Thursday, March 3, 2011

Stuffed Trotter

Pig's trotters were a bit of a mystery to me until recently. Before the Button Soup Pork Dinner, I had only ever used them in stocks and soups. With so many joints and cartilage, the feet release large amounts of gelatin when simmered, giving the final broth a rich mouthfeel. However, once the feet had delivered their gelatin payload, I always picked them out of the pot and threw them away.

Then I started coming across dishes in which the trotter itself is eaten, notably in the fantastic BBC mini-series Marco. The series, which I think is from the late 1980s, though I don't know exactly what year, is a glimpse into the kitchen at Harvey's, a London restaurant where the chef Marco Pierre White was setting the British cooking scene ablaze. Marco is precocious, demanding, and eloquent. The show is so beautiful it makes grown line-cooks weep (gaudy 1980's plating notwithstanding).

Anyways, in the episode entitled "Marco cooks for Raymond Blanc," Marco prepares a dish called trotters Pierre Koffmann: a boned pig's foot stuffed with chicken mousseline, veal sweetbreads, and morel mushrooms. I wondered: when you eat a trotter, what exactly are you eating? Is there meat to be had? I resolved to cook them myself and find out.
The trotter dish for the Button Soup Pork Dinner was based on Marco's, but with a simpler stuffing: potatoes and morels.

Preparing the Trotters

As with all the cuts used in this dinner, the trotters were torched to remove the remaining hairs. This is how one of the cleaned trotters looked:

Next came the removal of the long foot bone. There is footage of Marco boning a trotter in the above mentioned "Marco Cooks for Raymond Blanc". You can watch it here. It takes him about ten seconds.

An incision is made along the back of the trotter, and the skin is then cut away from the bone.

Be extremely careful not to nick the skin with the knife. When you cook the trotter, small cuts will open and become large holes. Continue to remove the skin until you reach the joints where the two outside claws connect to the foot. Cut through these joints, then snap the joints on the two central claws by bending them. It takes a bit of muscle. Sever the broken joint with your knife.

You are left with a sheet of skin attached to four little toes.

Cooking the Trotters

I cooked the boned trotters in a mixture that was one part light chicken stock and one part brown ale, with a handful of mirepoix thrown in for good measure. Simmer the trotters very gently for about three hours. It's important to cook the trotter thoroughly without overcooking. If you simmer too long, the sheet of skin will fall apart, and you won't be able to stuff it.

When the trotters were done I strained the cooking liquid and reduced it to make a sauce for the finished dish. A dark, malty, and slightly bitter sauce.

The Stuffing

Reconstitute the morels by soaking them in cold water. Save the soaking liquid; it's almost as valuable as the mushrooms themselves.

Peel some starchy potatoes, cut them into manageable cubes, and simmer until tender. Mill the potatoes while still hot.

Add oil to a hot pan. Sauté the morels. Add some finely diced onion, lower the heat, and cook until translucent. In a separate pot, bring a small amount of the morel soaking water to a boil. Add the milled potatoes. Stir while adding several cubes of butter. Fold in the morels and onions and season the mixture.

Fill the feet with the potatoes. Wrap the feet first in caul fat, then in foil or plastic. Leave the wrapped trotters in the fridge overnight. They'll set, and be much easier to work with the next day.

Interlude: Braised Cabbage with Cured Jowl

The accompaniment to the stuffed trotter was braised cabbage, the foundation of which (in my house, anyways) is always bacon fat and onions. As I mentioned in the first post about this dinner, I was working with two pig's heads. One became the bathchaps, while from the other I harvested the jowls, tongue, and ears. The jowls were cured and dried, and used in the braised cabbage. The tongue and ears were reserved for future projects.

A cured jowl:

We rendered as much fat as possible from the jowls, then sautéed the onions and cabbage in that liquid gold.

Cider vinegar and stock were added, and the pot was covered until the cabbage was tender.


Brown the trotters over high heat. If you've ever made crackling, you know that skin tends to pop when cooked at high temperatures. These feet, covered in skin as they were, spit oil everywhere. It was terrifying.

Once thoroughly browned, keep the trotters in the oven until heated through.

The trotters were cut into sections, rested on the cabbage, and covered with a bit of the beer reduction.

This was far and away the most surprising dish of the night. It was utterly unlike anything I have eaten before. Turns out there isn't any meat in the trotter; it's pretty much just skin, with a bit of fat and connective tissue underneath. The finished dish had an overwhelming gelatinous, sticky mouthfeel. It was one of the riches dishes I've ever eaten. The cabbage accompaniment, with the cider vinegar, was designed to cut some of that richness, but the real hero in that regard was a jug of Kevin's apple wine, which cut through the trotter like a lance.

I really enjoyed the dish. However, with all the starch, fat, and acid, the morels never stood a chance. I would omit them in future attempts.


  1. I was glad to see that your trotters looked cleaner than Marco's. I thought he needed to trim the dirty bits off the toenails and clean between the toes. I always loved mashed potatoes fried. It sounds like this would be the equivalent. Kevin's wine looks amazing.

  2. I seriously think this, stuck in a deep fryer until the skin crisped and puffed a tad, would be an out-of-the-park winner.

    I really enjoyed it.

  3. Hi Judy - The cleaning is pretty tedious, but it makes a big difference in the end.

    Kevin - Agreed. I thought the skin would crisp when seared, but it definitely needs either extensive, high-heat roasting or deep frying.

  4. So the caul fat was wasted on these trotters - would twine have helped when they burst open in that terrifying way?
    What about a wood fired oven? That should work...
    So, with no meat - what is the nutritional value of the trotter? Maybe that is why is is always a part of another dish instead of a standalone?
    Did you like it? was one bite enough - and it was a great experience - but not to be done again?
    I see that a trotter is used in the making of veal jus in Keller's book...
    I was in awe of your ingenuity, Allan and the clean wrapped trotter. What about stuffing one in the future?
    and I would love to know how you made the beer sauce

  5. I meant a different stuffing - with MEAT

  6. Hi Valerie.

    -I don't think the caul was "wasted." What gave you that impression?

    -The trotters didn't burst open when I seared them. For some reason pig skin kind of pops when it's cooked at high temperatures, releasing steam, but without making a hole in the skin. I don't know what causes it... but when it happens, it spits oil out of the pan.

    -I honestly have no idea what the nutritional value of the trotter is. High in energy and fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K.

    -I suspect that the reason the trotter is so rarely used as a stand-alone dish has more to do with the time involved in preparing it, and people's reluctance to eat off-cuts like feet, than with any lack of nutritional value. In classical cuisine there are countless dishes that feature feet, notably in pâtés, sausages, and stews like daube or fricassée.

    -As I said above: "I really enjoyed the dish." I'll definitely cook stuffed trotter again, only next time in a way that makes the skin crispy.

    -Re: Keller's veal jus. As I mentioned above, trotters are commonly used in soups and stocks for their high gelatin content. To my mind, if you bone out the trotter, then simmer both the bone and the surrounding skin in your stock, you can capture all the gelatin and still have a perfectly good pig's foot to stuff and eat. You can have your foot and eat it too.

    -I think a forcemeat stuffing is a great idea. I will definitely experiment with that in the future...

    -The beer sauce, as I wrote above, was made of "one part light chicken stock and one part brown ale, with a handful of mirepoix thrown in for good measure." I simmered the boned-out trotters in this mixture for about three hours. "When the trotters were done I strained the cooking liquid and reduced it to make a sauce for the finished dish. A dark, malty, and slightly bitter sauce."