from the loin, it can be sliced thin and cooked for breakfast like "Canadian Bacon", or sliced thick for dinner meals. If you make it from the picnic, it has the most flavor and you will need to pull the cooked meat away from the bones of the front leg of the animal. The shoulder is also a good flavorful choice and will need to be boned out and cut into single-serving size chunks. The loin has the least fat and albumin and therefore least flavor, but makes a more elegant serving. This brined pork can be used to flavor lentils, beans, spaghetti carbonara, risotto, paella, couscous, fritatta, beef or poultry stews, or anyplace you would use bacon or pancetta.

Brining is a very old curing process wherein heavily salted water, by process of osmosis, replaces the water in the interstices of the flesh. You can brine poultry, pork, or fat (bacon, fatback are either brined or dry salt-cured) and cause it to be more flavorful, more tender when cooked, and slightly less prone to spoilage. When it is done to poultry it is also called "Koshering" and the best Thanksgiving turkey I ever roasted had been brined. (Note: poultry brining is different from this process.) Brining pork causes changes in the flavor and texture which make it very different from fresh pork or dried smoked pork.

For the Brined Pork (Petite Salé):

About 3 pounds of meat (not counting bone) from a picnic ham, shoulder roast, or loin
2 1/2 gallons cold water
1 cup Kosher salt (iodized salt is bitter)
3/4 c. sugar
2 bay leaves, crushed
1 clove "nail"
6 allspice berries
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 T. dried thyme leaves
large nonreactive stockpot, or canning pot

combine all ingredients, cover, and let rest at least 5 days in the refrigerator, longer if possible, up to a week. Roast until the internal temperature reaches about 130 degrees in a 350 degree oven, or grill over a very low charcoal fire until done, or if it is a loin, slice and sautee for meals or breakfast. Use or freeze after it is cooked and deboned and cut into serving chunks, about 2 to 4 ounce pieces.

For the lentil dish known as Petite Salé:

1 cup lentils, green Puy type preferred
4 chunks brined pork
4 small pork sausages, unsmoked
1 yellow onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 t. dried thyme leaves
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 fistful of parsley, chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
salt, pepper
4 cups broth or water

Simmer the cleaned lentils with all of the other ingredients except the sausages for about 1/2 to 3/4 hour, or until soft and done. Check for seasoning. Meanwhile, grill the sausages in a little oil over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until browned on both sides. Do not prick. Serve them whole with the lentils, or slice diagonally into 1" or 2" pieces. Make sure each bowl has one piece of pork and one sausage. Serve with crusty bread and a simple red wine from the Beaujolais. Serves 4.