Tartine Baguettes

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Time for another gratuitous bread post with mostly picture. Well, these are more than just gratuitous I suppose. This is, after all, a journal for me and a record that I go back to if I want to verify something and try not to repeat mistakes. These beauties are the most delicious and damn near perfect baguettes I’ve made so far. The flavor is delightful and almost nutty. The crust and crumb are in perfect crispy/tender harmony.

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Like most of Tartine bread recipes these make use of natural leaven for the fermentation and flavor. I have posted before about how I maintain my rye sourdough starter and make the leaven in more detail here. Baguette recipe also uses a Poolish as well. Poolish is made by mixing equal parts of flour and water with a very tiny amount of instant yeast. This sits for several hours until bubbly.

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Shaping baguettes is a bit tricky because you need to handle the dough more than a boule shape for example. Too much handling can deflate the dough instead of maintaining all the flavorful bubbles in there. The Tartine book directions are pretty clear though and I got some decent baguette shapes, a total of 4 from the recipe that fit neatly on my baking stone (2 at a time).

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Good bread crust depends on steam that helps develop a thin crackly crust with lots of tiny bubble on the surface. Using the “bake in the Dutch oven” method takes care of that by trapping the steam in the pot. With long shapes like a baguette that is not a possible baking method. To trap some steam in I used a large disposable aluminum baking pan, like the one you use to bake a turkey in. This fit neatly on top of the baguettes covering them and the baking stone for the first 15 minutes of the bake time. The result was very good and simulated steam injected professional ovens well.

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I mainly baked those to go with a French bean and pork dish (next post). That’s an excellent combination of course, but these baguettes were so good with some butter and salt. They are by far better than the vast majority of baguettes you can find in town.

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Panforte di Siena with Chocolate and Rum Raisins

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As I type this I am still munching on more of this goodness that i baked about two weeks ago now. This Holiday pastry is a “bread” in as much as “short bread” is bread. It’s a delicious, nutty, spicy and chewy candy almost more reminiscent of Spanish turron than a bread or cookie. Whatever we call it, it is a wonderful and addictive Christmas time treat. It’s origin is Italian, more specifically from Tuscany and the town of Siena. It’s even usually referred to as Panforte di Siena or “strong bread of Siena”.

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As the name indicates this one is a strongly flavored preparation and is best served in thin wedges. So what’s in it this stuff? Nuts; plenty of them; dried fruit; usually including a lot of candied citrus peel; spices, sugar and honey. This recipe is courtesy of the always reliable David Lebovitz and it includes cocoa powder and dark chocolate as well.

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I opted for a combination of hazelnuts and almonds with the balance tilted more towards the hazelnuts. That was a very good choice because of the cocoa and chocolate in the recipe. The combination is a delicious classic. I toasted the hazelnuts and rubbed them in a kitchen towel while they are still warm to get rid of most of the skins.

RumRaisins

To the chopped up nuts, I added the spices (lots of cinnamon in this one, but again, it works great), chopped up candied citron, flour, a decent pinch of salt. I’m not sure why the recipe does not include salt but I think it makes sense to add it. I wanted to include some other dried fruit in the Panforte. I also figured some booze would be nice. So, I soaked about 50 gr of golden raisins in rum for a few hours and subbed those for 50 gr of the candied citron. The instruction to work the dry mixture well with your fingers is a good one. It ensures that the ingredients, especially the candied fruit, do not clump and stick together.

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Lastly, I made the syrup by heating up honey and sugar to 240 F and poured that along with melted dark chocolate on the dry ingredients. You really need a good stiff spatula or wooden spoon to mix the stuff. It is heavy and needs a strong arm to get everything incorporated. I put the mixture into a spring form pan that I had sprayed with non-stick spray and lined the bottom with a round piece of parchment.

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Since the mixture is very dark already, judging baking doneness is tricky. I went by the recipe instruction to judge it “…the center will feel soft, like just-baked custard; if you touch it, your finger will come away clean when it’s done“. That took about 40 minutes in my oven. Once it is cooled, I sprinkled it with powdered sugar and sliced it with a heavy knife. It really is great with deep rich bittersweet and spice flavors all topped off with great crispy chewy nutty textures. We ate several wedges with hot cups of coffee and stored the rest for later snacking. Along with Alton Brown’s fruitcake and Michael Ruhlman’s Aged Eggnog (although I’ve tinkered with this one a touch), this will now be another Holiday must have. Cheers!

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Lasagna al Forno: Two Excellent Versions

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We are a house divided. We are a house divided when it comes to Lasagna that is. My wife and youngest prefer the one common in the south of Italy while my oldest and I prefer the luxurious northern version. Recently I figured why not please everyone? Why not make both and let peace and awesome Italian pasta casseroles reign? So, what is the difference? Well, they are both properly called “Lasagna al Forno” meaning oven-baked Lasagna. So they both have lasagna (the actual flat noodle) and both are baked in the oven. They both have cheese and a sauce (and I am simplifying and generalizing quiet a bit here because really any dish of Lasagna noodles baked in the oven is a Lasagna al Forno).

Lasagna-Bolognese

Lasagna

The southern version has a sauce of tomatoes and meat. Most often the meats (sausage, meatballs, beef chunks, or ground beef or maybe a combo) are cooked in the tomato sauce to make a Neapolitan ragu before getting layered in the casserole with the noodles, ricotta cheese and mozzarella. First an foremost though, for me, what distinguishes this type of Lasagna from the northern version is the emphasis on the tomato sauce.

Now, the northern version is that of Bologna, the region (Emilia-Romagna) rich with dairy, pork and fat. It’s where so many delicious foods come from like Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and true balsamic vinegar. The Lasagna Bolognese is richer with a thick meaty Ragu Bolognese. It does not use ricotta and instead gets its creamy component from Balsamella, aka Bechamel sauce made from flour, butter, milk and seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg.

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To make the Bolognese meat sauce I follow a basic template I learned from Mario Batali that includes starting with finely minced pancetta, garlic, onions, carrots, garlic and celery. I like using a food processor for that to get them very fine so that they can almost melt into the sauce. For the meat I use at least two types (usually veal and pork). I get the vegetable mixture cooking very gently in olive oil and butter before stirring the meats in.

Tomato Paste

The only tomato in this sauce is a few spoons of tomato paste that gets added in with fresh thyme, white wine, a Parmesan cheese rind (yes, just like it sounds. I save those hard ends from the cheese I buy) and whole milk. The ragu simmers very gently for a couple of hours or more until everything is tender and the flavors are well melded. The end result is a thick meat sauce that is definitely on the drier side when compared with a typical tomato pasta sauce.

Pancetta

Bolognese

The sauce for the Neapolitan style lasagna contains a couple of cans of San Marzano tomato, onions, basil, oregano, garlic and -this time around for the sake of time saving- ground beef. It is a delicious sauce and tastes lighter and fresher because of all the tomato, aromatics and herbs.

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To assemble the process is similar for both casseroles. A bit of sauce on the bottom followed by noodles, sauce, ricotta or balsamella, cheese (a mix of mozzarella and Parmesan), noodles,….I like to finish with a thin layer of sauce (or blasamella in case of the Bolognese) and some more cheese. I bake the dishes covered at first to get everything bubbly and cooked through then I uncover for the last 20 minutes or so to get the cheese and top browned. As for the noodles themselves, unless I made fresh egg pasta for the dish, I never boil them anymore. For dry pasta I just let them soak in water for about an hour. They hydrate and get soft and pliable. I make sure the built lasagna is slightly on the “juicy” side so the noodles cook perfectly as the dish bakes.

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Lasagna-Napoletana

Now the hardest part is to…wait. After the dishes are baked they need to rest for a good 20 minutes. They need to settle down, cool slightly and set a bit. This will, not only make them easier to eat, but also much easier to portion and cut out cleanly without the layers falling apart. Yes, two of those are a lot of baked noodles for the four of us, but Lasagna are excellent leftovers. So we enjoyed these for a couple of more days and everyone was happy.

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Plum Tart with an Almond Crumble

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Summer is winding down supposedly, even though it is still close to 100 F out there. I do not much like summer in Houston. It’s too hot, too humid too…sunny. Autumn is by far my favorite season and I look forward to its -hopefully- lower temperatures and cooking. Summer does have some things going for it though, like the awesome fruit and sweet corn.

Fruit is what we are talking about when I bring up one of my all-time favorite desserts; the fruit tart (or pie, or gallette,…). This version, created by David Lebovitz is right up there in the Pantheon of amazing tarts. The original recipe, from his book My Paris Kitchen (great book by the way, buy yourself a copy), can also be found on Leite’s Culinaria. The original uses apricots and it is fantastic. The crumble works so well with the tart juicy fruit to add much needed texture and also helps support the fruit and all its juices. It also looks great giving the tart a rustic elegance that is a bit American and a bit French.

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I love the original apricot version but when I wanted to make this recently, no apricots could be found. So, I picked up some really delicious juicy pink plums instead (Plumcots or Pluots specifically). That is really all you need, some delicious fruit and this tart can be made with them.

The dough is pretty classic pate sucrè made with flour, sugar, butter, egg yolks and mahlab. Well, wait a minute. What the hell is mahlab?? That is not traditional French. It is my addition to this dough and to many other things to give them a unique flavor and fragrance. Mahlab is the ground up seed of a specific cherry and is used in tons of Middle Eastern and Turkish pastries and breads. I buy the stuff whole because it keeps better from a local Lebanese grocery and grind it with sugar before adding to the dough. About a half teaspoon went into this dough. You can read a bit more about it here. Since it is made from a stone fruit I like to include it in some breads and desserts that have stone fruits, but really it works in all kinds of stuff. Try it as an alternative to nutmeg in some things and it will give your dish an exotic can’t-quiet-put-my-finger-on-it flavor.

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Mahlab

When the dough is cooled, I pat it down into a spring-form pan. No rolling or anything, just evenly pat it into the pan with the sides of the dough about halfway up the side of the pan. I have tried rolling it and laying it in there. That works too but I’ve come around to using the hand patting method more. I like the process and speed by which I can get it done. It does not have to be perfect, just as even as possible and the sides close to 2 inches tall or so. This gets blind baked with a piece of aluminum and a bunch of beans for weight and then it is ready to fill and bake.

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This filling is fruit, starch, sugar and some vanilla and almond extracts. After the filling goes in the blind baked shell, it gets topped with a generous helping of crumble made from butter, flour, sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. The pie bakes for a good 45 minutes or so and the edges of the crust get a lovely dark color. It seems too dark almost but it is not, it tastes great and the texture is excellent.

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After it cools a bit, it is ready to go. It is delicious with ice cream or whipped cream of course but it is also delicious on its own at room temperature. The only downside to this lovely dessert are those juicy fruits. It does not keep very well. So, try and polish it off with some friends with in 12 – 24 hours of baking which really should not be much of a problem.

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Ivan Ramen: Toasted Rye Noodles

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Noodles are just awesome. Italian spaghetti, Vietnamese bowl of Pho, a bowl of spicy Thai curried noodles…they are all awesome. A bowl of Japanese ramen is right up there in the culinary Pantheon of noodles. I’ve had a lot of the stuff and I’ve cooked it at home a few times. I have never made the ramen noodles from scratch though. I’ve always bought them.  This time I made the labor intensive and long recipe from Ivan Ramen, the book by Ivan Orkin (well, I did have to make a few concessions when some ingredients where pretty much impossible to find). The noodles are a major component of course and I decided to make them at home this time around.

Ivan uses an interesting and non-traditional mix of flours to make the noodles including rye and some cake flour. Rye is there for flavor and the cake flour for a more supple and tender texture. Before adding the rye I toasted it for about 4 minutes to add an extra layer of flavor. The traditional ramen noodle texture is kind of firm, springy and slippery. It also has a yellow tint (NOT from food coloring). We get that by adding a substance to tilt the mix to be more alkaline. Traditionally a product called Kansui is used. According to this site it’s a mixture of Sodium and Potassium Carbonate.

Toasted Rye Noodles

I did not use Kansui. Years ago, Harold McGee published an article in the NY Times about baking some baking soda to make it perform the same job as Kansui. From the article some cool scienc-y talk (I love Mr. McGee and everyone should have his book On Food and Cooking)

“Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, which already includes one proton and so has a limited ability to take up more. But if you heat baking soda, its molecules react with one another to give off water and carbon dioxide and form solid sodium carbonate, which is proton-free.”

 In his book, Ivan also recommends using this technique. So, I baked some baking soda and added that to the mix.

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The rest was pretty easy. The flours and liquid plus baked baking soda are mixed for a good bit, about 10 minutes, in the Kitchenaid mixer. Then the dough is allowed to rest and hydrate and soften for 30 minutes. I was concerned that the cake flour will make the noodles too difficult to handle. Indeed, I needed to pass the dough a few more times through the pasta machine’s thickest setting than normal. In the end it came together well and made nice, rye-speckled, alkaline-smelling (in a good way) sheets.

I cut them on the thinnest setting and spread them in a baking pan after tossing them well with corn starch. After our first dinner a few hours later, I stored the remaining noodles in the fridge, covered in plastic wrap, to see how they keep. Again, worked out pretty well. We ate ramen for a few days to follow and the noodles did not stick or turn too brittle. The noodles are delicious. They are slippery but maintained a nice toothsome texture and had a lovely flavor that stood out to all the savory richness of a bowl of ramen. I will be making them again but I might try the Momofuku version next to see how they compare.

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Kafta – Ground Meat with Onions and Spices

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Kafta is a Lebanese kitchen cornerstone. Like Kibbeh it’s a dish, a recipe and a staple that can be made into various preparations. For minced meat to be Kafta it has to be spiced and flavored with onions and plenty of parsley. I am sure this is not written in stone anywhere and someone else’s Lebanese mom probably makes it a bit differently but this is the version I know and love.

Ideally, I like to grind my own meat. It makes for a better product but of course store-ground meat works fine as well. What type of meat? Beef, lamb, goat or a mix of these is all good. I really like a 50/50 mixture of beef and lamb. I suppose you can use a percentage of chicken in there too but I do not do that.

Kafta

Texture is an important factor here especially if you want to form them around a skewer to grill them. The onions and herbs need to be very fine. I usually grate the onions on the coarse side of a grater and mince the parsley very finely. If I was grinding my own meat I would pass the vegetables along with the meat and kill 2 birds with one stone.

Spices is where the recipes for Kafta mix can start to vary a lot. Some are heavily spiced with lots of allspice, cumin, paprika (hot or not), cinnamon, black pepper….Well again, I like what I am used to and what my family has always made. It leans towards a lighter hand with the spices and letting the main flavors be the meat and the onions. That being said, if I am not cooking for a crowd who is averse to spicy food, I do like a pinch of cayenne in the mix.

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Once the mix is done we have several methods to cook it and dishes to use it in. The first thing to try though, is the grilled Kafta. That is probably by far the most popular method to cook it even in Lebanon. Usually they are formed into long sausage shapes on skewers and grilled over charcoal. This could be just a touch tricky to get the meat evenly on skewers so don’t sweat it. Just make rough sausage shapes about 5 inches long and about 1 inch in diameter. Get a charcoal grill (or if you are in a pinch you can use the oven’s broiler) very hot and grill the Kafta to you preferred doneness. I like to cook them to about medium. That is another reason to grind your own meat. The perfect and traditional companion to Kafta? Hummus bil Tahini. The recipe for awesome Hummus is right here and you really must have it if you make grilled Kafta kebabs. They are a great match. I also like sliced onions tossed in sumac and parsley, grill-roasted (or just raw) tomatoes, various sour pickles, shredded lettuce and soft pita bread. Ideally you smear hummus on the bread, top it with meat and veggies, wrap and tuck in.

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Another favorite is to make baked Kafta casserole. This is the definition of comfort food for me. To make it form the meat mixture into small oblong shapes, maybe 2 inches in length and pan fry them in olive oil for about a minute or two per side. You do not want to cook them all the way through, just get them browned and adding flavor. In a casserole baking dish, lay thickly sliced tomatoes in the bottom and add the browned Kafta. Next add a layer of thinly sliced onions, potatoes and bell peppers. Season with salt and pepper as you go along.

Kafta-Casserole

There are no real measurement or rules here and you might need to repeat the layering depending on the size of the dish and how much filling you have or how much you like onions versus peppers,….I try to at least finish the dish with a layer of tomatoes because I like how they dry up and concentrate their flavor. Mix a cup or two of water with a tablespoon of tomato paste per cup and pour all over the dish. Again, depending on size you might need less or more. You want the liquid to barely come up about 3/4 of the way up the filling and not cover it. Bake in a 375 F oven for about an hour until it is bubbly and brown. This is delicious with a side of white rice.

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Kafta Mix

  • 1000 gr ground beef, lamb or a combination
  • Parsley, 1 bunch, minced
  • 1 onion, about 250 gr, grated
  • 1 tsp Allspice, 3 gr
  • 1 tsp Pepper, 3 gr
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 10 gr Salt

Mix everything very well. For the grilled Kafta, form them into sausage shapes about 5 inches long and no more than an inch in diameter. As you form each one, lay it in an oiled pan. Grill over medium high heat to the desired doneness. Alternatively, these can be broiled.

Serving options:

  • With Hummus, pita bread, pickles and veggies
  • In a tomato, pepper and tomato casserole
  • Form into small meatballs and cook in a rice pilaf
  • Spread thin raw mix on pizza dough with thinly sliced tomatoes and onions and bake for an awesome pie

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.

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