Principality of Andorra
Sometimes chicken feet are really hard to find. And here’s a story about it.
In amassing the admittedly grisly ingredients for this gastronomical excursion to Andorra, I was beset with all manner of inconvenience and horror. After easily locating some excellent butifarra at Despaña, I figured I would find everything else I needed in one trip to my local Trade Fair (the one with the halal butcher, remember?) – pig feet, beef feet, lamb feet, chicken feet, gizzards… I definitely would have been put on some government psychopath watch if anyone ever saw my shopping list.
After asking for lamb feet at the meat counter, the butcher begged for clarification: “Leg? Lamb leg?”
“No,” I replied, lifting my own leg and pointing at my shoe. “Foot!”
After a pensive moment, he gravely beckoned me into the off-limits, behind-the-counter area and through a heavy swinging door, where a bone-saw chattered wildly, surrounded by splattered blood. He threw open the creaking door of a deep refrigerator and pointed. I eagerly looked inside, and was met with an infernal landscape – heads, legs, feet, hewn bone, rent flesh… dismembered beasts of every ilk and creed. The butcher smiled broadly.
A moment later, I walked out of the store clutching an immense bag of animal feet, but sadly lacking the chicken treads that my antique escudella recipe insisted upon. I stopped at every Greek and Middle-Eastern butcher on my avenue in Astoria, but tasted only the bitter herb of failure. I passed several sleepless nights.
A few days later, despairing, I planned to spend my evening combing every remaining meat shop in Astoria. On a whim, I walked into what I have found to be a Queens novelty – the Bangladeshi mini-mart with a halal butcher hidden in the back. I walked past the lotto machine and candy bars to the rear of the store and found a lonely butcher, sitting low among a mountain of meat, as if enthroned. I whispered, almost reverentially, “Do you have chicken feet?”
“Chicken FEET? No.”
He looked down for a moment, and my heart sank.
He began to rummage through a plastic bucket overflowing with gristle, clearly destined for the dumpster. Out came one, two, ten, TWENTY chicken feet.
“Oh, I only need two…” I mumbled.
“It’s ok,” he responded. “What you use for?”
“Soup,” I replied.
He deftly spun the plastic bag into which he had dumped all of the cartoonish feet, tied a knot, and handed it to me. “These, $1.99 a pound.”
I was a desperate man – this sounded good to me, even if he was about throw them out before I walked in. I carried the bag up to the cash register, plopped it on the scale and confidently informed the cashier of the quoted price, beginning to count bills from my wallet. Over my shoulder, I heard a barrage of Bengali, followed by hearty laughter. The butcher was in stitches. The cashier waved off my offer to pay, and said “It’s ok.”
“It’s ok,” the butcher announced from the back, wiping a joyful tear from his eye.
Ahhhhh. You got me guys. You got me. Veeeeeery funny.
So yeah, the food.
I will be honest: if you were to order escudella in Spain/Andorra today, chances are it would not look much like what I am about to prepare. That is on purpose. My attempt is to make escudella “as it once was made”, courtesy of a(nother) recipe by Clifford A. Wright. I had such riotous success with his recipe for Algerian couscous that I figured this one would be a sure thing. Modern versions of escudella i carn d’olla feature thick, tender cuts of meat (served separately, on a big platter), less-gamey marrow bones (i.e. shank) and even the addition of pasta. This is NOT that dish. This one is the grand-dad, the original, born in the hills and out of necessity. Only 2% of Andorra’s land is arable, which means that any livestock produced is of immense value to the farmer and his/her family. Thus, every single part must be used, no excuses. Even the feet.
I won’t dwell too much on the how-to – after all, that’s what the recipe is for, and really it’s just boiling a bunch of stuff and then making a huge meatball. What I will say is this: if you make a soup out of feet, and expect it to not taste like feet, well… you’re a little foolish (read: I’m a little foolish). This is a barnyard dish, made with what remains after selling off the rest of the animal; it’s just gelatinous marrow, and tendons, and (probably) ground up snout. It’s perhaps the most noble dish I have ever cooked, even if not the most delicious; in using every last bit of its body, this soup honors the animal’s demise, and because of this it tastes as much of death as it does of bone and blood.
Now, I’d hate for the Trinxat de la Cerdanya that I made to be treated as an afterthought – it’s a simple recipe, but a really tasty one. Think of a really fluffy hash brown or latke, and multiply it by cabbage. Add some salt pork. Eat heartily.
Now you go:
Escudella “The Way it Once Was”
Adapted from a recipe by Clifford A. Wright
2 chicken feet, skinned
1 chicken gizzard
1 lamb foot and ankle
1 pound lamb shank
1/ 4-pound piece prosciutto with its fat
1 pound each of beef and pork feet
5 quarts water
1 slice stale bread, crust removed
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound butifarra, casing removed and meat crumbled
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, if needed
1 potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1 carrot, sliced thick
1 pound Swiss chard, stems removed and leaves chopped
Flour for dredging
Place the chicken feet and gizzard, lamb foot and ankle, lamb shank, prosciutto, beef feet and pork feet in a large stew pot. Cover with the water and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 hours, turning the meat occasionally. Replenish the water if necessary.
Meanwhile, make the large meatball. Soak the slice of bread in water. Squeeze the water out and place in a medium-size mixing bowl with the beaten egg. Add the ground pork, botifarra, garlic, and parsley and season with salt and pepper. If the meatball doesn’t hold together well add some of the bread crumbs. Form the meat into a single large ball and set aside in the refrigerator.
After the meat bones have been boiling for 2 hours, turn the heat off and remove the bones. Remove the marrow from the soup bones and the meat from the lamb shank, cut it up, and discard all the bones. Transfer the marrow and meat to a stew pot or large casserole. Strain the broth through cheesecloth and add it to the stew pot. Bring to a boil and add the potato, carrot, and Swiss chard. Season to taste with salt and boil for 10 minutes. Dredge the meatball evenly in flour, tapping off any excess, add it to the broth and boil until firm, about 30-45 minutes, replenishing the water if necessary. Serve immediately. The meatball can be divided between eaters.
Trinxat de la Cerdanya
1 savoy cabbage, outer leaves discarded
2 lbs. potatoes, peeled
12 slices of salt pork or bacon
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
salt and black pepper
In a large pot, boil the cabbage whole until soft, about 45 minutes. Remove from water, and place in a strainer to cool. Bring the same water to a boil again, and boil the potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and cool.
Using your hands or a potato masher, mash the potatoes in a large bowl. Core the cabbage, then squeeze well to drain off excess water. Shred coarsely with your hands, and add to the potatoes. Season well with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet, render the bacon or salt pork until crisp. Set aside, reserving fat. Over medium heat, briefly fry the garlic in the fat, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the potato/cabbage mixture, mixing well. Form the mash into a large cake, and CAREFULLY press into the skillet to form a large pancake shape. Cook over high heat until a brown crust forms on the bottom. Using a sheet pan or large plate, flip the trinxat and cook the other side till the same brown crust develops. Remove from heat, cut into thirds, and serve with reserved salt pork or bacon.