Equilibrium-Brined Pork Belly

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Brining has been in the culinary home cook’s lexicon for the better part of maybe 15 years now. I first heard about it in a beloved episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” where he brines the Thanksgiving turkey. It sounded so damn cool and science-y. It is a powerful trick that anyone can do and can make the difference between a tough dry pork chop or a juicy succulent one. It’s a cheap and easy process too, all you really need is salt, water and some time.

The basic idea is that soaking a protein in a salt solution will make for a juicier meat and makes it more forgiving should you err on the side of overcooking, especially for a piece of very lean meat like a chicken breast. The benefit of the addition of some sugar or other flavorings is debatable but I usually add some too. I’ve come to learn over the years of different types of “brining” besides dunking the whole piece of meat into a vat of salt and water. There is dry brining, rubbing the salt/flavoring mixture all over the meat without any added water. I like this a lot for whole birds. It does not make for a rubbery flaccid skin like the traditional immersion brining does. The main downside is that it typically takes a longer time (up to 3 days for a whole turkey).

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Another type is injection brining. I started using it after trying the excellent roast chicken from “Modernist Cuisine“. Just like it sounds, the brine is injected using a syringe at various spots in the meat and it diffuses and flavors the whole thing. Flavorings make an excellent addition here. This also preserves the skin of a chicken or turkey and is pretty quick. Injection brining is my preferred method to prep our Thanksgiving turkey.

Now all of these three brining methods share one important drawback. They lack precision. You are dunking, rubbing or injecting and hoping that the brine does its job in the time frame required while also trying not to leave the meat in the brine too long. Leave it too long and you have a salty piece of meat on its way to becoming a ham. The other challenge is that different parts of the meat can have different salt levels due to varying thickness. This is especially true for stuff like chicken or turkey breasts. Enter the precise process of equilibrium brining. It even sounds cool.

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This is a process I learned about also from “Modernist Cuisine” and it is the ideal way to brine meat, especially whole boneless muscles with no risk of oversalting. Just like cooking in a precisely controlled water bath (sous-vide) is a slow gentle and even process that gives you exactly the result you want, equilibrium brining is the slow precise salting of meat. Dunking the meat in a very salty brine (traditional brining) is more like cooking a steak on a hot pan. They work but need a whole lot more care and attention. Even with all the care and attention an unevenly thick protein like poultry breast will be saltier towards the tip than it would in the thick end.

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I use it a lot to prepare chicken breasts, pork chops, pork belly and to make awesome deli-style turkey breasts for sandwiches. You do need a scale for this one (but you should have one anyways!). The idea is to add only the right amount of salt that will season and never over salt the protein. What is that amount? typically a tasty steak of chop does well with about 1.5% salt for my taste. So you want 1.5% salt by weight of the combined meat AND water. It’s as easy as this:

  1. Weigh the meat and the amount of water required to keep it submerged. More often than not I use a freezer Ziploc bag for my brining. For the pork belly here, it weighed 1000 gr and the water weighed another 1000 gr.
  2. Figure out the salt percentage for the combined weight. So, (1000 + 1000) * 1.5% = 30 gr.
  3. dissolve the salt in the water and add any other flavor components you want, sugar, spices, herbs, crushed garlic, citrus zest…If you do add stuff like herbs and such, it’s a good idea (but not essential) to bring the water to a simmer and turn off the heat. Let the flavors infuse and cool COMPLETELY before brining.
  4. Add the meat to the brine and park it in the fridge. Depending on the thickness of the meat this could be anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. I typically let it sit for a good 48 hours if it is 2 inches or so thick. The beauty of this process though is that the most salt the meat can ever have in it is 1.5%. It will reach that equilibrium between the water and the content in the meat and stay there. After a few days in the fridge you will still have a perfectly seasoned juicy breast of turkey from its thin tapered end to the thick rounded edge. No risk of over-salting ever.
  5. Take the meat out of the brine, pat dry and cook it. I highly recommend cooking it sous-vide to the right temperature at this point. This is an ideal method to make delicious deli-style turkey for sandwiches.
  6. For the pork belly, I cooked it at 70 C for 24 hours to get a perfect tender meat. Usually with brined meat the juice in the bag is on the salty side. In this case the unctuous rich pork stock in the bag is a delicious side benefit. I save it and use it in all kinds of dishes. It’s a flavor bomb.

I use this type of pork belly in all kinds of dishes like tucking in buns, searing and serving on top of beans or greens or as I did in this case, in a savory bowl of soup. To make the dish doctored up some homemade pork broth with a few Japanese ingredients like mushrooms, green onions and kombu. I seasoned it with soy, mirin and sugar and I pretty much had a nice Shoyu ramen broth.

Udon-Broth

To get another texture on the meat I made cross-hatch shallow cuts in it and seared it well on the fat side. At the same time I blanched some greens to go in my soup bowl as well and seasoned them with soy sauce. I wanted noodles because, well, they make any bowl of soup better and my kids love them (who doesn’t really?). I went with hearty and thick udon noodles for this. A quick sprinkle of Togarashi spice in my bowl and this was a lovely dinner that took some “time” to make but very little effort.

pork belly udon

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Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig – 2017) A

I loved this movie. It follows Lady Bird’s last year of high school and on her way to college. It’s the story of a the young lady (played so well by Saoirse Ronan) who is smart, can be a smart ass but also feels real and grounded. She is not an adult inhabiting the body of a 17 year old. It’s a rocky senior year for her. Her family is having financial trouble, they literally live on the wrong side of the tracks. Her love life is not great and she is not part of the “cool” group at school. She tries to fix all that she percieves wrong while she is trying to get into a college that is too expensive and that she might not be good enough to get in to. This is also a film about her relationship with her mom who is a hard-working nurse. She obviously loves her daughter but their relationship is not always ideal. Then again, what parent perfectly gets along with their teenager kid? Laurie Metcalf plays the mom and delivers an excellent performance of a parent who can be judgmental but loving, wants the best for her daughter but is not willing to give her some credit too. It’s a film that loves its characters and Gerwig really hits it out of the park. Beyond the characters, it is obvious how much Gerwig loves the city of Sacramento where the film is set. We get many shots of the city reminiscent of how Woody Allen films New York is many of his movies.

Oven-Roasted Cod, White Bean Relish and Cabbage

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Cod is a bit tricky to cook unless one wants to batter it and deep fry it. We love the mild flavor and large tender flakes of a well cooked piece of cod. Cod has very little connective tissue and large meat “flakes”. So it tends to fall apart if you handle it too much trying to flip it a couple of times in a pan. I tried cooking it sous vide a couple of times and was not crazy about the result either. This method of starting it in a pan and finishing it in the oven following a short salt cure is the ideal way to get it done.

I sprinkled the fillets with a good layer of kosher salt and let them cure in the fridge for 20 minutes. This seasons and firms the fish up. I rinsed them in cold water, patted them dry and let them sit in the fridge while I prepared the rest of the dish.

Cod

The fish is the star of this plate but I wanted something sharp to offset it and a couple of different textures. I went with vaguely Spanish flavors here. I roasted red peppers, peeled them and sliced them into thin ribbons. I sauteed some diced Pancetta with onions and garlic. Then I tossed in the peppers and cooked white beans. I finished the ragout with sherry vinegar, maple vinegar, olive oil and parsley.

The cabbage was even simpler. Just thinly sliced savoy cabbage sauteed gently in butter with a little salt and pepper. Since this was part of a four-course dinner I wanted the cod’s accompaniments to function as tasty and substantial garnishes and not as filling “sides” as they might’ve been if this was a one plate dinner.

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To cook the fish I heated the oven to 375 F and got a pan going on the stove top. I seared the fish in clarified butter in the pan over medium heat for about 8 minutes. I turned it over and transferred it to the oven to finish cooking for another 8-10 minutes. The fish fillets got a very small squeeze of lemon, some thyme leaves on top and went in the center of the plate with the beans and cabbage around it.

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The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke – 1989) B+

Over a three-year period we observe a seemingly ordinary middle-class family as they go about their daily activities, work, school, car wash, dinners with friends. We get the feeling through the many minor issues they have and interactions and long silent sequences that something is off. It is very much off.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Neal McDonagh – 2017) A-

When Mildred perceives that the local cops in the small town of Ebbing are not doing enough to find out who killed her teenage daughter she rents and puts up 3 billboards directed specifically against chief of police, Willoughby. Her actions trigger a series of events and escalations where tempers and prejudices are right under the surface. It does not matter that Willoughby is a good guy doing the best he can. It is scorched earth for Mildred and everyone in her path will pay. In typical McDonagh style the film mixes dark funny tones right before crazy scenes of horrific violence raw honest emotion.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach – 2017) A-

Adam Sandler really is a very good actor when he wants to be. He usually chooses to make shit movies. In this case he does an excellent job as Danny, the oldest Meyerowitz sibling. He’s a bit down on his luck, has a bad hip and a free-spirited daughter about to go to college. He is not as successful as his brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) who lives in Los Angeles, has a good career as an architect and a good family life. Their sister, Jean (played so amazingly well by Elizabeth Marvel) is demur, soft-spoken and seems stunted somehow. Their father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), is quiet the character. He’s an old curmudgeon, an opinionated sculptor who holds himself in very high regard. It is an excellent family drama centering around a father who everyone loves even if they don’t like everything about him. When he gets hurt shortly before the opening of a small exhibit to honor him, the siblings are forced to interact more than they had in years. It is a funny movie but it is not a comedy. It can be sad, tough and honest as well. That is a tough balance to strike but Baumbach and his excellent cast make it work.

Manresa: Assorted Potatoes, Curds and Whey, Norinade

Potatoes-Curds-Norinade4The Manresa cookbook from the three- star restaurant of the same name in California is a beautiful, inspiring and thoughtfully written book. I read it cover to cover and frequently flip through it to read various parts every so often. Chef David Kinch got my attention when he was featured on a season of The Mind of A Chef on PBS especially the episode about how he builds a menu. It’s fascinating stuff to me. I had not cooked anything from the book until now though.

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It immediately captured my attention when I saw the picture and read the name. Norinade? What the hell is that. This is basically a dish of potatoes and cheese, but Norinade just had a nice ring to it. It’s a play on the traditional tapenade, the Provencal dip made of mashed up olives, capers and anchovies. Instead of olives though, chef Kinch makes it with seaweed, specifically nori sheets like the ones used in sushi rolls. It is deep black in color, looks like tapenade but tastes very different with brightness and sea flavor. It perfectly accentuates the freshly made curds and dense potatoes.

To make it I simmered shallots, garlic and onions in plenty of olive oil before adding minced toasted nori sheets and allowed the mixture to cool and infuse. I drained the solids and minced them very well to a chunky paste before loosening with the reserved oil and seasoning with soy sauce and Champagne vinegar. The idea is to get a sharp and pungent mixture so that only a few drizzles are enough to add a kick of umami flavor.

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Potatoes-Norinade

The potatoes are cooked in two ways. First we have the soft ones. I used a mixture of colors of small specimens. These are simmered in salted water with aromatics (garlic, thyme, rosemary…) until tender. I then peeled them and tossed in a little oil. The other batch is cooked in very little water but plenty of salt in a pressure cooker for only a few minutes. This makes them very soft, seasons them and does not allow them to absorb a lot of water. I then tore them to rough 1-inch pieces and let them dry on a plate in the fridge uncovered. When ready to serve the potato chunks are fried in oil to get lovely crispy nuggets.

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It is so easy to make a simple fresh cheese at home that I always wonder why I do not make more of it. Just mix in some whole milk and a little cream along with a tablet of rennet (or liquid rennet drops) and gently warm to about 180 F or so. Do not boil it or the enzyme will deactivate and not work properly. When the curds form a solid mass, let the mixture sit for another hour, then strain into a cheesecloth. The longer it sits in the cheesecloth to drain the drier it gets. This one sat for about 20 hours and was the texture of firm ricotta. I also reserved the whey that was produced since it is effectively the sauce for the dish. Whey is a great medium to cook in as well, like braising some pork in it for example.

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The whey goes in a small pan with lemon juice and some salt. Using my stick blender I frothed it up very nicely as it warmed up and added in a couple of tablespoons of butter. For the larger sized potatoes I cut them in half and the others remained whole. These got warmed up gently in the microwave and were the first items to go on the plates. I divided up the crispy potatoes next and 5 or 6 nuggets of cheese in each bowl. Then I sauced with some of the Norinade and the frothed whey mixture. A final garnish of thyme leaves finished the dish up.

Whey Foam

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