Grains, Midwest-y, Random Thoughts, Science, Soup

Ten thousand lakes.

The year before I left Milwaukee, I worked occasional catering jobs for a woman in Shorewood who made things like cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles and buckeyes, and served Eighties-sophisticated dinner menus of roast Cornish game hen nestled alongside wild rice stuffing, and cream puffs piped into the form of swans atop pools of strawberry coulis. I loved those jobs because, in additional to being paid for plating and serving, I’d always go home with a few extra twenties from the host folded into my purse, which was the kind of tip money I normally made on a busy Saturday slinging plates at the Woolworth’s Coffee Shop. And all while wearing street clothes, rather than a royal blue polyester smock and a “my name is WENDY” pin.

Because my own cooking repertoire had not advanced that far beyond pans of lasagne and spaghetti with meatballs, I considered wild rice the essence of class and fanciness and began serving it at my own dinner parties in Minnesota. A few months into law school, I borrowed a car from a friend for a shopping trip to Byerly’s market in the suburbs just south of Minneapolis, where the wild rice soup – creamy, spiked with sherry and studded with diced ham and carrots – struck me as even more elegant than wild rice stuffing, if that was possible. It quickly became part of my “for company” repertoire, much like virtually anything wrapped in puff pastry or simmered in cooking wine, and as such was similarly doomed to fall from favor once I actually learned to cook. Incidentally, if any of my old law school friends are reading this, I’m sorry I served you the same chicken breasts in white wine sauce with wild rice mushroom pilaf at practically every dinner party, and even more sorry about the omnipresent snow pea and red bell pepper sauté. I don’t even like red bell peppers.

I hadn’t eaten wild rice in perhaps fifteen years, but after a Minnesota friend visited a couple of summers ago, with a gift of maple syrup and wild rice, I decided to give the soup another shot. I gave my Byerly’s cookbook away over twenty years ago, but it wasn’t hard to recall the components and figure out the technique. Like most cream-style soups of midwestern origin, it’s built on a roux base with chicken stock, and finished with actual cream. Sometimes you find mirepoix throughout, but more often just carrots. Most versions include a generous handful of diced ham, and toasted almonds for texture. It’s the soup that eats like a meal, and once it starts to cool, the starch in the roux base gelatinizes, turning the soup into something closer to wallpaper paste.

So I took it in a different direction. I remembered reading once that, during his tenure at Porter and Frye in Minneapolis, Steven Brown updated wild rice soup to feature a delicate vegetable bisque in lieu of the roux-thickened soup, poured about a heap of sautéed brunoise and puffed wild rice. I’ve never eaten it, but I’ve long admired Chef Brown and his role in modernizing Midwestern cuisine, particularly at Levain. This is my homage.

Celery bisque, pork belly, puffed wild rice

“True” rice and wild rice represent different genera, but both are cereal grains from tall, water-dwelling grasses. Wild rice, common to the thousands of lakes dotting northern and central Minnesota, is sheathed in a nearly-black husk, far tougher than that of true rice, and never polished off. It is nuttier and more fragrant than true rice, and the husk provides an interesting texture. Most people boil the hell out of wild rice until the innards spill out and curl like the scrolls of an Ionic column. Once that has happened, the rice is overcooked and waterlogged. Stop cooking and drain the rice once the husk splits lengthwise and the interior is tender, not soggy.

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As with most starchy grains (think popcorn or puffed wheat cereal), wild rice can be puffed. For puffing to take place, a small quantity of residual water within a dry husk must come to a boil, generating steam that causes the husk to rupture. In addition, the starch must be gelatinized. This is why you can’t just toss a handful of dry raw rice into a pot of boiling oil; rather than puffing, it will simply fry to a pile of rock-hard nibs. To puff any grain successfully, you must first gelatinize the starch by cooking, and then dry the cooked grain until the outside is completely dry and only a small quantity (perhaps 5-8%) remains within. Drop the dried grains in hot oil and watch them bloom to the surface after a second or two. Note: you can accomplish this with true rice, rye, farro, wheat berries, and lots of other things. The process is a lot like making tapioca-based chips or chicharrón.

For four people.

For the smoked pork belly:

Between one and four days in advance, prepare the smoked pork belly described in this post, through the smoking step. You will need about 8 oz, plus an additional four for the brunoise below.

Coated in cure.

Coated in cure.

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You can substitute whole slab smoked bacon, which is after all what you are making.

Just before service, slice the bacon 1/4″ thick and pan-fry until crisp on the outside and warmed through on the inside.

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For the bisque:

3 bunches celery, sliced
1 celeriac root, diced
4 leeks, white and light green section only
1 qt chicken consommé (for consommé method, see here, but substitute a strong stock of roast chicken bones for the beef bones and use ground white meat chicken in the raft)
2 bay leaves
1 c heavy cream
2 leaves (silver) gelatin
1 tsp white wine vinegar
celery salt
celery leaves (from stalks)
parsley leaves
thyme sprigs

Juice the vegetables separately in a masticating juicer. Discard the fiber or reserve for a future use (note the celery fiber tends to be very stringy and may not be suited for later use unless dehydrated and crumbled).

Bring the bay leaf, the juices, and the consommé to a simmer for about 10 minutes; add the cream and simmer another 5. Do not allow the soup to boil or it will turn an unappetizing olive color as the chlorophyll degrades; your soup should rather be the shade of Crayola “spring green.” Soften the gelatin leaves in hot water and whisk in. Season with the vinegar (more or less than 1 tsp, to taste) and the celery salt. Set aside. You may reheat the soup by bringing back to a simmer for 5 minutes. Do not boil or the cream will break. This recipe makes far more soup than you need for four people; you can freeze the rest.

Note: if you don’t have a juicer, you can simmer the vegetables (starting with the celeriac, then adding the leek, then at last the celery) in the consommé with the bay until tender; remove the bay and then blend in a vitaprep until completely smooth. Strain through a chinois lined with muslin and then strain again. Omit the gelatin. Add the cream, vinegar, and salt as specified.

For the vegetable:

4 oz smoked pork belly or thick-cut bacon; diced 1/4″
2 carrots, peeled and brunoise
2 stalks celery, peeled and brunoise
small bunch chives
2-3 branches thyme
salt and white pepper

Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the diced smoked pork. Fry until crisp but not hard. Drain and set aside. Add the carrots to the fat and sauté until just becoming tender; add the celery and continue to cook until both are tender. Combine with the lardons and herbs; season to taste.

For the rice:

1 c wild rice
4 qt water
1 tbsp salt
2 c rice bran or grapeseed oil

Bring the salted water to a boil and add the wild rice. Cook until the grains are not yet split but tender enough to bite to the interior. The grain at the interior should not be hard or chalky but the husk should remain intact. Drain well.

Spread in a single layer on Silpat or parchment on a half sheet pan. Place in a 160F oven for about 45 minutes until the rice is dry to the touch and, when bitten, seems firm and dry but not rock-hard.

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Heat the oil in a deep pan allowing at least 4″ headspace (preferably 6″ or more). Once the oil reaches 370F, drop the rice in small batches (not more than 2 tbsp at a time). It will fall to the bottom of the pan and rise immediately, the oil boiling furiously. Skim immediately and drain on paper towels.

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To assemble the soup, place 2 portions of crisp pork belly in a shallow bowl with about 1/4 c vegetables and 1/4 c puffed wild rice. Garnish with celery leaves and parsley. Pour the bisque around and serve immediately.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Fruit, Pork Products, preserving

Just peachy.

Now that we’ve comfortably settled into autumn, I can admit that I kind of hate summer. I don’t talk about this very much because people seem to consider it roughly equivalent to being a Communist or a baby-eater. Summer-dislike is a relatively new thing, just since I moved to the sweaty mid-Atlantic at the millenium. I grew up in Milwaukee, where, starting sometime late in spring every year, the local forecasts remind area residents that it’s “cooler by the lake,” and you can look forward to wearing shorts and drinking beer outside. In the Milwaukee of my childhood, and probably even today with climate change and all, you can count on daytime highs of 75 to maybe, maybe 85 degrees at the lakefront. You turn off the air conditioner and open the windows at night so you can hear the crickets. In Washington/Baltimore, you can count on stagnant 95 degree days like being smothered by sopping hot towels. Even at midnight, you can find yourself standing in the dark, soaked in sweat, mainlining Gatorade and begging for the sweet release of death.

Unlike the celebrated summer of the Great Lakes, the months between Memorial and Labor Day out east are good for two things only, which admittedly are pretty good. One is the beach, which is self-explanatory. The other is farm stands, with their array of limited-time-only goodies like sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, and stone fruit. Nothing against apples and oranges, of course, but they store so well that they’re available, and fine quality, all year. Try buying a decent peach in December, though. It doesn’t exist; the only available specimens were picked weeks earlier, rock-hard and barely golden, in another hemisphere, and soften into rosy-looking but cottony imitations of the real thing.

When peaches come into season, their partisans go crazy. In the classic Seinfeld episode “The Doodle,” Kramer extols the virtues of the Mackinaw peach, an elusive (and fictional) treat from Oregon available for only two weeks a year. “It’s like having a circus in your mouth!” Evidently, the Mackinaw peach has become a holy grail of peaches for many fruit enthusiasts; Google “mackinaw peach” for numerous accounts of disappointed peach fiends who go hunting only to be mocked and turned cruelly away. In too good to be true fashion, the Portland Food Group discussion about Mackinaw peaches devolved almost immediately into hostile foodie one-upmanship. If you thought PDX was all about laid back, flannel-wearing potheads, think again.

So don’t go looking for Mackinaw peaches, or annoy the PDX food community with well meaning questions about their seasonal treat. It doesn’t exist. And now that it’s a little late in the season, the remaining peaches in markets aren’t the juice gushers of mid-July and August. Don’t let them go to waste, though – pickle them. You won’t taste a more delicious combination than pickled peaches with any smoked meat. Brisket, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, duck – all are vastly improved by the addition of the pickled peaches.

Pickle brine seems like a no-brainer to pour down the drain. Don’t do it! As is the case with boozy peaches, a lot of the peach flavor leaches out into the pickling liquid. Strain and keep it refrigerated for use in shrubs or cocktails like the Kentucky Pig & Peach. NB: the first dish I ever developed was an emulsion of dill pickle juice (Vlasic or Claussen) and butter. I was four years old. Pickle butter is the shit when you smear it on Triscuits.

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Smoked pork belly, chicharrón, pickled peach
In this dish, a smoked cured belly – basically bacon – serves as the foil to the sweet-tart peaches. If you like some kind of starch with your meats, grits or creamed corn are the way to go.

This dish has multiple components, each requiring multiple steps. If you can’t deal with all of them, you can get the gist of the flavor combination by making the pickled peaches, and then preparing the pork through the poaching phase. Slice, brown the fat side, and serve with pickled peaches on the side.

Start the pork at least two days and up to a week before service. You’ll cure overnight, then smoke and poach the next day. If you have time, weight the belly for a great firm texture and even thickness.

For the pork:

1 lb belly, trimmed of skin (reserve skin for chicharrón, below)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp white pepper
peppercorns, thyme and bay

2 quarts chicken stock
1 inch chunk yellow rock sugar
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1/4 c usukuchi soy
1 head garlic, sliced along equator

1/4 c white wine vinegar (same as used in the peach pickle)
2 shallots, minced
1 c dry, floral white wine
2 c smoked pork stock (from braise)
bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2″ section of licorice root
1 star anise
6 tbsp unsalted butter.

Combine the salt, sugar, and white pepper. Coat the belly evenly with the seasoning and place with peppercorns, thyme, and bay in a vessel just large enough to hold the belly. Cure under refrigeration, turning over after 12 hours. If you have extra time, cure up to 4 days and turn after each.

Rinse the cured belly and pat dry. Set up a smoking apparatus with charcoal and apple or hickory wood chunks (I use an offset smoker) and smoke the belly at 180F for 3 hours.

Combine the stock, sugar, thyme, soy, and the garlic. When it comes to a simmer, add the smoked belly. Simmer until just tender, about 2 hours. Remove the belly from the liquid; strain and set aside. If you have time, seal in a bag or wrap in clingfilm and chill down; then place in a small container, about the same size as the belly. Top with another container or cutting board and weight, refrigerated, at least four hours.

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For the reduction:

Prepare the reduction. Bring the shallot and vinegar to a simmer in a saucepot over medium low heat. When the vinegar has reduced to au sec, add the wine and reduce again to au sec. Add the stock, herbs, and spices and reduce by about 2/3. Strain through a chinois and mount with cold butter.

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To serve, cut the belly into 1×2″ rectangles. Score the fat on top and place, fat side down, in a hot pan over medium heat for 2 minutes. Transfer to a 250F oven for another 6 minutes. Serve the seared belly atop the reduction and the pickled peach purée, and serve with a chicharrón.

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For the chicharrón:

skin from pork belly
grapeseed or rice bran oil

Scrape as much fat as possible from the underside of the skin. Divide into several strips about 1″ wide.

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Place the skin in a sauce pot with water and bring to a boil. Boil for about an hour, until gelatinous and flexible. Add more water, if necessary, to keep the skins completely submerged during boiling.

Drain and, when cool, trim any remaining fat from the skins. Place on a silpat on a sheet pan and dry in a 160F convection oven for 2-4 hours (times will vary based on the thickness of the skin) until completely dry and glassy. Cool completely. Store in a tightly covered container – if you have a silica dehydrator pack, add it to the container. You can store these for a fairly long time, but with a silica pack, they may become too dry to puff well at some point, so try to use them within a month.

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To cook, bring a pot of grapeseed or rice bran oil to 360F. Break the skins into chips about 3/4″ square and add not more than two at a time to the oil. Using a spider, keep turning the chips as they puff. Once they have completely puffed, remove and drain on paper towels; salt and serve immediately.

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For the pickled peach:

2 lbs peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced into 12-16 slices each (depending on size)
1 c white wine vinegar (champagne is best)
1 c filtered water
1/2 c + 1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
4 star anise
about 2 dozen Pondicherry (true red) peppercorns [Note: this is not the same as pink peppercorn; substitute black if unavailable]
4-6 dried jasmine flowers (elderflower is great also)

Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, spices, and flowers and bring just to a boil, ensuring the salt and sugar are dissolved.

Divide the peaches among mason jars and pour the pickling liquid evenly over them, distributing the spices and flowers. Chill down and store. The peaches will be mildly pickled after about 6 hours and are optimal at 2-7 days.

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As depicted in the photo, the peaches and their pickling liquid have been blended to a sauce. Blend all the peaches (sans spices or flowers) with enough pickling liquid to achieve a medium-bodied purée.

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Kentucky Pig & Peach

I developed this recipe to use up a bottle of bacon-flavored vodka a friend brought possibly as a hostess gift and possibly to razz me. That’s the “pig.” But during a recent visit to Kentucky’s MB Roland craft distillery, we picked up a bottle of Black Dog – basically white dog in which dark-fired (smoked) corn constitutes part of the mash. That kind of smoky white dog is even better in this drink, if you can get it.

Don’t use pickling brine from the first two days of pickling to make this drink; it won’t be peachy enough, and somewhat too sour. Whatever brine you don’t use to make this drink you can strain into a clean container and keep for months in your refrigerator.

Final note: as with most things, better ingredients = better cocktail. But it’s dumb to waste really top drawer booze on a mixed drink. Use something decent, like Maker’s Mark, but don’t use your single-barrel whiskies; save those for sipping.

For two cocktails:

1 1/2 oz vinegar from pickled peaches
2 oz bourbon
2 oz smoked white dog [MB Roland’s Black Dog] or bacon vodka
6 drops barrel-aged sorghum bitters
2 large ice cubes, plus extra

Stir all the ingredients besides the ice cubes. Place one large cube in each of two old-fashioned glasses. Strain the cocktail over ice and serve. A little sprig of mint would not be out of place.

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Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southeast Asian, Summer, Vegetables

Be inspired.

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
Fish sauce

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:

225F oven.

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.

Corn in circulator.

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.

Oven 250F/121C.

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.

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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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Pork Products, Random Thoughts

False.

Sometimes things aren’t what they appear to be. When I was a child one of my favorite things was the safekeeping box, made to hold jewelry and other valuables, that looks like a book. In the National Palace Museum in Taipei resides a slab of jasper – brownish red and layered like meat – that presents an uncanny resemblance to a chunk of soy sauce-braised pork. Once, I stayed in a Barcelona hotel whose ceiling and walls were painted to resemble the sky. Imitation – to amuse or deceive – has been practiced throughout history. This also is true of food. Heston Blumenthal’s bag of tricks includes an homage to the medieval British practice of rendering meat into fruitlike shapes. In the forgotten ancient technique, pork mince, for example, might be rolled in saffron-tinted breadcrumbs to resemble an orange, though it does not taste of orange. Unlike the original, Blumenthal’s trompe l’oeil meat fruit bears an uncanny resemblance to the fruit in question, and incorporates its flavors as well.

For Thanksgiving, I largely ceded kitchen control to my husband who, as you know, enjoys making the turkey. Because I can’t help myself, though, I insisted on making the sausage for his chestnut-sausage dressing. I bought a pork shoulder and began breaking it down, taking it off the bone and cubing it to freeze briefly before grinding. As I sliced and cubed the meat, I noticed something interesting. The slab of pork in my hand – a two inch-thick chunk including the surface fat – looked almost exactly like pork belly, down to the layers, only not quite as fatty.

Is it belly? Or is it not?

How strange, I thought. I will have to do something about that.

I finished cubing the remainder of the meat for the sausage and spread it on a sheet pan to freeze. Then I turned my attention to the chunk of shoulder on the cutting board. Some time, if I’m in a position to do so, I’m going to have a few words with the people who establish meat butchery guidelines for Whole Foods. I suspect they think they’re giving their customers a nicely-trimmed piece of pork with less waste (and fewer scary parts), but they slice all the fun right out of the pig when they trim off all the fat. One of the reasons for home cooks to buy pork at Whole Foods rather than, say, Safeway is to take advantage of the better quality Niman Ranch goods and avoid the scary, hyper-mass-farmed Smithfield product. Better pig-raising conditions, better meat quality. Sadly, Whole Foods takes care to trim every last scrap of fat off the pork, taking with it all the flavor and texture. Not only that, but you can’t get the good parts of the pig half the time – no belly, no leg, no cheek or jowl, rarely a bone-in butt or a fresh ham. It’s as though they didn’t get the memo that the Other White Meat slogan is passé.

Back to the cutting board. This shoulder slab could pass for belly, which, if you were just reading my tirade against Whole Foods, is not easy to find at retail outside Asian markets. I would have had a larger chunk if I’d noticed earlier, but the portion I had would have to do. I cured the pork under weights as though it were belly – in a dry brine of salt and sugar – and laid it atop thyme branches and bay. After a few days, I sealed and cooked it, sous vide, at 144F/62C, for 36 hours. The resulting product was tender and a little fatty, not quite as rich as fresh belly, but similar. Its texture and flavor was quite like braised bacon, which I make from my own house-cured pork.

False belly

To butcher the false belly, remove the bone from a pork shoulder (picnic). The butt end does not usually present the right type of fat striation for this preparation. Do not trim the surface fat. If you have a skin-on shoulder and plan to cook the meat sous vide, remove the skin using a very sharp knife but leave as much fat as you can. Look for the portion along the skin side where the fat and meat are layered. Lay the pork shoulder flat on that skin side and slice a little more than two inches above and parallel to the skin. The portion on the board is your false belly. Trim it into 2″ x 2″ cubes or long, two inch-wide, strips. The remaining pork is perfect for sausage or cubed for a pork stew.

Cure the belly:

Per 500g (1.1 lbs) meat:

25g (1 1/2 tbsp) salt (not iodized)
25g (1 1/2 tbsp) sugar
thyme branches
bay leaf

Combine the salt and sugar. Distribute evenly on the meat. Arrange meat-side down in a nonreactive pan (stainless, ceramic, or lexan) atop thyme branches and bay, tightly together. Cover and weight. Cure under refrigeration for not fewer than 24 hours but not more than four days.

Remove from cure and rinse; pat dry. Season with a pinch of espelette pepper and seal with 50g butter/500g pork in foodsafe plastic. Vacuum pack.

Top side.

Bottom side.

Place in an immersion circulator or sous vide supreme for 36 hours at 140F/60C [note – I prepared it at 144F/62C but, if I had to do it again, I would lower the temperature slightly]. The meat will be cooked to medium. Alternatively, oven braise at 220F in chicken stock with bay leaf, thyme, garlic, and one piece of rock sugar for about 4 hours. Be sure the top layer of fat remains above the liquid. Use a parchment lid as well as the pot’s lid.

Remove from the circulator and unpack. If you have time, wrap the pork in plastic wrap and place it in a container, cover with another flat container and weight. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and then square off.

300F oven.

Before serving, score the top layer of fat. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add duck fat, pork fat, or clarified butter. Heat the false belly, meat side-down, for a minute; turn over to skin side-down and place in the oven. Heat through. Serve with accompaniments of choice, such as bitter greens. As depicted below, the false belly is served with duck confit, judion beans braised in pork stock, fried breadcrumb, and “cassoulet” flavors.

pork belly, duck confit, judion, breadcrumb.

False belly, closer in.

Below is a photo of braised house-cured belly I prepared this summer, when our fennel was in bloom. Can you see the difference? The fat layers are thicker and more distinct. But if you’re looking to substitute for belly – either because you can’t find it, or because you want something a little less fatty – this false cut may serve your purposes nicely.

True pork belly, apricot fluid gel, fennel blossom.

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Dessert, Pasta, Pork Products, Salad, Soup, Vegetables

Dinner party.

Before moving to Baltimore, we lived in Washington DC, where we both still work. As strange as this sounds, it takes more effort to see the people who live within a couple of miles than our old friends in DC. So on Saturday night, we had a little dinner party with just friends from Baltimore. Here’s the recap.

First – after a bite of fennel sausage with tomato jam – was a light salad of white button mushrooms, Pink Lady apples, and celery.

Next, cauliflower soup with roasted cauliflower and crouton.

Third, spaghetti with sea urchin roe and whitefish caviar (actually, I prepared risotto with sea urchin roe for the party. I made the spaghetti Sunday night to use up the rest of the roe).

Fourth, roast pork belly, with fennel and braised bunashimeiji and oyster mushrooms.

We finished with matcha panna cotta and 73% bittersweet chocolate.

Stay tuned for the recipes if you’d like to try any of these dishes.

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