Ragoût de Boulette du Jour de l’An

My parents were part of the French-Canadian diaspora: the first generation to move from the mill towns of New England where French was heard more often than English and where school—Catholic school at least—was conducted in both languages. Growing up in Delaware I spoke French almost exclusively at home until I started school where there was no language but English. Gradually the language of the home became English—as sadly it has in those mill towns as well. Nevertheless, my mother did cook many traditional French-Canadian dishes although their context was sometimes lost. It was not until, as an adult, I started exploring my Canadian roots that I learned that the ragoût she made from time to time was associated with New Year’s Day, Le Jour de l’An.

As one might well expect of a recipe that has been handed down through a half-dozen or so generations, this one has nearly endless variations, each staking its claim to true authenticity. Still, there are a few invariables: balls of ground pork and beef cooked in stock thickened with a slurry of toasted flour. Most often the stock was purpose-made from pigs’ feet, the meat of which was shredded and added to the meatballs. Today it is not unusual to find recipes calling for chicken, rather than pork, stock. Mostly because pigs’ feet are rather difficult to find where I live, I use a stock made from a pork shoulder bone. The flavor is similar but it lacks the gelatin that the trotters impart. I have used chicken stock when nothing else was available, but the result is—to my taste—a bit flat. The spices always include cloves with some recipes calling for cinnamon and nutmeg while others specify allspice. I use all of them!

Finally, there is the matter of what to serve with the ragoût. Boiled potatoes and beets, boiled or pickled, are traditional. Louis-François Marcotte, chef and owner of Cabine M in Montréal, whose recipe I have translated and adapted here, suggests mashed potatoes. I agree with him—with beets.

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

 

Bread, preferably stale, 2 slices

100 grams

3½ ounces

Milk

125 milliliters

4 ounces

Onion, minced, 1 small

100 grams

3½ ounces

Olive oil

30 milliliters

2 Tablespoons

Ground pork, lean

900 grams

2 pounds

Ground beef

450 grams

1 pound

Allspice, ground

3 milliliters

½ teaspoon

Nutmeg, ground

1 milliliter

¼ teaspoon

Cinnamon, ground

1 milliliter

¼ teaspoon

Cloves, ground, divided use

5 milliliters

1 teaspoon

Flour (optional)

60 grams

½ cup

Oil and butter, as needed

~60 grams

~¼ cup

Stock, preferably pork

1 liter

1 quart

Water, as needed, divided use

~500 milliliters

2 cups

Toasted flour (see note 1)

60 grams

½ cup

Corn starch (see note 2)

15 milliliters

1 Tablespoon

Salt and pepper

To taste

To taste

Method

Cut the bread into small dice or chop in a food processor. Moisten with the milk and set aside.

In a skillet over medium-high heat, caramelize the onions in the olive oil.

Combine the onions, bread, ground meats, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and 1 milliliter (¼ teaspoon) of the cloves in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper then mix thoroughly with your hands. Rinse your hands, leaving them wet, and form the meat into balls about 25 millimeters (1 inch) in diameter. You should have about 40. If you wish, roll them in the optional flour to coat.

Heat enough of the oil and butter in a heavy skillet to coat the bottom by about 3 millimeters (⅛ inch). When it is nearly smoking, brown the meatballs, working in batches. As they are done, place them in a large Dutch oven or similar pot. Pour the stock over the meatballs and add just enough water to just cover them. Sprinkle on the remaining 4 milliliters (¾ teaspoon) of ground cloves. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer.

Put the toasted flour in a lidded jar along with about 125 milliliters (½ cup) of water. Shake vigorously to make a slurry. Add more water, a bit at a time, until it is about the texture of peanut butter. Stir into the stock. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, make a slurry with corn starch and water, stir in and bring to boil for a couple of minutes.

Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

NOTES

1: Toast flour in a dry cast iron skillet over medium heat or in a 200°C (400°F) oven, stirring often with a fork to prevent burning. It should be about the color of bread crust.

2: Pigs’ feet add quite a bit of gelatin to stock. A slurry of corn starch and water added near the end of cooking approximates the texture of the original. It is, however, optional.

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