Pork Products, preserving, Southeast Asian

Sweet and sour pork.

For most of the 90s, I lived in south Minneapolis. Back in those days, kids from Wisconsin often looked to more glamourous destinations, and for a kid from Milwaukee, Minneapolis was a pretty exciting town. Within five blocks of my apartment near the law school, there were Eritrean, Thai, and Indian restaurants; just a little further away, downtown, sophisticated Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese beckoned. I’d never had Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese before, all being in short supply in Milwaukee’s western suburbs (and which, to be honest, I was just too chickenshit to try in college).

One of my favorite things to eat, as it turns out, is Vietnamese food. Something about the combination of lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, palm sugar, and acid is almost engineered to please. It’s sweet, sour, salty, floral, savory, and pungent – add in some herbs for freshness and a little bitterness, and it’s one of the most complex cuisines around. On top of all that, Vietnamese food is pretty light, even as it manages to be hearty. A fatty piece of pork is offset by light rice noodles and pickled vegetables; a hearty cut of beef is freshened with herbs.

You may recall that, a few months ago, I answered a reader question about a cut of ibérico pork called the presa. Located between the shoulder and the loin, it was touted as featuring some of the best qualities of each. At the time I answered the question, I hadn’t had the chance to actually cook the presa. Last week, though, I picked up a small piece for kicks from Iberico USA. It was as I expected – a rustic cut with distinct muscle striation, interspersed with bits of creamy fat.

Sometimes you just don’t have a lot of time to prepare dinner – you work long hours, the traffic is terrible, things happen. Don’t give up and order sweet and sour pork from your local Chinese-and-subs place. Look in your fridge and pantry and work with what you’ve got. Maybe you have canned tomatoes, and some garlic. Make it into a sauce for pasta, with meat or without. Perhaps you have frozen peas and shrimp – add some rice, and you’ve got a quick pilaf. In my case, I had thirty minutes, a piece of presa, and a serious case of the hungries. In the refrigerator, I found some carrot and daikon pickle from making banh mí earlier in the week, and two stalks of lemongrass. Within that half an hour, I was able to marinate and cook the pork (and some mushrooms), and cut its richness with the fresh tartness of the vegetable pickle.

Presa de ibérico de bellota, Vietnamese-style, with pickles

Even if you don’t already have a batch of ready-made pickles, you can make this from start to finish inside an hour.

It’s worth picking up the ibérico for this dish – there doesn’t seem to be a commercially available analog in regular pork. If you can’t or won’t splurge for the ibérico, use beef skirt steak instead.

1/2 lb presa de ibérico
2 large carrots, shredded
1 medium daikon, shredded
3/4 c filtered water
3/4 c distilled white vinegar
1/4 c granulated sugar
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp palm sugar
1 tbsp minced lemongrass, bulb only
5 tsp fish sauce, divided
4 oz maitake mushroms
2 tbsp dry sherry or a rich sake like G Sake
fresh herbs, like cilantro

For the vegetable pickle:

Bring 1/4 c each of the water and vinegar to a simmer with the sugar and salt, just to dissolve. Add it to the other liquid and combine well. Pour the vinegar-water mixture over the daikon and carrot in a nonreactive, sealable container and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight. (if you don’t have that kind of time, let them pickle at room temperature for about 30 minutes.)

For the pork:

Combine the lemongrass, palm sugar, and 1 tbsp fish sauce. Marinate the presa in the mixture at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or flash marinate in a chamber sealer for 2 minutes.

Place a small skillet over medium high heat. Remove the presa from the marinade and remove the excess marinade. When hot, dd a small amount (< 1 tbsp) of oil to the pan; add the presa and reduce the heat. Sear well on one side for about 2 minutes; flip over and cook another 2 minutes. Touch the meat frequently to ensure it does not overcook; it should still feel tender and offer little resistance.

Sous vide alternative: If you have an immersion circulator (or a Sous Vide Supreme), bag the pork, seal, and drop into a 130F water bath for about 60 minutes. To finish, blot dry and finish in a very hot pan, with a little oil, about 30 seconds on each side.

Remove the meat to a cutting board and rest about 10 minutes. Pour the fat from the pan into a small bowl.

On the cutting board.

While the meat rests, wipe out the skillet and return to the heat. When hot, add a couple of tsp reserved pork fat to the pan and then the maitake mushrooms. Saute until tender; add the sake and about 1 to 2 tsp of fish sauce (taste for salt). Continue saute until just golden.

Slice the pork across the grain; serve with the pickles, maitake, and some cilantro (if you like that sort of thing).

Presa, pickled vegetables, maitake.

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