Trotter Gear: Something gelatinous is a foot

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the “fifth quarter” in meat cooking. Historically, the organs, heads, hooves and other unusual parts of food animals were the province of the poor, but nowadays these cuts are more likely to serve as a marker of one’s rarefied taste – an icon of “true foodieness.”

Well I, for one, am happy to fly that flag, not least because these cuts, properly prepared, are in fact delicious. And where do I turn for advice on proper preparation? Mostly to Fergus Henderson, and his wonderful books The Whole Beast and Beyond Nose to Tail. I honestly believe these are some of the best-written cookbooks around: Henderson’s warmth and enthusiasm for his subject are purely infectious. Just reading them is a comfort.

One of the central preparations in Beyond Nose to Tail is “Trotter Gear,” a stock made from pig’s trotters – yes, feet – that serves as the foundation for an entire section of the book. I’ve cooked pig’s trotters before, stuffed with sausage; with their high gelatin content, they are the very definition of lip-smacking.

For Trotter Gear, you take six trotters (I had my butcher saw them in half), blanch them, then braise them in chicken stock and dry Madeira with aromatic vegetables until they are very, very soft. Then you pick the skin and what meat there is from the bones, mix it back into the strained stock and refrigerate. Once chilled, it has approximately the texture of a Super Ball, which probably explains why the recipes that call for it as an ingredient specify a weight rather than a volume.

As often happens, I approached this project backwards: the impetus behind my making a batch of Trotter Gear was that I had bought a jar of pickled walnuts. I needed to use them in something, and the “Beef and Pickled Walnut Stew” sounded like a good choice. But first, I had to make the Trotter Gear. It’s mixed with red wine and serves as the braising liquid for the beef (lacking the “flap off a fore rib” called for, I substituted brisket), onions, herbs and walnuts. Of course, when you add so much gelatin so early in the process, it gives the final sauce a wonderful texture. I’ve often wondered why I’ve never seen a sauce recipe that calls for pure gelatin, but this is pretty close.

The layers of flavour from a sauce built on Trotter Gear, which is in turn built on chicken stock and Madeira, are just fantastic. This was one of the deepest, earthiest braises I’ve ever tasted, with the piquancy of the walnuts to perk up your taste buds. Lucky for me, the Trotter Gear recipe makes plenty, so I’ll be able to stash some away in my freezer for future use.

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