Q&A, Science, Vegetables

Warmed over.

A reader asks whether cooking food sous vide, chilling down, and retherming at serving time really incurs any time savings for the home cook. A discussion of cook-chill and retherming, and some chat about simultaneous vegetable cookery, on the Retherming page.

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.

Italian, Lamb., Offal, Pasta, Random Thoughts, Science

The story of the lamb, as told by the belly.

We didn’t eat lamb in my house when I was growing up. It wasn’t a taste my family enjoyed. As I understood it, this anti-lamb sentiment had its origins in my father’s graduate school days at the University of Wisconsin. Back in the Sixties, he shared a house on Johnson Street with a couple of guys – also foreign students – who enjoyed cooking lamb at every opportunity. More accurately, in my dad’s recounting, they enjoyed cooking cheap cuts of lamb day and night with the kitchen windows closed, filling the house with the pungent, fatty odor, putting him off lamb for good.

On account of that experience, my mother never cooked lamb, and the only time I remember trying it as a kid was during Thanksgiving weekend 1978. We went up to Wausau, up in north central Wisconsin, where my dad’s friends and fellow political science colleagues Joe and Angie Burger lived in an old farmhouse. Maybe it’s because Joe is Czech, or something, but instead of turkey, we had mutton for the holiday. Unless you have an inside source, mutton is pretty hard to come by these days in the United States, for good reason. It’s a really tough, strongly-flavored meat. It’s basically adult sheep – lamb past its eating prime – and even back then I don’t think our dinner was retail mutton, if you get my drift. I wasn’t expecting Thanksgiving mutton, and I don’t think my dad was, either. Like any polite adult, he sliced it up, put it in his mouth piece by piece, and chewed, staring straight ahead and chasing it with wine. I don’t know if I ate it or just moved it around my plate under my Brussels sprouts. My three year-old brother was a real glutton for turkey and I think he might have cried when confronted with the mutton. All I remember for sure about that holiday was that my brother split his chin open getting out of the tub, and driving around the woods of northern Wisconsin, going deer hunting with the professors. Kind of a bloody weekend, in retrospect.

So my family’s shared food narrative, at least through the early 2000s, was that we did not eat lamb. My dad hated it, my brother hated it, I hated it, and whatever my mother really may have thought of lamb, I never saw it pass her lips. Then around 2003, in London, my dad ordered the lamb at dinner one night. “I thought you hated lamb,” I said, completely shocked. “Oh, sure,” he shrugged. “But that was before I had British lamb. British lamb is delicious. So tender and mild.” What was going on here? Had the British government kidnapped my father and replaced him with a surrogate? My now-husband looked down at his plate, smirking. He loves lamb and is always going on about how it’s so full of “lamby goodness.” I was outnumbered, Lisa Simpson in a land of lamb-eaters.

I like lamb now. There’s still something about the taste – I can’t eat too much of it. If you’re like me, and find the taste of lamb a little funky, maybe it’s the lamb, not you. According to culinary scientist par excellence Harold McGee, the distinctive taste of lamb may be down in part to the presence of skatole, a compound that comes from grazing on clover and alfalfa, and contributes a “barnyardy” element to pork as well, at least in the fattier cuts of heritage breeds. And it’s true – that flavor hasn’t been sanitized out of lamb in the way of today’s “other white meat”-style pork loin. Other reputable sources report that alkyl- and thiophenols are responsible for the characteristic “lambiness” of lamb, as is thymol – one of the phenolic compounds responsible for thyme’s distinctive quality. That seems plausible, because you definitely can get too much skatole. Present in both the meat and fat, skatole can push lamb past the smell of goats and sheep out in the pasture, beyond hay, toward manure and worse, and is responsible for the rich, mulchy, faintly rotting smell of jasmine and orange blossom as well. In other words, “barnyardy” is a polite term for something more pungent, since skatole shares the same origins as the word “scatological.” You get where I’m going with this, so if you have an uncomfortable relationship with lamb, that could be why. Strangely, as much as the pungency of skatole can put me off, the dish that brought me over to the lamb side was a frugal sauté of potato scraps in lamb fat.

No part of the animal tastes more of the lamb than its belly. Also known as the breast, the belly is the tough cut from the outside of the ribcage along the chest of the lamb. If the loin chops represent the loin eye inside the rib bones as they curve down from the spine, the belly represents the the muscle and fat layer outside the rib cage as it closes along the sternum. Lamb is by definition young, tender, and relatively lean, and the lamb belly is neither as thick nor as fatty as the corresponding portion of the pig, nor is it as tough. Even so, it can be prepared in the same way – braised, cooked sous vide at low temperatures, cured like bacon. And, unlike pork belly, it has not become ridiculously expensive. If you can find it – and in this case, a willingness to work with bigger cuts of meat and an unhealthy interest in wielding large knives is useful – you can have lamb breast for next to nothing. Use the butchered bone cut for Scotch broth or Irish stew.

Thirty six hour lamb belly, orzo gratin

This may seem an esoteric preparation using an esoteric cut of meat. Not so! As I said above, lamb breast is cheap, almost a throwaway cut. The low, slow, sous vide/low temperature cooking method involves some equipment investment, but it is simple. If you don’t have the equipment, you can braise. Use the same method as pork belly braising – instructions are included. It won’t take quite as long.

The use of Activa transglutaminase permits you to glue together the relatively thin cuts of lamb belly into thicker cuts about the size of pork belly. Its use is optional and definitely esoteric. The lamb depicted below is a doubled cut bonded with Activa RM and cooked sous vide at 140F/60C.

Two lamb breasts, on the bone (sizes will vary; you will need to weigh)
kosher salt, 1% by weight or roughly 1 tsp per pound
sugar, .5% by weight, or roughly 1/2 tsp per pound
garlic confit, one per tsp of salt
thyme branches
optional: Activa transglutaminase (RM or GS), 0.75% by weight

Cut each belly from the bone in a flat piece. Weigh and calculate the required amount of salt and sugar. Combine the salt, sugar, and garlic confit; rub on both sides of each belly. Lay atop thyme branches and place thyme on the top side as well. Cover and weight. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, up to 72.

If using Activa to make double-thick portions of belly, scrape off any garlic paste and sprinkle Activa RM powder or spray Activa GS slurry on the meat side of each belly. Press together and tie. Seal with a few thyme leaves in vacuum bags and weight. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, up to 24. If not using Activa, simply seal with the vacuum bags and proceed.



Place in an immersion circulator or sous vide supreme for 36 hours at 140F/60C. The meat will be cooked just to medium.

Alternatively, if not cooking sous vide/low temp, place a pot large enough to hold the belly over medium heat. Bring just enough chicken stock to cover the bellies to a simmer with bay leaf, thyme branches, and garlic confit. Add the bellies, and then place in a 220F oven for three hours. Be sure the top layer of fat remains above the liquid. Use a parchment lid as well as the pot’s lid. The meat will not be pink as pictured below because of the increased heat.

Remove from the circulator (or oven) and unpack. (If not preparing immediately, follow appropriate chilling and storage procedures.) Cut into squares. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add duck fat, pork fat, or clarified butter. Place the lamb belly squares, meat side-down, for about 30 seconds; turn over to skin side-down and brown for another minute.

Serve with orzo gratin and Brussels sprouts, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds, drained on towels, and sautéed in hot duck fat.

36 hour belly.

Orzo gratin

It’s basically just macaroni and cheese. Sheep’s milk cheese complements the lamb belly nicely; black truffle is a classic winter pairing. If you don’t want to deal with the lamb belly, at least make the gratin.

Why do I toss the orzo with oil when it is common knowledge that you should not oil your pasta any more than you should rinse it in cold water before saucing? Because baked pastas tend to absorb large quantities of liquid, and if you don’t coat your orzo with the merest bit of oil before baking, it will emerge from the oven pasty, oily, and mushy, not coated with a creamy, cheesy sauce. The oil protects the orzo, which is so small and has so much surface area that it cannot withstand much contact with sauce before soaking it all up.

8 oz orzo
1 tsp grapeseed or other neutral oil (or clarified butter)
3 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
3 tbsp Wondra
one small onion, peeled and small dice 1/4″
2 c whole milk
5 oz Sottocenere al tartufo, coarsely shredded
3 oz Robiola (inside only) or another mixed sheep’s milk cheese
one black truffle, thinly sliced
salt (truffle salt would be a great choice)
1/2 c fresh breadcrumbs
thyme leaves

Oven 400F/205C.

Cook the orzo in salted, boiling water until just al dente and drain. Do not rinse. Toss in colander to break up lumps. When cool, stir with 1 tsp neutral-flavored oil or clarified butter. Set aside.

Place a saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. Add the onion and sweat until tender. Do not brown. Add the rest of the butter and, when melted, add the Wondra. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, to cook out the floury taste. Add the milk, slowly, stirring. Bring to a simmer and cook out to a bubbling and somewhat thickened texture, about ten minutes. Strain through a chinois into vitaprep (or blender) and add the cheeses. Purée.

Season with salt. Combine with orzo and thinly shaved truffle slices. Pour into a gratin dish. Top with breadcrumbs mixed with thyme. Bake until bubbling and browned.

Orzo gratin

Orzo gratin, sottocenere al tartufo, sliced burgundy truffle.

Beef, Random Thoughts, Science

Brisket en sous vide.

I took the new Sous Vide Supreme (SVS) for a spin last night – or rather, all weekend, starting Friday night. As I wrote here, I’ve been cooking food sous vide for a few years using a fairly ramshackle, cobbled-together setup, but because it’s ramshackle and cobbled-together, I haven’t felt comfortable using it for long-duration cooking. Having acquired a piece of equipment that is far less ramshackle, I decided to test it out on one of my favorite cheap cuts of beef – the brisket.

There’s nothing better than a thinly sliced brisket, still a little pink, with the pockets of melting fat. If you’ve had brisket at a really good deli, you know what I mean. It’s been brined, so it’s nicely seasoned, and when you bite into it, you get the beefy taste, plus the fatty texture, and the salt. It also can be hard to achieve at home – braising often involves cooking at too high a temperature, and simmering can toughen the meat if executed improperly, even for a short time. Sous vide provides the solution, but I haven’t been willing to execute it with my cobbled together setup. With the SVS, though, it seemed possible – long cooking at controlled temperatures just high enough to break down the collagen into gelatin.

So I gave it a shot. I brined the brisket for about 24 hours in a 6% salt, 3% sugar solution (meaning 60 g salt and 30 g sucrose per 1000 g or 1 liter of water). When preparing the brine, I dissolved the salt and sugar in about 200 ml of water first, and simmered it, lid on, with coriander seed, peppercorns, thyme, and bay leaf, to infuse the brine. (Unlike surface aromatics, which only flavor the surface of meat, aromatics in brine do flavor the entirety of the meat during the brining process.) Then I chilled down the brine in the freezer before diluting with 800 ml of ice cold water. Why is this important? Because sous vide cooking takes place at a relatively low temperature, product should remain cold and below the pathogen danger zone (5C/40F to 60C/140F) as long as possible before use.

After 24 hours, I removed the brisket from the brine, wiped it dry, sealed it in plastic, and removed the air using the vacuum sealer. I placed the sealed brisket on the SVS rack and placed it in the SVS, set to 63C, and left it alone for 42 hours. When I removed it, I wiped it dry and seared it in a little butter for about 35 seconds each side.

The results were spectacular. The brisket was still pink inside, completely tender, beefy, and laced with pockets of warm fat. I was afraid the 6% brine might be a little salty but the beef was seasoned perfectly.

42 hour brisket/63C

I have to give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the SVS. It delivered.

42h brisket, syrah demi, crispy shallot, savoy cabbage.