A reader in Australia asks for suggestions to use a bumper crop of basil. An easy pistou recipe for freezing basil, plus a take on a Thai classic, on the Basil page.
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.
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).
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.
A reader asks for tips to break out of the American breakfast rut. Some international breakfast suggestions, and three make-ahead dishes, on the Breakfast page.
A reader asks for a vegetarian appetizer suitable for a Halloween-themed party. Learn why a jack o’ lantern isn’t your best pie pumpkin, and check out three vegetarian appetizers, on the Great Pumpkin page.
Recently, in response to the sausage burger post, a reader asked whether I plan what I’m going to cook every day, or just throw something together. This is where I admit that I’m not a morning person. It’s all I can do to get out of the house in one piece every day and menu planning just doesn’t happen. Sometimes we stop at the market on the way home from the office and I decide what to make based on what looks good that day. Other days, though, it’s a trip into the reach in freezer.
One night last week, my journey into the reach in yielded a vacuum package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. These types of small boneless cuts of somewhat fatty meat are what I like to call “pre-sausage.” You can dice them while they’re still frozen, and run them through the meat grinder. The fact that they’re frozen is a boon, not a curse – frozen cuts yield a better ground product, at least using home grinders like the KitchenAid attachment – so you can dispense with thawing time. Once ground, you can season and patty them right up. Within 35 minutes of our arrival home, we were eating these burgers, with Vietnamese flavors of pickled carrot and radish, mint, and chili sauce, influenced by the delicious Vietnamese sandwich, báhn mi. Not bad for an impromptu weekday meal out of the freezer.
Chicken burgers “báhn mi”
You may wonder why I have added whole egg and panko to the chicken before pattying and cooking these burgers, since I never would recommend any such thing for a beef or pork sausage-type burger. Here’s the thing – I find that ground chicken cooked in a patty without any binder tends to form a somewhat solid puck. You need a little extra fat to keep things moist.
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 large egg
3 tbsp panko
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp Vietnamese fish sauce
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
4 soft buns
1 c carrot and daikon pickle, from below recipe
4-8 butter lettuce leaves (depending on size), washed and dried
1 c mint leaves, washed and spun dry
1/2 c cilantro (coriander) leaves, washed and spun dry (optional)
1/2 c sriracha mayonnaise (from below)
Freeze the chicken thighs until solid (but not rock-hard), and cut into 1″ chunks. If you’re using product straight from the freezer, let them thaw just slightly before cubing and grinding so they’re not like chicken boulders. Season with salt. Grind the chicken through a medium die.
Combine the panko and white pepper. Sprinkle the fish sauce over the chicken and add the panko mixture and egg. Mix with your hand until combined, but do not overwork.
Form four patties on a plate or cutting board. Do not stack, since these burgers will be very soft.
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Use a large spatula to transfer each burger to the hot skillet and brown on the bottom side. Flip the burger over, cook until golden brown, and reduce the heat to the lowest setting to permit the burger to cook through. Remove the pan from heat. Burgers should have a moist texture and hold together well.
While burgers cook, toast the buns on a sheet pan, cut side up, under the broiler until just golden. Spread both halves of each bun with sriracha mayonnaise. Place a chicken burger atop each bottom bun, top with carrot and daikon pickle, lettuce leaf, and a generous quantity of mint leaves and coriander (if using).
Carrot and daikon pickle
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
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. You can leave the vegetables in the pickling liquid for a week or so. If you don’t have two hours – say because you got home late from work and you’re starving now – let them pickle at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
I’m not going to be one of these people who says “You must make your own mayonnaise! Don’t ever use mayonnaise from a jar!” because I live in the real world. People who flog home cooks to make their own mayonnaise every time they need a couple of tablespoons are prone to other ridiculous pronouncements, like “pesto must be made using a mortar and pestle,” and similar impractical nonsense. House-made mayonnaise is delicious, I do prefer it to the jarred product, and I do often make my own, but not always. For starters, it doesn’t keep that long. Unlike commercial product, made with pasteurized egg, a higher acid content, and, let’s face it, preservatives, house-made product will keep about a week. I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat much mayonnaise, jarred or house-made. Unless I’m feeding a crowd, house-made mayonnaise and aioli often go to waste, and I hate to waste food.
So if you need to use a jarred product, go ahead. Widely available products like Duke’s and Hellman’s are fine. Delouis Fils makes the best jarred mayonnaise I have tried, but it is more expensive and not as widely available. You can freshen up any jarred product with a few drops of lemon juice.
Having said all that, here’s the truth about making mayonnaise. It’s easy. Egg-based emulsions like mayonnaise can hold a ridiculous amount of oil before they begin to break – that is, before the oil separates. Harold McGee, food scientist extraordinaire, famously once emulsified one egg yolk with 100 cups of oil. (He added water to increase the ratio of oil to water-based product to 3:1, but that esoterica is not going to help you make mayonnaise you actually want to eat). Generally, though, 3/4 c oil per egg yolk provides a good guideline. The presence of mustard – which also contains lecithin, an emulsifier – helps stabilize the emulsion, as well as lending a piquant taste. If you have a strong arm, you can whisk the mayonnaise by hand, but I feel a more stable product emerges from the blender or food processor.
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
large pinch salt
large pinch sugar
3/4 c sunflower or grapeseed oil (you can substitute up to 1/4 c of this with an equal quantity of olive oil)
Additionally, for sriracha mayonnaise: increase sugar to 1 tsp; 3 tbsp sriracha (chili sauce)
If preparing by hand, whisk together all the ingredients but the oil. Otherwise, blitz them in the blender or food processor until combined.
If preparing by hand, begin whisking in the oil, one drop at a time at first, and then more quickly in a thin stream (I find it helps to use a squeeze bottle to control flow). Otherwise, with the food processor or blender running, drip in oil one drop at a time, and then a little more quickly. Once the quantity of oil is equal to the quantity of egg yolk and other liquid, you should have a fairly stable emulsion – you will be able to tell because the mixture will be somewhat thick and not show any signs of separation. At this point, you can stop adding the oil drop by drop and increase the volume to a thin stream or even add the oil more quickly.
If making the sriracha mayonnaise, stir in the sriracha until well-combined. Cover and hold under refrigeration.
A reader seeks advice regarding lemongrass. Read about an all-purpose marinade, and a couple of sauces – one rustic, one refined – on the Lemongrass page.