Sometimes inspiration in the kitchen is easy to find. Maybe you’ve just returned from a trip abroad and you’re eager to incorporate new flavors into your cooking. Or you just had a great meal, and looking forward to trying some different techniques. Sometimes, though, inspiration is harder to summon – say when you’ve returned from The Bahamas in May to a couple of months of 90+ degree days, and a kitchen without air conditioning.
After a couple of weeks long on cold soups and salads but short on culinary innovation, I unearthed a chunk of pork belly in the freezer. Add one more item to the list of pork’s magical qualities: it has the power to end writer’s block. The belly, and a few ears of corn from the farmer’s market, brought to mind a dish I tasted only once in San Francisco, but that has stayed in my memory for over a decade. During my last visit about a decade ago to The Slanted Door, Charles Phan’s modern Vietnamese restaurant, I scored a bite of a stir-fried pork and corn dish off one of my dining companions’ plates. In that one bite, I tasted sweet corn, fried up with bits of pork (I believe it was ground), punctuated with lemongrass, ginger, the umami quality of fish sauce, and a hint of palm sugar. I was instantly sorry I didn’t order the dish – as much as I enjoyed whatever I ordered, and as great as I’m sure it was, the pork and corn completely eclipsed it.
Soon after, Phan took the pork and corn dish off the menu, whereupon it attained for me a unicorn-like quality. I did become obsessed for several years with tracking down its origins, without success. No Vietnamese cookbook mentioned the combination of pork and corn; hours of web research turned up a lone reference – in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. “My inspiration,” he told the WSJ, “was the way my mom cooked — just dishes like sautéed ground pork with corn, but it would always be the freshest thing.” And that was it. One sentence in one article from 1999. Years later, toward the end of the decade, I noticed that Susan Feniger (of Street and Border Grill) briefly featured a pork belly and sautéed corn dish that sounded a lot like what I’d eaten, but I missed my chance – by the time I made it out to LA, the dish was gone.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about emulation and the evolutionary process in the kitchen. This week, I sought inspiration in that one terrific bite from 2001, changed up with some modern technique. I cured the belly before slow-cooking en sous vide, and then marinated it in the classic Vietnamese flavors of Phan’s dish before finishing off in a hot pan to crisp the fat and caramelize the palm sugar. Fresh corn appeared twice on the plate – first in the guise of a satiny purée, and second sautéed in pork fat with shallots and lemongrass, made savory with scallions.
Pork belly, sweet corn, lemongrass
Does the appearance of corn in this dish seem strange to you? It shouldn’t – sweet corn is eaten throughout Asia. Grilled corn on the cob is a favorite street food in Vietnam, served with a scallion-infused oil. Corn fritters – bound together by a light, crisp lattice of fried cornstarch – are a popular Indonesian snack. Heading north and east, corn makes somewhat more dubious appearances – on a trip to Tokyo as a kid, for example, I became acquainted with the repellent practice of topping pizza with sweet corn, mayonnaise, and seaweed.
Back to Vietnam. Corn isn’t a Vietnamese staple, but it gets a certain amount of play, especially in summer, when it appears in cold dessert soups and puddings, on streetfront grills (as mentioned above), and cut off the cob and sautéed quickly with fish sauce and savory spices. In this dish, corn’s sweetness and crunchy texture are a perfect foil for the soft, rich pork belly.
For the pork:
2 lb pork belly slab, skin removed
salt and sugar
Five spice powder
Combine 2 tsp each salt and sugar with 1 tbsp fish sauce and 1/4 tsp five spice, blending to form a paste. Season the belly with the paste. Cover tightly or, if cooking en sous vide, place in a heavy plastic bag, vacuum seal, and cure in the refrigerator overnight (12h or more).
2-inch segment of ginger, chopped
4 stalks lemongrass, bulb only, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
3 shallots, chopped
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp palm sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp ground black pepper
juice of half a lime
Combine the ingredients in a food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. Transfer to a lidded container and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. This recipe makes more than you will need for this dish; reserve the rest for marinating chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, lobster.
If cooking conventionally:
Place the belly in the smallest possible vessel and cover with foil. Roast for 5 hours. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. Cover the vessel tightly with clingfilm and foil, and weight with another vessel or cutting board under tomato cans, or something similarly heavy. Refrigerate under weights for at least 6 hours.
If cooking sous vide:
Remove the belly from the refrigerator. Bag and seal; cook in a circulator for about 48h at 140F/60C. Chill in the bag immediately upon removal; place in a small vessel (in the bag), weight with another vessel or cutting board under tomato cans, or something similarly heavy. Refrigerate under weights for at least 6 hours or overnight.
For the corn:
4 ears corn, shucked and cut off the cob; 2 cobs reserved
6 sprigs thyme
1 large bay leaf
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp lemongrass, minced to a paste with a little oil
1 large shallot, minced
1 tsp ginger, grated
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green)
pork fat or vegetable oil
1 tsp fish sauce
Prepare the purée.
Simmer the cobs (broken in half) in about 1 1/2 c water with the bay leaf, thyme, and about 1/2 tsp salt. After about 30 minutes, strain the liquid through a sieve and discard the solids.
If cooking conventionally:
Transfer half the corn kernels to a pan and add 1 c corncob broth. Simmer until the kernels are tender, about 6-7 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and blitz with the butter until totally smooth. For the smoothest possible purée, pass through a tamis/sieve – it is impossible to blend whole corn kernels to a totally smooth consistency.
If cooking sous vide:
Transfer half the corn kernels to a bag and add 2/3 c corncob broth. Seal the bag and cook in a circulator at 185F/85C for 20 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and blitz with the butter until totally smooth. For the smoothest possible purée, pass through a tamis/sieve.
Remove the pork belly from the refrigerator (and remove from the bag, if it was bagged). Trim off the meat jelly, remove the bone, and square off the edges of the belly. Slice into equally-sized portions.
Coat with the lemongrass marinade and return to the refrigerator for about 2 hours.
Place a sauté pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp oil. Shake the excess marinade from the pork and place, meat side-down, in the hot oil Turn over when golden brown so the fat side of the meat is down, brown for 3-4 minutes, and then transfer the pan to the oven. Cook until just heated through.
While the pork heats, prepare the corn sauté:
Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the ginger, lemongrass, and shallots, and saute until tender. Add the remaining corn kernels and scallions, season with fish sauce and increase the heat slightly. Sauté until the corn is glossy and beginning to crisp.
Serve the pork with a large spoonful of corn purée and corn sauté. As pictured, the dish is finished with scallions and a strained reduction of shallot, rice vinegar, star anise, dry white wine, pork jelly, and sweet soy.