Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cooking the Book - Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook - Red Braised Pork

After reading her memoir “Sichuan Pepper and Shark’s Fin Soup”, I knew that I had to get my hands on Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbooks. At the end of one of the chapters in “Sichuan Pepper” there was the recipe for Mao Zedong’s favorite dish: red braised pork belly. Thankfully that recipe was included in Dunlop’s second cookbook, “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from the Hunan Province”.

I knew this recipe would be a great use for the pork belly I had picked up at Star Provisions in Atlanta.

Having set the belly to defrost, I started on getting the rest of the ingredients ready and set up.

I suppose the simplicity of this dish reflects Mao’s humble beginnings.

These are all the spices for the dish: a small piece of cassia, three dried chilies, one star anise, and an inch of ginger (sliced, skin on)

Once the pork had fully defrosted, I followed Dunlop’s recipe and dropped the pork into a pot of boiling water and simmered for 4-5 minutes.

Nothing quite as exciting as seeing a big piece of fatty pork quietly simmer. Luckily, we have a tv in the kitchen.

After retrieving the belly from the pot of water, I let it rest on the cutting board.

I know its pork belly, but there seems to be a suspicious lack of meat in this cut of meat.

With the pork having a chance to rest, I took my knife to the pork belly.

Just about bite sized.

Next, I took 2 tablespoons of peanut oil and white sugar.

Put them in a cold wok, and started them over a low heat.

The idea is to melt the sugar until it turns a rich, caramel color. I know it’s a bad picture, but you can see how dark the sugar can get.

Now we can really get going with the dish.

I added the pork into the wok along with a tablespoon of Shaoxing cooking wine. You can already see how the dish gets the name of red braised pork.

Add enough water to cover the pork.

Add the spices, bring to a boil and then turn to a simmer for 40-50 minutes.

With a little time and heat, the pork went from this:

To this

Ending up with this

Per Fuchsia’s instructions, I had turned up the heat the last 5-10 minutes, just to thicken up the sauce.

I tried the dish, and I had no idea what to expect. It was a delightfully sweet dish that had the slightest chili undertone. The smell was the real dealmaker. The entire house smelled like a Chinese kitchen, and I love that smell.

Before serving, I did add a little soy sauce, just to cut through the sweetness. I’m not sure if this is a dish I could enjoy on a regular basis, much less the twice daily dose that Mao enjoyed. I see how the Chairman’s doctors encouraged him to cut down on the red braised pork, but I suppose you must have a high fat meal when you’re starving millions of your own people.

Cooking the Book - Abita Beer: Cooking Louisiana True - Abita Turbodog Shortribs

Last weekend when I was in New Orleans, I stumbled upon a new cookbook: The Abita Brewery cookbook. Being a longtime fan of the New Orleans area beer, I knew I had to have it. Once I got home with the book, I was pleasantly surprised that the recipes weren’t from the brewery but were from friends of the brewery and well known chefs in the New Orleans area. As good as all the recipes sound, I decided to start a hearty recipe, turbodog short ribs, courtesy of Agnes Bellet, the executive chef at Louis XVI in New Orleans.

Before I could start cooking the short ribs, I knew I had to have a quart of beef or veal stock. Luckily I had some shank bones from my trip to Houston.

Being an impatient man, I decided to forgo the defrosting and get right on with the roasting. With the shank bones from El Tiempo market resting on a bed of carrots, celery, and onion, I put them in the oven for an hour to roast.

As impatient as I am, I am also forgetful, so things got a little toasty. Even with some charred onions, everything seemed good enough to throw into the pot.

I filled with cold water and added garlic, a bay leaf, and small handful of peppercorns.

Four or so hours seemed to go by in a flash.

Everything had reduced nicely and a quick taste confirmed that there wasn’t any charred taste to the mixture.

I chilled the stock, strained through cheesecloth, and got ready to start with the short ribs.

Another fine product of el Tiempo Market in Houston, these short ribs were a perfect base for the dish.

These ribs did have nice marbling and thick fat cap.

I liberally salted and peppered all sides of the ribs and heated my pot on the stove.

As soon as these ribs hit the pan, they started a beautiful sizzle.

Not a bad crust

With all sides of the ribs seared, I took them out of the pot and added in the carrots and onions.

Soon it was time for the garlic and a minute later, a quarter cup of flour.

After another minute or so of cooking, it was time for the raison d’etre of this dish, a bottle of Abita Turbodog.

I poured in the bottle and deglazed the pan.

With everything nice and deglazed, I added in the quart of beef stock and returned the short ribs to the pot.

Lacking any fresh thyme, I added about a teaspoon of dried thyme.

I slapped on the top.

and then put everything in a 350 degree preheated oven for a nice two hour bath.

At the end of two hours, I retrieved the pot from the oven and opened it to find this.

Looks can sometimes be deceiving, but not in this case. This dish is as rich as it looks.

The recipe actually calls for the short ribs to be taken out again in order to reduce the gravy, but a small sample revealed otherwise.

With meat that fell off the bone and an unctuous sauce that was thick yet silky, I saw little reason to condense it even more.

You can see how much the gravy reduced during its time in the oven. I can’t figure out why you would want anything thicker.

I love a precocious beginning, and I believe that these short ribs qualify as a precocious start for the Abita cookbook. I can’t wait to get a chance to try out some more of the recipes; my only problem might be sourcing the necessary beer. Even though I can be in Louisiana in 40 minutes, I can’t get all of the Abita beers in Jackson. Isn’t that the damnedest thing?

The Crawfish Hut - Jackson

As I’ve previously mentioned the Fall is a special time; football is on, the holidays are coming, and the most important food of the year is on the way: crawfish. Granted it’s not February, but we’re not in the heart of good crawfish season, and last Sunday was the perfect time for a crawfish lunch.

The Crawfish Hut is my crawfish provider of choice.

Yes, it does look like a shack but this is the South, and sometimes the best food in the region comes from a shack.

These inconspicuous little cooler hold a bounty of goodness that few yankees will ever experience.

I realize the picture is hazy, but that’s a good thing. These crawfish are fresh from the boiler and full of spicy goodness.

I usually forgo the corn and take home a few potatoes to break the monotony.

Once home, I set the cooler on the counter, get the necessary beverages and paper towels and get to work.

It might seem like a daunting task. Sure you have to pull the little mudbugs in half, get the tail meat out, and suck the head, but it’s worth all the efforts. Although I have had a hard time explaining that to some visitors.

Crawfish really aren’t pleasant looking creatures. They have beady little eyes, lots of legs and pinchers, and are usually accompanied by an errant piece of swamp grass.

When you pull the sucker apart, you’re greeted with this. Many people are put off the little splotches of yellow, but they don’t know the value. That’s fat from the head, and due to the boiling, it’s full of flavor and it is delicious.

The two halves of the previously mentioned crawfish.

The aftermath, and the major downside to crawfish. There is a lot of leftover material when you eat crawfish.

Regardless, of the mess and a few squeamish yankees, I have never met a person who didn’t love Crawfish Hut crawfish, once they gave them a chance. Their crawfish are always as big as the season will allow, and they pack a spicy punch. Being next to Louisiana does have its benefits.

The Crawfish Hut on Urbanspoon
Crawfish Hut on Urbanspoon

The Joy of Lard: Carnitas & Tomatillo Salsa

For those who read this site on a regular basis, you’ll know that I am a fan of quite a few food blogs. The Paupered Chef is one of those, and a few weeks ago, he posted a story about his new year’s party.

The party featured authentic beef carnitas, and not just any carnitas, but pork that had been fried in lard for over two hours. Needless to say I was intrigued.

It so happened that I was in Houston soon after reading the article, and Houston has Fiesta supermarkets. With a Fiesta comes the ability to buy large quantities of lard.

Just glorious isn’t it? That’s two pounds of tamale lard.

The real beauty of this recipe is the simplicity. In addition to the lard, I needed about three pounds of pork shoulder.

Anthony’s Butcher shop in Jackson was able to supply with this well marbled Boston butt which was cut into three inch slabs.

All the pork needed was a simple marinade.

This is about a half cup of lime juice and tablespoon or so of salt.

I added the pork to this marinade and threw it in the fridge for about an hour. With pieces this large, I made sure to flip them a few times.

While the pork was marinating, I started making the tomatillo salsa that was needed to make the perfect carnitas soft taco. link

This presented some difficulty. I wanted to roast rather than boil the tomatillos, but my oven’s broiler is constantly on the fritz. So I decided to roast the tomatillos in the oven for a few minutes and then gave them a slight char on the stove.

They didn’t turn out too bad.

To round out the salsa, I added some lime juice and some sliced jalapenos. The last thing in the salsa was half cup of cilantro leaves.

This really is your classic green salsa. I was just worried about the amount of cilantro.

The tomatillos were first into the processor, and then everything else. A few pulses later:

A very simple salsa, but I was pleased with the results. My only real complaint is that the recipe lacked any heat. Even though I added three jalapenos, the recipe called for them to be seeded and deveined, leaving no heat at all.

With the salsa made and the pork almost finished marinating, I started to melt the lard.

Starting on medium heat, I added in the pork.

According to the Paupered Chef, the pork would start slowly with only a few lazy bubbles, but I found my experience to be quite the opposite.

Regardless, I left the pork to fry, only to come and flip it in about 45 minutes. Soon the, pork took on a beautiful golden brown color.

In no time at all, the frying bubbles had really picked up the pace.

Nearing the two hour mark, I took a look at my carnitas.

A little piece had broken off; I fished it out and took a look at my three hour investment.

I was surprised at how dense the crispy exterior was, but beyond the crispiness was an interior of tender and delicious pork.

The two larger pieces were quickly removed.

I left them to rest for a few minutes, and I then went to work, shredding them with a fork.

What do you get when you add carnitas and tomatillo salsa to a warm tortilla?

A delicious result

I suppose the real question is “was this worth the time and effort?” I’ll admit that I got a little anxious frying for two hours, but the results were tasty though not as euphoric as described on the Paupered Chef. Regardless, I was excited to have given this recipe a try, if only for the idea of frying pork in lard for multiple hours.