Long ago the French came to the bayous of Louisiana and brought with them a vast wealth of recipes. Over generations of influence, the tastes and flavors of most of those recipes have evolved. These classic Cajun dishes and the artisan skills that go into Louisiana’s culinary cultural uniqueness are fascinating to me. The linkage to French gastronomy is apparent in so many ways, and my boundless curiosity drives me to find those connections. In my latest discovery–ponce–I am intrigued by how the dish we eat today has stayed true to French Acadian tradition.
This dish transports me to a time and place when French cooks took food seriously and approached cooking skillfully. Long before the heyday of Julia Child hawking the mastery of French cuisine in America, before Bocuse and the culinary renaissance of nouvelle cuisine, before Escoffier and the five mother sauces, even before Brillat-Savarin, French Acadian cooks in South Louisiana kitchens prepared ponce. And even now, almost 300 years later, it is a classic that provokes delicious curiosity.
Many who live in my city of Lafayette have never eaten ponce, and I would guess that some have never even heard of it. It is a dish that is rarely seen on a restaurant menu except in the rural towns far away from the metropolitan areas. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen it sold in mainstream supermarkets either. But, take a short drive north of Lafayette and you will discover the legions of Cajun and Creole gourmands that swear allegiance to this French connection of a dish.
Ponce is essentially a stuffed pig’s stomach. There are different versions, but most rural butchers create a spicy pork and herb sausage stuffing and truss it up inside the stomach cavity of a pig. The dish is called chaudin in some parts of Acadiana, and the two names are interchangeable. Whatever you call it, it is an artisan dish that in the expert hands of a skilled Cajun butcher is delectable.
Stuffing an animal’s stomach is done in most every culture. In Scotland, you’d be dining on haggis (sheep’s stomach), in Latin America hog maw and in Germany saumagen, but it is the French that always seem to up the ante.
I first saw ponce some years ago at Poche’s Market north of Breaux Bridge, but I am now discovering it more and more in the rural groceries. You can find it easily in the small Louisiana towns of Scott (Best Stop), Sunset (Janise’s), Ville Platte (Teet’s) and Eunice (Eunice Superette). To me, ponce is much like Cajun sausage–pork and herbs stuffed into a pig’s intestine or casing. Intestine? Stomach? What’s the difference?
Recently I met Keith and Cathy Venable, the hard-working and highly skilled owners of Keeper’s Specialty Meats located on the Church Point Highway just outside of that sleepy little town. Keith introduced me to his farm-to-table take on ponce where he takes a well-cleaned stomach and stuffs it with a combination of ground pork, diced vegetables, herbs, spices, and sweet potatoes, then expertly ties it up and smokes it over hickory wood. He sells a ton of them to the local population that clearly knows how delicious this dish can be.
Rural Cajun families eat ponce like an average non-Cajun family would eat pot roast. Either smoked or unsmoked, the ponce is roasted or braised for a couple of hours while the juices release into a pork gravy. Usually served over rice, it is simple farmhouse fare. Ponce is a timeless dish and remains a testament to the artisan craft of true Cajun culture.
- 1 pig’s stomach, cleaned and prepped
- 4 cups ice-cold water
- 1 cup salt
- 6 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 1 cup diced yellow onion
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 cup diced bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 cup sweet potato, peeled and diced
- 2 pounds ground pork
- 2 tablespoons Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 yellow onions, quartered
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 4 cups dark chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons dark roux
- 6 cups cooked Louisiana long-grain white rice, such as Supreme
- For the ponce, prepare a smoker with hickory wood and bring to 175ºF by following the equipment directions.
- Place the pig’s stomach in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold water. In a large bowl, mix the water and salt. Submerge the stomach in the saltwater solution and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Remove and inspect the stomach to make sure that it is clean, being careful not to tear the delicate tissue. Place on paper towels and let dry. Refrigerate until ready to stuff.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onion, celery, and bell pepper and cook until the onions become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and cook for 1 minute more. Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the contents into a large mixing bowl. Add the sweet potatoes and pork and season with Cajun seasoning and pepper. Combine making sure the ingredients are distributed evenly.
- Move the pig’s stomach to a large cutting board and open it up. Using your hands, gently stuff the meat mixture inside the stomach. Add just enough filling so that the lining of the stomach can come together and seal. Using butchers twine, sew the stomach closed. (Note: Alternatively, some use toothpicks to close the stomach.)
- Place the stuffed ponce on a rack in the smoker. Smoke for 4 hours at 175ºF. Once smoked, remove the ponce.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- In a heavy cast iron pot with a tight-fitting lid, add the smoked ponce. Place the carrots, onions, and celery in the pot and add enough chicken stock to come halfway up the side of the stuffed ponce. Add 2 tablespoons of dark roux. Cover the pot and place in the oven for 2 hours. Once the ponce has finished roasting, remove it to a platter and keep warm.
- Pour the gravy and vegetables through a strainer and into a saucepan. Over high heat, bring the stock to a simmer and skim off any fat or particles. Let reduce on a simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep warm.
- For serving, move the stuffed ponce to a cutting board and slice into ½-inch-thick slices. Place on a platter family-style and serve with white rice and plenty of gravy on the side.
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