Duck, East Asian, Latin, Random Thoughts

Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?

If you’re looking to start an argument, forget about politics and religion. Assemble several self-identifying foodies and throw out a sentence like “spaghetti and meatballs are not authentic.” Then walk away, whistling, with your hands behind your back. I guarantee you the group will come to blows before the hour is out. We can plow the rich ground of culinary authenticity battles another time, but the fundamentalist line tends to sound something like this:

* Ricotta cheese is made from whey, not whole milk. Ergo, every tub of “ricotta” sold in American supermarkets is a dirty lie.
* Thai food is cooked by Thai people, period. I don’t know what Andy Ricker thinks he’s playing at out in PDX.
* California rolls aren’t “sushi.”

The post-structuralist view can be just as galling, disavowing the existence of objective standards altogether. A middle-aged woman once threatened to punch my lights out in the Real Food Company on Russian Hill when I told her the things she thought were called scallions were actually shallots, because, as it turns out, that is what her mother called them, and her grandmother before her. Far be it from me to screw with someone’s fond childhood memories.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously once said, when asked to define pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” That pretty well covers the problem with most attempts to establish the “authenticity” of various foods. Everyone means something different when they use the word “authentic,” but there comes a point at which nearly everyone can agree the boundaries have been pushed beyond a reasonable point.

Take, for example, Peking duck. This is a dish you only obtain at Chinese restaurants, not the scary takeout with the plexiglas window where you can get enough sesame chicken to feed yourself over the next two days for $5. Peking duck is the province of the kind of Chinese restaurant Chinese émigrés frequent on the Lunar New Year. It requires at least 24 hours advance ordering. When the waiter brings it out to the table, everyone turns to watch in envy (or anticipation) before he takes it back to carve into shards of crisp skin and tender meat, to be eaten inside soft wheat pancakes as a prelude to duck soup and maybe duck fried rice. Unlike the aforementioned sesame chicken, Peking duck not only originated in Beijing but has a centuries’ long history of preparation and consumption according to more or less the same set of rules, in basically unreconstructed form, whether in Beijing, the United States, or Britain. It is an undeniably Chinese food and is easy to categorize because it’s always been prepared according to a fairly narrow set of specifications. And we all know what a Peking duck isn’t. A pig in blanket isn’t a Peking duck. Roast chicken and lefse isn’t Peking duck.

This is not a Peking duck.

This is not a Peking duck.

But some foods are harder to categorize, like tacos. Pretty much everyone agrees on the little corn tortillas, sometimes overlapped or doubled up and sometimes not, spread with a little bit of meat filling, maybe a little onion or cilantro, and then rolled or folded for eating. Beyond that, the question of taco authenticity is far more complicated than that of Peking duck. Rigid types will tell you tacos have to be served on corn tortillas made from masa harina and beyond a certain level of garniture, they are no longer tacos but rather some fancy perversion. Others will note the influx of wheat flour into the Northern Mexican states – Sonora and Chihuahua in particular – eventually led to the preparation and acceptance of wheat flour tortillas into the Northern Mexican diets, so a taco on a wheat tortilla is still a taco. Still others will argue the taco doesn’t stop being a taco just because it crosses the border from Mexico into Texas or Arizona or even points further north, and that there’s a difference between quality and authenticity. Take any tortilla and fill it with some kind of seasoned meat and a few other items, or basically any edible item for that matter, and you have a taco. By this reckoning, Taco Bell might not make a good taco, but it isn’t wholly inauthentic, either, because the basic parts are there. Can you push it a little further? What if you fry the shell first – the Ortega crunchy-shell business I’m always droning on and on about how much I love? What if you add pineapple and sriracha and Thai chiles? Does either of those things stop the resulting dish from being a taco, or is it still a taco if you call it a taco?

Braised beef cheek, farmer cheese, braised cipollini, in a crunchy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft corn tortilla.  Is it a taco, or is it a crime against humanity?

Cabernet-braised beef cheek, farmer cheese, braised cipollini, in a crunchy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft corn tortilla. Is it a taco, or is it a crime against humanity?

So can Peking duck be a taco? Fundie authenticity types would string me up for even suggesting it, I’m sure, but let’s look at the facts. Roasted meat, thin griddled wheat flatbread, some type of fresh onion, and maybe some vegetables. Based on a strictly side by side comparison of basic ingredients and assembly, how is Peking duck not essentially the same thing as tacos al asador? And yet, I wager a survey of most people will establish that few believe Peking duck to be a type of taco, and that hoping to turn it into a taco by simply calling it a “duck taco” is the equivalent of Jan Brady strapping on a curly black wig and expecting to gain a whole new identity – ridiculous and not likely to fool anyone. At the same time, at least some of those same people would find it clever to make or be served a “duck taco with hoisin,” like this number from a Los Angeles restaurant. It seems ridiculous to claim one is a taco and the other is not. What would Potter Stewart say? Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?

Peking duck

It doesn’t really matter whether Peking duck is a taco or not. It’s one of the best things to eat, and that’s good enough. Peking duck is an event. It’s special-occasion food. You don’t just decide you’re going to make Peking duck tonight and whip it up when you come home from work, at least not unless you’ve done a whole bunch of advance prep. It involves multiple steps, none of which is remotely difficult but each being necessary to a successful duck. The most important of these are separating the all skin from the meat before you do anything else to the duck, and letting it dry well in the refrigerator or in front of a fan in a cold room. These ensure the surface will be dry when it goes in the oven, minimizing steaming and any tendency to rubberiness, and the fatty layer under the skin will heat quickly and melt off, leaving shatteringly crisp skin that’s both savory and a little sweet.

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Peking duck is not about the meat, although obviously the dish does yield some. Use a Pekin duck (or Long Island duck), the traditional duck used in Beijing for this dish. They are bred for their skin and fat, not their meat and by happy coincidence are the least expensive ducks you can buy; for this dish, don’t waste your money on ducks better suited to breaking down and searing, like Muscovy or Moulard. The high heat needed to crisp the skin will ruin the meat of those breasts, which should be served medium rare. Instead, accept that the meat of the Pekin duck will be fully well done. You should serve both the skin and the meat with the pancakes, hoisin sauce, scallions, and if you like, some fresh cucumber.

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Maltose is a type of sugar that is not nearly as sweet as sucrose, only about a third as sweet. It comes from barley malt and is the stickiest shit you’ll ever encounter in a kitchen. If you can’t find the super-thick version available in Chinese stores, but have access to Whole Foods or some other natural foods store, try barley malt syrup, which is pretty similar and far easier to work with (although it has a slightly more toasty taste).

For the duck:

1/4 tsp five spice powder
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 Pekin duck
1/4 c maltose syrup
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 c water

Combine the salt and five spice powder. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set up a colander in a well-draining sink.

Trim the excess fat from around the neck and cavity of the duck. You should remove your rings for the next step, if you wear rings. Starting at the cavity, separate the skin from the fatty skin with your hands, working slowly to avoid tearing. Once you get to the point your hands are too big to go any further without damaging the skin, insert a small/medium wooden spoon, convex side against the skin, into the space between skin and meat and work slowly to separate all the skin. Do the same for the thighs and legs, as well as you can (the skin from the drumstick portion of the legs you do not need to detach if you find this difficult). Classically, air is pumped between the two, but this is difficult to accomplish at home and the spoon method will work just as well.

When the water comes to a boil, stand the duck cavity side down in the colander in a sink and slowly pour the boiling water evenly over all. Do not pour faster than the sink can drain immediately. Pat the duck dry. Season the cavity with the salt/five spice mixture.

Clear enough space in your refrigerator to accommodate both the pan you will be using and enough vertical height for the duck. If you have one of those obnoxious beer can chicken roasters, stand the duck on the roasting apparatus, cavity side down. If not, use a clean, tallish (empty) beer can. I recommend the 16 ounce Heineken or Bitburger cans. Place in a small roasting or cake pan large enough to accommodate the bird standing up. Refrigerate at least 6-12 hours before the next step.

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Bring the maltose, vinegar, soy, and water to a boil and remove from heat once the maltose has dissolved. After the duck has dried out for about 6-12 hours, paint the surface evenly with a thin coat of the maltose. Return to the refrigerator and repeat every 6-8 hours if possible until you have added three coats. It should be shiny and quite dry/barely sticky to the touch.

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Heat your oven to 450F. If you have a rotisserie arrangement, now is the time to use it! Be sure to place a large pan under the duck to catch the fat and drippings. If not, carefully place the duck, still standing vertically in its pan, in the oven. Blast it at 450F for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350F. Do not open the oven door to check on it, at least not for the first hour. Use this time to make the pancakes.

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After about 75=90 minutes, your duck should be ready to come out. Remove the pan or rotisserie. Allow it to cool about 10-15 minutes to allow the glaze to re-harden. It will be rather glossy and a deep mahogany.

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Separate the skin in the largest pieces possible and slice them up. Remove what meat exists from the bony frame and slice or shred it. Serve it with the pancakes and other condiments listed below.

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For the pancakes:

2 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 c boiling water
toasted sesame oil

Whisk together the flour and salt in a stand mixer bowl. With the mixer running, add the boiling water slowly. Knead until you obtain a smooth, elastic dough. You do not need to let this dough rest as it is a boiling-water dough; the gluten becomes very relaxed from the high heat. Roll into a ball and divide in two; roll each half into a smooth ball, then into a cylinder, and divide into 10 uniform pieces each. Cover what you aren’t using. Gently flatten two pieces at a time; brush each on both sides with sesame oil. Place one oiled disc atop another. (Alternatively, roll each half into approximately 1/8″ thick disc. Stamp out rounds using a biscuit cutter.)

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Roll out the double disc and then flip over; roll some more. These should be as thin as you can make them without tearing. Don’t press too hard or they will stick together and become difficult to separate.

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Place a dry skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the rolled out pancakes (if your skillet is large enough, you can do two at once). Wait for them to just barely puff slightly and flip. They should be browned in spots but not burnt or uniformly brown. Place in a steamer basket lined with a clean kitchen towel and cover with the towel. Cover with the steamer lid. Don’t let them sit out uncovered or they will dry out as the steam escapes.

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To assemble and serve:

12 scallions
1 long Japanese cucumber, peeled and sliced into 2″ batons
1/4 c hoisin sauce

Slice the scallions thinly on the diagonal or, for a fancier presentation, cut them into 2″ lengths, slice those vertically into 1/8″ batons, and place in ice water for up to an hour.

I don’t like raw cucumber so I rarely eat it plain, but instead dress the cucumbers with a little rice vinegar and sugar to take off that raw edge. If you choose to do this, combine 2 tbsp of rice vinegar, 2 tbsp of filtered water, 1/2 tsp sugar and a pinch of salt and dress the cucumbers lightly about 30 minutes before service.

Serve the duck with the pancakes, the hoisin sauce, the cucumber, and the scallions. Diners may build their own or you may build them before service (which tends to look nicer).

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Note: Acolytes of postmodernism who think I have butchered and/or misrepresented your viewpoint, it’s possible, sure. Feel free to let me have it in the comments.

Further note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Beans, East Asian, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southern

Mystery of the pyramids.

Every kid who grows up in Wisconsin considers Chicago The Big Time, usually with a certain amount of contempt and possibly even undisguised hatred. Chicagoans in turn regard Wisconsin residents as ice-fishing hicks and drunks. Kermit the Frog-style man on the street interviews in both cities tell the tale pretty quickly. Mention you’re from Wisconsin anywhere in Chicagoland and you’ll get one of three loud responses, the first two with a mocking accent: “eh, dere,” “ya der hey,” or “Cheesehead,” each of which means, roughly, “go home, Sconnie.” Ask a Wisconsinite for his or her opinions on Chicagoans and you will be treated to a tirade about FIBs, particularly their incompetence behind the wheel when driving outside their home town and inexplicable support for sports franchises like the Cubs and the Bears. If you aren’t from Wisconsin and don’t know what a FIB is, try sounding it out with various swear words at the beginning and end until you get it right. Hint: the middle word is “Illinois” and there are two possible correct answers.

Even so, most of us if pressed would admit to intense jealousy over Chicago’s cultural opportunities and urbanity. My own family made the pilgrimage a couple of times a year, to visit the museums down by Soldier Field – the Museum of Science and Industry was my favorite, with its giant walk-through model of a human heart – or window-shop on Michigan Avenue. We never stayed more than a day or so at a time, though, and Chicago remained a mystery to me for years, even though only 90 minutes separate it from Milwaukee. Once I got my driver’s license, I sometimes begged off Saturday night parties to drive to Chicago, alone, tossing forty cents after forty cents into each of the toll booth baskets the way down just so I could cruise up and down Lakeshore Drive, and all around the Loop (at least once forgetting to save any cash for the drive back). At the time it seemed the height of adventure to parallel park my mom’s 1977 Olds Toronado and walk around downtown at 10 pm looking for a Vienna beef dog. After graduating from school, I even took a job in Chicago, living on Clark Street right next to the infamous Wieners Circle. The Circle, as habitués like to call it, serves great char-dogs and cheese fries but I avoided it from Thursday night through Sunday evening, when it attracts the very worst people in Chicago. It all comes back to FIBs, after all.

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Now, my dad traveled to Chicago on his own from time to time, and he often returned from those trips with a plastic bag full of pyramid-shaped, bamboo leaf-wrapped bundles from Chinatown. The Taiwanese word for those bundles is bah-chàng, and they were something of a special occasion item in our home, partly because any food that comes in a wrapper seems inherently fun, like a present, but mostly because bah-chàng are damn tasty. I associate bah-chàng completely with Chicago because we only ever ate them when he brought them back from his visits, much as we only ever ate lobster when he came home from Boston, or crabs after his trips to the DC area. In any case, at such times, my mother would set a big metal steamer over a pot of boiling water to reheat the bah-chàng, filling the kitchen with the sort of green-woodsy, slightly floral scent of bamboo leaves. Cut the string, and unwind the moist parcel to release a pyramid of glutinous rice, filled with soy-marinated pork belly, black mushroom, pungent dried shrimp, and a salted duck egg yolk. I visited Chicago for work last week, and spent so much time thinking about bah-chàng that I had to make them as soon as I came home.

Smoked pig and peanut rice dumplings

Only two ingredients are really mandatory for bah-chàng: glutinous (sticky) rice and some sort of leaf for wrapping. This rice dumpling combines these two basic bah-chàng ingredients with American Southern ingredients. Using bamboo leaves to wrap the dumpling lends an unmistakably Taiwanese aura to the dish, even though nearly all of the other ingredients come straight from the South. Sautéing the glutinous rice after soaking helps the grains retain some distinctness and lends some additional flavor from the shallot and fat – skipping this step ensures the rice will stick together more, yielding an almost tamale-like texture. Both preparations are acceptable. If you want to try this out with other things you find in the freezer, know that any fatty meat (like chicken thighs, pork shoulder, etc) works well.

2 c glutinous rice (note: you may find both black and white glutinous rice. Black cooks to a deep purple and makes for a striking and unconventional presentation)
12 bamboo leaves (alternatively, you may try lotus leaves or banana leaves, each of which lends its own distinctive flavor)
1/2 lb pork belly, cured and smoked as for bacon, or 1/2 lb slab bacon
2 tbsp usukuchi soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp American corn whiskey, like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels
2 tsp sorghum syrup
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
1 c shelled boiled green peanuts (see below)
2 shallots, sliced thinly
1 1/2 tbsp bacon fat
dozen pickled ramps, sliced in half lengthwise (substitute pickled onion)
kitchen twine

Rinse the rice several times in cold water and then leave to soak in a bowl, with about an inch of water to cover, for 3 hours.

Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the bamboo leaves. Boil for about five minutes until soft and remove from heat. Keep the leaves in water until nearly ready to use.

Slice the smoked pork belly crosswise into six equal pieces (about 1/3″ each). Combine the soy, whiskey, sorghum, white pepper, and espelette and marinate the sliced belly for about an hour. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already shelled the boiled peanuts, do so.

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Drain the rice well and leave to sit for about 10 minutes. Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon fat. Add the sliced shallots and allow to brown on both sides until golden. Remove the shallots but leave behind the hot bacon fat.

Add the drained rice and sauté until each grain is well coated with fat, about 3 minutes. You may skip this frying step for a more compact, tamale-like texture.

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Assemble the dumplings. Drain the bamboo leaves and overlap two, with the leaves slightly off-center as to form a long and narrow “X.” Fold in the middle to make a cone.

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Divide the rice into six portions and add half of a portion inside the cone, making an indent in the bottom to contain fillings; press the rice up around the insides of the cone. Add a spoonful of the boiled peanuts, a slice of smoked pork belly, some fried shallot and slices of ramp. Fold the pork over if necessary to fit and top with some more peanuts and the remaining portion of the rice.

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Drizzle with about 1 1/2 tsp of the pork marinade. Fold the tops of the leaves over the cone to close securely, and tie well with kitchen twine. You should have essentially a pyramid (tetrahedron) shape.

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Set in a steamer over boiling water and steam for about 3 hours (a little more won’t hurt). At this point, you can serve immediately or allow to cool and chill for up to four days. They also freeze well. Reheat in a steamer over boiling water to serve. For enhanced Southern-style deliciousness, serve with some pickled peaches.

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Boiled green peanuts

Green peanuts are fresh young peanuts still in the shell. The kind of peanuts you find in cocktail mix or even ostensibly raw in bulk have been cured through air-drying once they reach maturity, and do not taste the same. These are only generally available in-season (typically summer), and even then only where there exists sufficient demand, as they are perishable.

There are few exercises more frustrating than shelling freshly boiled peanuts. The shell sticks to the papery skin, and the peanut within tends to mush somewhat under the pressure of peeling. When making these dumplings, I discovered serendipitously that frozen boiled peanuts shell easily – probably something about the water freezing between the shell and the skin, expanding it just enough to prevent sticking. If you are lucky enough to find fresh green peanuts and boil your own as directed below, do yourself a solid and freeze them in a single layer on a sheet pan overnight before thawing and shelling. As a bonus, any you aren’t ready to use right then you can freeze, sealed tightly in a plastic bag.

For the very simplest preparation, you can simply boil in salted water (about 1/4 c per gallon), but the vinegar and spices lend a very slightly pickled character that tastes great with the fatty, sweet nut. If you don’t feel like dealing with boiling your own, or green peanuts aren’t available in your area (likely in most parts of the country, especially out of season), you can buy them canned in the soul food/Southern section of your supermarket, or by mail order. You’ll probably still have to shell them yourself.

1 lb fresh green peanuts
3 tbsp salt
2 tbsp seafood boil spices + 1 tsp celery salt, or 1 tbsp Old Bay + 1/2 tsp allspice berries and 1/2 tsp black peppercorn
1/4 c cider vinegar
1 gallon water

Bring everything to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 6 hours, stirring from the bottom occasionally to ensure even cooking. Test a peanut to see if it is cooked through to the center and if not, continue cooking a while longer until it is cooked through.

Drain and chill immediately. I recommend freezing and thawing before shelling, but once they cool, you can attempt to shell them right away.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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East Asian, Fish, Frenchy Things, preserving, Vegetables

Expiration date.

The modern freezer is both great and terrible in its possibilities. On the one hand, you never have to let anything go bad again if you remember to package and freeze it in time. On the other hand, if you’re not careful, you end up with a lot of mystery product, or even worse, freezer burn spoilage. Who among us has not watched Gordon Ramsay explode in tomato-faced rage at some incompetent restaurateur’s two year supply of frozen gnocchi and fried chicken wings?

A few weeks ago, I found a couple of whole trout in our freezer, unblemished within their tight plastic wrap and forgotten for over two years. Not really forgotten, actually – they were gifts from a friend and former member of my staff. Patrick was a midwesterner like me, and he returned to his native St Louis to fish for trout every summer. On returning from his first trip after he began working for me, he stopped by my office. “There’s a trout in the freezer with your name on it,” he said. “It’s wrapped in a Cubs towel.” From then on, he always brought me a trout, somewhere in the 2 pound range, on returning from those summer fishing trips.

As it happens, my husband loves smoked trout. His enjoyment of smoked fish represents a paradoxical type of pickiness in which the diner asserts great dislike of a specific food, but makes so many exceptions as to swallow the rule. For example, my husband claims not to like cheese, but layers it generously into sandwiches, omelets, and the like. In fact, he has been known to eat macaroni and cheese using a shoveling motion. As far as I can tell, his cheese dislike is more or less localized to the waxen, sweaty chunks found on supermarket deli trays and an abomination known as the Huntsman. In the same vein, he claims to dislike fish, but is a sashimi connoisseur and avid consumer of smoked salmon, trout, tuna, and so on. When our local steakhouse, The Prime Rib, took the smoked trout appetizer off its menu earlier this year, citing “lack of interest,” he was nearly as disappointed as if they’d started cutting the roast prime rib into sensible portions.

Patrick and I never did discuss how we cooked his catch. Early in our acquaintance, he told me, “you’ll probably find me kind of boring, food-wise. I’m what I guess you’d call a meat and potatoes guy.” I always assumed he would go for the grill, but I never found out. About two years ago, Patrick died unexpectedly one winter morning, about a year after he married and only a couple of weeks after the birth of their child. He was forty-seven years old. The last two trout he gave me have been in the freezer ever since. If pressed, I would probably admit they remained untouched as a sort of memorial.

Remarking on the challenges of forging personal connections in the modern office setting, a colleague of Patrick’s observed that, when people we know die, we don’t remember them for the quality of their work or the amount of face time they gave at the office. “No one’s going to say, hey, that guy was a really competent lawyer and he really enjoyed working late,” he said. “They remember that he was a great guy.” He was a great guy, a superb fisherman, and a thoughtful friend. This trout salad is for him.

Smoked trout salad

I have provided the method below (following the salad recipe) for curing and smoking trout. You can use it for most hot smoked fish – it’s a simple 4% salt brine. Although winter is not a good time for smoking generally – the cold outside temperatures increase the difficulty in maintaining a temperature adequate for meat smoking – it actually is a good time for fish smoking as you want to maintain a temperature just high enough to cook the fish through, but low enough to minimize albumen coagulation and leakage. In plain English, that’s the goopy white stuff you might find leaking out of fully cooked trout or salmon, especially when it’s been overcooked. A smoker temperature of about 160F/71C should accomplish both goals.

Sudachi are a lime-like sour citrus native to Tokushima Prefecture in Japan. Outside Tokushima, they are totally unavailable out of season and difficult to find even in season. You are more likely to find sudachi juice in the bottle at a Japanese (or possibly Korean) market. If unavailable, combine half and half lime juice and sour orange juice (such as Seville).

1 large avocado
1 Granny Smith apple
2 heads little gem or Boston lettuce, washed and spun dry
1 c pickled carrot (see below)
1/2 c sudachi mayonnaise (see below)
320g hot smoked trout (see below)
2 tbsp minced chive

Break the trout into 1″ chunks. Peel, halve, and thinly slice the avocado; brunoise the apple; separate the gem lettuce into leaves..

Plate the lettuce, curls of pickled carrot, avocado slices, apple brunoise, and the smoked trout. Garnish with a generous quantity of the sudachi mayonnaise and the chive.

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Hot smoked trout

Naturally, I don’t endorse keeping a couple of trout in the freezer for two or three years before use. You should use the freshest possible product. That said, the trout in question were tightly sealed in heavy plastic and their texture was beautiful, even after so much time in the deep freeze. It brought to mind a scene from Northern Exposure in which Joel excavates a long-frozen woolly mammoth, which, to his horror, Walt soon dispatches in his belly. “One man’s life altering experience is another man’s tenderloin.” I suppose that’s true.

If you butcher your own trout and have a lot of trim left over, you can cure and smoke it; just pull it from the brine after about an hour or they will be too salty. Check the smoker at about an hour; if the fish is fully cooked and well smoked but moist, the fish can come out.

Four filets of freshwater trout, pin bones removed
2 l ice water
80g kosher salt
40g sugar
1/8 tsp TCM (optional but extends preservation)
about 1 tbsp each whole white peppercorns, true red (Pondicherry) peppercorns, and coriander seed

Bring the salt, sugar, TCM, spices, and 100 ml of the water to a boil, covered, and simmer until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Cool completely and then add to the remaining ice water. Be sure the brine is cold before adding the trout.

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Add the trout filets to the ice water brine. Refrigerate 3-4 hours (do not brine overnight). Rinse and pat dry. Place skin side-up on a rack over a sheet or hotel pan in the refrigerator and dry, uncovered, about 24 hours or until dry and somewhat tacky to the touch. This dry outer layer is the pellicle and is essential to protecting the fish as it smokes.

Smoke in an offset or vertical smoker with your preferred wood (I like pecan, alder, or apple for smoked fish) at 160F for 75 minutes, less if your trout is well under 1/2″/13mm thick and a little longer if it is more than 3/4″/20mm. Chill immediately and use or freeze within four days.

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Pickled carrot:

2 large carrots, peeled
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp filtered water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

Square off the carrots and slice thinly with a mandoline. Place in a single layer in a vacuum bag.

Bring the liquids, salt, and sugar to a boil and pour into the bag. Seal under vacuum. Chill.

Sudachi mayonnaise:

large pinch salt
pinch white pepper
one egg yolk
1 tbsp dijon mustard
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sudachi juice (substitute yuzu, or half and half lime and sour orange)
1 1/2 c rice bran or grapeseed oil
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette or ichimi togarashi

Place the salt, white pepper, egg, mustard, vinegar, and half the sudachi juice in the bottom of a sturdy bowl. Whisk to emulsify and then, whisking constantly, drip in the oil until you have a stable and thick emulsion. Continue whisking in the oil until the mayonnaise is the desired consistency. (You also can prepare this by dripping the oil into the ingredients in a blender). Whisk in the remaining sudachi juice, espelette, and additional salt if necessary to taste.

Store in a squeeze bottle under refrigeration.

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East Asian, Holidays, Science, Soup

Gobble gobble hey.

Thanksgiving dinner is the one meal you’re not supposed to screw with. You know the drill. There’s the roast turkey and gravy, the mashed potatoes, the stuffing or dressing, an orange vegetable, a green vegetable, and a cranberry sauce. You finish up with apple, pumpkin, or maybe mincemeat pie. The boundaries of acceptable creative exercise are pretty well-circumscribed: you can use cornbread or white bread for your stuffing, and you can throw in sausage, oysters, or dried fruit if you like; you can glaze your turkey with maple syrup, rub it in southwestern spices, or bard it with bacon; you can put marshmallows on your sweet potatoes or spin your squash into soup with apples and curry. As much creativity as enterprising cooks can deploy, though, the meal ultimately always registers the same familiar notes.

This doctrinaire approach to the national meal loosens up considerably if your ancestors didn’t grow up eating turkey for a couple of weeks between late November and early December each year. My husband’s second-generation Italian relatives up in New Jersey, for example, do serve the turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, along with an orange vegetable known as “fluffy carrots,” which taste more like whipped carrot halvah than anything else, but they also begin the meal with giardiniera and a big platter of sliced salami, capicola, and mozzarella. Back in the day, when the Italian-born immigrant generation and their kids surrounded the table, the meal started with antipasti, moved on to meatball and escarole soup, then pasta, and then the turkey, which was shoehorned into the meal like the obligatory cheerleader in a teen movie. My husband’s father, an Englishman until the day he died, mastered the quintessential American meal despite never relinquishing his British passport, and served his turkey surrounded with bangers and the abomination known as bread sauce. Other friends of immigrant parentage tell similar stories – roast turkey surrounded by kimchi and other banchan and eaten in lettuce with gochujang; arroz con pavo; yoghurt-marinated turkey with dal and pilau rice. Other families just made their favorite festival foods like tamales, fried noodles, or biryani, and threw in the turkey as a cursory nod to the holiday.

Recently, my husband and I spent a couple of weeks in Shanghai and Taipei, where we ate a lot of steamed dumplings. My husband’s favorite place to eat in Taipei is Din Tai Fung, made famous worldwide in 1993 by a New York Times article about the top ten restaurants in the world. The pièce de résistance at Din Tai Fung, and the source of their enduring fame, is the xiaolongbao, or small steamed soup dumplings. If you haven’t had them – and in the US, outside of NYC and maybe a place here or there in San Francisco, Seattle, or LA, you probably haven’t – their xiaolongbao are a form of tang bao, or soup dumplings, that originated just east of Shanghai in Nanjing. They’re not dumplings in soup; they’re dumplings with the soup inside. The unitiated typically bite right into the dumpling straightaway and burn themselves on the gush of soup (which ends up on shirt sleeves and fronts), but the way you’re supposed to eat them is to lift one out of the bamboo steamer, place it in a soup spoon, tear a small hole in the side using a chopstick, and slurp the soup out of the spoon before eating the dumpling with a little fresh ginger julienne in black vinegar. Alternatively – and considered bush league, but a better way to get the soup out in my opinion – you can bite the top knot off the dumpling and suck out the soup. Good xiaolongbao require a thin wrapper strong enough to support the weight of the soup and filling; when you lift it out of the steamer, the dumpling should droop like a sack instead of retaining its shape.

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So let’s say, instead of just plopping a turkey in the midst of an otherwise unrelated festival meal, one were to combine the two? Maybe as xiaolongbao filled with turkey as a first course?

Smoked turkey xiaolongbao

Most people think the mystery of xiaolongbao lies in the soup. Where does it come from? How does it get inside the dumpling? Actually, though, the soup mystery is easy to solve. You make a strong stock using lots of collagen from pork skin or hocks; when cold, the stock sets to a firm gel from the dissolved gelatin and is easy to fold into a dumpling skin. The far greater challenge when making xiaolongbao is to achieve the proper texture for the dumpling skin. For a skin strong enough to hold the soup and filling, but thin enough to be delicate, you must use a hot water dough (actually a boiling water dough). The boiling water gelatinzes the starch in the flour.

Don’t be tempted to substitute turkey breast for the thighs. You need the fat in the thighs to stand up to the high heat of steaming and keep the filling moist; ground breast will steam to hockey pucks. More expensive, and wasted in this dish. The other components of the meat filling must be minced so finely as to be indistinct from the meat; jutting chunks of celery or garlic will tear the wrapper.

For about 5 dozen xiaolongbao

For the smoked turkey gel:

900g/2 lbs pork hocks or feet
900g/2 lbs smoked turkey necks
2 stalks celery, chopped
dozen scallions or trim from several bunches of scallions
water to cover
salt

Place all the ingredients other than salt in a stockpot and bring to about 180F (not quite simmering).

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Cover and maintain temp. Cook for 8-12 hours, taking care the liquid never breaks a simmer. Strain and chill. Scrape off any fat before use. The stock should be a fairly firm gel. Refrigerate until using. This recipe makes more soup gel than you need; freeze what you don’t use.

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For the filling:

900g/2 lbs boned out skinless turkey thighs
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
4 medium sage leaves
8 cloves garlic confit
1 stalk celery, finely minced
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp piment d’espelette
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp celery salt
1 1/2 tsp usukuchi soy sauce or shiro shoyu

applewood chips

Grind together all the solid ingredients through a medium die with the cornstarch, and then again through a small die. Combine with the spices, salts, and soy sauce. Do not overwork and leave somewhat loose in the container.

Cold smoke over applewood for about 2 hours at 40F or using a smoking gun. Chill, covered tightly, until using.

For the compressed apple pickle:

1 granny smith apple
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

4 tbsp cider vinegar
2 tbsp shiro shoyu

Julienne (1/16″) the apple and combine the liquids, salt, and sugar until dissolved. Place in a bag in a chamber sealer for 90 seconds.

Combine the cider vinegar and shiro shoyu.

For the wrapper:

85g AP flour
85g bread (high gluten) flour
100g boiling water
50g cold water

Combine the flours in a stand mixer and add the boiling water. Mix thoroughly (the mixture will be ragged). While mixing, add the cold water (slowly at first to avoid overhydrating). You may not use all the cold water. Knead for about 10 minutes. If the dough is really sticky and wet, add a little more AP flour about 5g at a time, but don’t worry if it’s soft and just a little sticky. Cover and rest for at least 1 hour but up to overnight (under refrigeration).

When ready to use, flour a wooden board and cut off 5g portions of dough (about a medium-sized marble). Flour both sides of the dough and roll it out using a small wooden pin, to a diameter of about 3 5/8″/9 cm. Ideally, the round will be slightly thinner at the edge than at the center.

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Fill each round with about 2 tsp of meat mince and a chunk (heaped 1/2 tsp) of gel. Pleat all the way around, ideally 14-18 pleats, and twist to seal at the top. Set in a bamboo steamer lined with parchment about 1″ apart.

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Set the steamer over boiling water and steam until just cooked through in the center, about 3-4 minutes. Serve with the compressed apple and the vinegar dip.

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A final word: These cook up darker and more yellowish than those from Din Tai Fung. I have two guesses at the reasons: they might use bleached flour, whereas I always use unbleached; and the dough or the steam are possibly slightly alkaline. To hedge your bets against alkalinity, you can add a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar to the steaming water, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t help. I’m pretty sure this is all about the flour because this recipe does not include any alkalinizing components like baking soda or baking powder. If the slight yellowness distresses you, try a bleached flour.

Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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East Asian, Frenchy Things, Pork Products, preserving

The Lardy Boys.

One of the great culinary travesties of the twentieth century was the industry-driven transformation of pork from a rich, fatty meat of deep flavor to a dry, stringy, neutral-tasting protein bred to compete with chicken breast meat. “Pork. The Other White Meat.” I was in college when I started seeing the logo – a slightly skewed circle, resembling a cross-cut slice of tenderloin, bearing the word “Pork” in delicate, slightly Asiatic, script. Soon after, the recipes began to emerge: grilled pork loin with orange glaze; roast tenderloin with cherry sauce. Maple-bourbon marinades, teriyaki sauces, and all that. We dressed up the pork to make up for the fact that the meat no longer had any flavor, and we sauced it to death to compensate for its terrible dryness. Pork became our blank canvas. It was a terrible thing.

Well, the king is dead. Say hello to “Pork Be Inspired.” I don’t know who comes up with this stuff.

How’s this for inspiration: let’s make the most of pork in all its rich, hoggy glory. Here’s the thing. Even while the pork industry touted its product as the alternative to chicken and sought to breed nearly all the fat and flavor out of the meat, the USDA considers pork a red meat. You should too. When I travel abroad, I’m reminded of the pork I ate as a little kid, before the industry got its mitts all over our hogs and turned them into generic white protein. Well, if I wanted that, I’d eat tofu. Also, there’s more to pork than tenderloin and loin chops.

Look at these lardy boys – a rosy pork shoulder and a pork belly with layers of deep pink meat and creamy white fat. Make the most of them by cooking them slowly, at low temperatures, to melt down the tough collagen and the fat. Don’t cringe because it’ll wreck your diet or shrink in fear of your hardening arteries. Consider this: people around the world in countries with longer life expectancies and lower obesity rates than the United States eat pork in delicious, fatty forms like rillettes and pâtés, red-cooked pork belly, lardo. They just don’t eat them in ludicrous quantities. Let’s do the same.

Super fatty shoulder (sorry, forgot to take it out of the bag first).

Say hello to Mr Belly.

Pork rillettes

Easiest thing ever, just a bunch of hours curing in the refrigerator and then cooking in its own fat in the oven. Pig meat won’t stay pink unless you add nitrite in the form of tinted curing mix (“pink salt”) during the short cure. I recognize the whole nitrite thing is controversial, so decide for yourself whether you want your rillettes on the brownish gray but natural side, or whether you prefer a dusky rose color and the slight nitric tang of nitrite-treated meat. I suppose I prefer the untreated rillettes, but that’s just me.

If your shoulder cut is super lardy – like the one depicted in this photo – you’ll come out with more melted fat than you want to incorporate into the rillettes. In that case, save it. Keep it in the freezer, tightly sealed, and use it for frying. You won’t have to thaw the fat every time you want to use it – the lard doesn’t freeze rock solid. You can add to your lard stockpile whenever you have leftover rendered pork fat.

4 lb slab of pork shoulder or butt, the fattiest you can find
6 tsp kosher salt
6 sprigs thyme
1/2 c Italian parsley leaves, washed and spun dry
Optional: 1/8 tsp TCM (pink salt)
4 sprigs thyme
2 tsp each black peppercorns, coriander seed
If you have it, about 225 ml/1c rendered pork or duck fat from a previous preparation; otherwise, you can omit

Dijon mustard
Black pepper, ground
Bay leaves

Two days before cooking, blitz the salt, TCM (if using), thyme, and parsley in a spice grinder or food processor and coat the pork, as well as any fat pockets, with the green salt. Wrap in plastic clingfilm, place in a stainless steel or plastic pan, and place in the refrigerator for two days. Turn over once after a day.

With green salt.

Oven 190F/85C. Rinse the pork well of green salt and dry with towels. Place in the smallest possible roasting pan, deep enough to rise up to the sides and, if possible, tight enough to touch the roast on all sides.

Rinsed of green salt, dried, and tucked into a small baking pan (notice it touches the sides).

Tie up one teaspoon each of the coriander and peppercorn in separate cheesecloth bundles and tuck on opposite sides of the pork with the thyme sprigs. Place the cold pork or duck fat on top if you have it. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast for 10-12 hours. Remove and chill the pork in the fat.

After twelve hours.

Lift the pork from the fat and measure out about 1 c fat. Keep both cold. Remove the pork meat from the bones, if present, and separate the meat from any chunks of unrendered fat by hand (save that to render separately – see the Cracklings instructions below). You should have two pounds of meat or more. Chop the meat very coarsely (about 1 1/2″ long) if the strands are long and ropy. In a bowl, combine two pounds of the pork meat (reserving the rest), 2 tbsp mustard, a little black pepper (about ¼ tsp), and about 1/2 c cold pork fat.

Stir using a sturdy, large fork, incorporating the fat. Add another ¼ tsp pepper, another 2 tbsp mustard, and another ¼ c pork fat. Continue stirring, breaking up the fibers. Taste at this point for texture, which should be rich and neither overly lean nor greasy. If it is too lean, add another 2 tbsp to ¼ c pork fat (or more); if is too fat, add a little more meat and mustard. Otherwise, just taste for mustard and pepper. Cover and keep cold. If you have any leftover meat, keep it for another use.

Melt the remaining pork fat (again, see Cracklings, below). When melted, pack rillettes into sterilized lidded jars and cover with ¼ inch liquid pork fat and a bay leaf. Insert rubber gasket into jar and close. Keep refrigerated and do not open until ready to serve. Store refrigerated and unopened for two months or so. Once opened, consume within the week.

Pork rillettes, bay.

Cracklings

The crispy crunchy bits left over when you render the fat from the pork shoulder are similar to the crackling from a properly air-dried and roasted pork belly. They’re far easier to produce, though, because you don’t have to worry about drying the skin with salt, wiping off the moisture, roasting it at a properly high temperature, and so on. All you need to do is roast the pieces of fat until they melt, leaving behind crisp bits frying in the bubbling pork fat.

Liquid pork fat from previous recipe
Scraps of solid, unrendered pork fat, diced

Oven 350F/227C.

Place the fats in an small baking dish. Bake until the fats bubble and the fat renders from the scraps, leaving them golden and crisp. Stir to redistribute or break up if necessary. Drain the fat through a strainer and refrigerate or freeze for another purpose. Use the cracklings as a garniture for salads or to add texture to other dishes, such as cassoulet.

Crackling.

Bacon and eggs

Why do eggs and pork taste so great together? I don’t know – maybe it’s the mildly sulfurous quality of the eggs plus the pork’s sweet fattiness, or something – but it’s an almost universal combination in pork-eating cultures. From bacon and fried eggs in the classic English breakfast, to Scotch eggs, to country pâtés encasing a hard-boiled egg, to braised pork belly and salted duck eggs in the Chinese steamed rice dumpling, zongzi (粽子), rich fatty pork and eggs are a classic combination. Hell, just today on NPR’s website, I read about a sandwich in Chicago that involves smoked ham, a breaded pork tenderloin, bacon, and a fried egg. See? Universal combination. I’m trying to move us closer to Chicago so I can get reliable access to that sandwich. Oh, and EggMcMuffin! I rest my case.

Speaking of zongzi. When I was a kid, my dad occasionally came home from trips to Chicago with a bag of zongzi, meaning he’d somehow managed to visit Chicago’s Chinatown. This was a real treat, since I didn’t get to eat them often – maybe once a year – and was in the same vein as other occasional food souvenirs, like the Baltimore crabs Dad would bring home from trips to Washington DC, or the rare lobster from Boston that always went right into the pot as soon as he walked in the door. Actually, the food souvenirs I think I received the most often were the little waxed cardboard box lunches served on short flights from the East Coast back to Milwaukee. My dad would bring the entire box home to me – little ham sandwich, cookie and all – and I considered it extremely glamorous. Is that sad? Well, I was eight years old, so I think it’s not as sad as getting excited about getting some stupid tiny little dry cookie on a Delta flight just because it’s still free.

Anyway, this is a modernized and deconstructed zongzi using a poached egg instead of a salted duck’s egg, and a seasoned sticky rice instead of a bamboo leaf-wrapped dumpling. When you eat it together, it tastes just like zongzi. I don’t kid myself that you’ll ever make this dish but maybe you’ll try one or two components. Try the pork and the egg, of course, even if you serve it over steamed rice or ramen. In fact, soy sauce-braised pork with hard boiled eggs is a classic Taiwanese dish, so that would be awesome. Or try the rice and the egg, and add some diced Chinese sausage (la chang, or lap cheong in Cantonese, 臘腸) to the rice for the pork component).

The belly:

2 lb pork belly, skin on, bone removed
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1-1/2″ cube yellow rock sugar
1 pod star anise
2 tbsp soy sauce (Japanese white soy preferably)
1 bay leaf (Turkish)
4 sprigs thyme
4 cloves garlic

Prepare the belly the day before.

Blanch belly, starting in cold filtered water. Remove once water just comes to a boil. Belly may be blanched ahead of time and refrigerated or proceed immediately to the next step.

Place blanched belly in stock, in a single layer in a deep heavy pot, with the other ingredients. Bring to a bare simmer and reduce heat. Cover with parchment and a slightly ajar lid. Braise six hours.

Discard parchment and remove belly from stock and place in a small pan (1/4 hotel is good). Cover with strained braising liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and then foil, and then weight the top of the belly with a heavy flat object. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

The mushroom:

2-3 hen of the woods/maitake mushrooms, broken into segments, or 1/2 lb shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/2″ thick, or a mixture
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
white pepper
vegetable oil

Place a deep, heavy pan over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil to the pan. Add the mushrooms, browning well on each side, until tender.

Add the Shaoxing wine to the pan and cook until the mushrooms absorb the liquid. Finish with soy. Season with pepper. Keep warm. Alternatively, these may be prepared a day before service and chilled.

The rice:

Note: glutinous rice , also known as sticky rice or sweet rice, is not the same thing as short-grain rice, sushi rice, Arborio rice, or any of those things. In its raw form, it is chalk-white and totally opaque, unlike the other translucent-looking varieties of rice, whatever their grain lengths. Do not substitute another type of rice using this cooking method – it will fall apart.

If you cannot find glutinous rice, dispense with soaking the rice and do not steam it. Rather, cook the rice by adding water in the appropriate ratio to the rice you use after sautéing the rice in oil or XO sauce and cook over lowest heat, covered, until the water is absorbed. The rice will not have the same sticky texture as the glutinous rice.

1 c glutinous (sweet) rice
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 white pepper
1 1/2 tbsp XO sauce or 2 tsp dried shrimp
vegetable oil

Rinse the glutinous rice and soak in 3c water, in the refrigerator, for at least three hours and up to overnight. Drain thoroughly.

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the XO sauce or, if using dried shrimp, add a small amount of vegetable oil. and then add the dried shrimp. Sauté until fragrant. Add the rice and sauté a minute more until well coated. Season with pepper and soy and remove from heat. You can prepare this component the day before service to this point and refrigerate.

Bring a pot of water to a simmer. Lightly oil a bamboo rice steamer basket (with pork fat if you have it, or with vegetable oil). If you do not have such a basket, line a bamboo or metal steamer with a triple thickness of cheesecloth draping it over the sides.. Scoop the rice mixture into the basket. Close the lid tightly. Place over the pot of simmering water and steam for 40 minutes until the rice is tender but still firm. Remove from heat and remove lid; turn out into a 6″ x 9″ pan, like a breading pan or a plastic food storage container. Press down well to compress. Slice through with a moist sharp knife into equal portions.

Compress the rice.

To assemble dish:

Oven 250F/121C.

Remove fat from liquid (liquid will have gelled – be sure to save as much liquid as possible). Remove bellies and trim to square off edges. Reserve trimmings for future use. Cut into squares or rectangles of uniform size.

After weighting.

Place skillet on high heat. Place belly slices in skillet, skin side down, and cook until the skin is crisp and fat renders. Turn over and place in the oven to heat through, about 20 minutes.

The sauce:

3 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 c gelled pork braising stock from braise/chill, defatted

Place a small saucepan over medium low heat and add the Shaoxing wine. Reduce by two-thirds. Add the soy sauce and reduce by half. Add the stock and reduce until the sauce has thickened and has the consistency of a pan sauce. Hold until service (add water and reheat/reduce again if necessary).

Poach eggs and pat dry on clean kitchen towels.

Serve the belly with the rice, the poached egg, mushroom, and a spoon of sauce.

Pork belly, soft egg, sticky rice "zongzi" style.

Yolk.

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