Equilibrium-Brined Pork Belly

pork belly5

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).

pork belly2

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.

pork belly udon2

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.

pork belly

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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Modernist Cuisine: Pastrami and Bresaola

Much has been written in the blogsphere about the MC pastrami made from short rib or even better, beef cheek. Just Google it and you’ll get a lot of hits and pictures. The attention is rightfully deserved since their process produces one delicious tasting piece of cured and smoked beef. When done right, Pastrami is one of the tastiest cured meat products at American delis. The idea is to take a tough and a little fatty piece of beef (usually a brisket) and first soak it in a curing brine of salt, sugar, curing salt and a host of pickling spices. Up to this point it is not much different from corned beef. Just take it out of the brine and simmer it for a few hours and you got exactly that – corned beef. For Pastrami though, the next step is to roll the meat in a lot of spices (black pepper, coriander, celery seeds, juniper,..) and then smoking it for hours until cooked tender but not falling apart. We are still not ready to slice it though. The meat still has to go into the steamer to get an amazing unctuous and juicy texture. Now it’s sliced thinly and served piled high on rye bread.

For the modernist version, the essential steps are still there, but the bulk of the actual cooking and softening the meat is done by cooking it sous vide. After the meat, brisket in my case, is brine-cured I rolled it in the spice mixture and then cold-smoked it for a few hours. To cook the meat I put it in a FoodSaver bag with some of the brine liquid (that was boiled and cooled) and then it went into the water with the immersion circulator set to 60 C for 72 hours. This cooking process is pretty much the same one that the MC team uses for their barbecue recipes: season/brine, cold smoke and then cook SV (I posted about this a while back here).

Anyone who has seen Woody Allen’s great film Annie Hall knows that proper pastrami needs no add-ons. Poor Alvy (Allen’s character) almost has a seizure when Annie ordered her pastrami on white bread with mayo, mustard, lettuce and tomatoes! So, I served our delicious tender pastrami on homemade rye with a little mustard and sauerkraut. However, I can only have so many pastrami on rye sandwiches. So, traditional or not, I served more of the smoked meat on top 0f rye bread topped with avocado and pickled mustard seeds. Either way, it was delicious.

As opposed to the cooked pastrami, Bresaola is beef that is not cooked at all. I’ve mentioned this cured meat a couple of times before (here for example). This one from the MC books uses a cure with lots of ground coffee in it. They serve it sliced thinly with a sauce made from fermented black garlic (I used pressure cooked garlic confit instead) and balsamic vinegar. I was intrigued by the coffee in the cure…lots of it too. So I gave it a shot to see how it works out. When all said and done, I am not sure I love the coffee in there, especially if I am serving the cured meat by itself. On the other hand it really works well in the plated dish with the sauce, the sliced celery and some sharp greens.

Carbonated Mojito Spheres

What do I do after weeding my garden and ending up with a crap load of mint? Mojitos of course! Initially I was going to make a few regular Mojitos that would use a fraction of the mint I had. However, I had so much mint that even after drying half of it for the pantry I still had more than enough to make the carbonated Mojito spheres from Modernist Cuisine. Actually the original recipe is credited to chef Jose Anders, the wiz elBulli desciple at Minibar in Washington, DC.

The recipe relies on reverse spherification, just like the basil in the crab recipe here and the yogurt in the recent short rib post here. The sphere mix is made just like a typical Mojito with sugar, water, lots of mint, lime and rum. Into that  mixture I blended in Calcium Lactate and Xanthan gum. The Calcium Lactate will react with the Sodium Alginate in the water bath later and form the skin on the outside of the sphere. The Xanthan is there to give it some body and substance. Without the Xanthan the mixture will be too liquidy. It will not “sink” into the Alginate bath and the mouth-feel will be too watery. Chris over at eGullet.org has a very good pictorial of how to successfully “drop” the mixture into the Alginate bath to make the spheres. It is not too difficult, but it helps to see it.

To carbonate the Mojito spheres, they go into an iSi canister. After getting two charges of CO2, it sits in the fridge for a few hours. Now, to serve it, at Minibar they just put it on a spoon I believe. In Modernist Cuisine, it is pictured in a cocktail glass filled with soda water. For both taste, texture and aesthetic, I opted to serve it in a large porcelain spoon on top of a “Mojito” granita. Right, I still had a good bit of mint which I used along with lime, sugar and water to make a base (no rum). That went in the freezer in a shallow container and got scraped and fluffed every thirty minutes or so to make a nice granita. The end result overall was delicious and the texture was perfect, although I am not sure if the carbonation was worth it for me. Many of the spheres got popped during the transfer to and from the iSi canister. The ones I did serve did not seem like they where carbonated enough to justify the effort and loss. So, I am not sure I will do that part again, but sphere cocktails are very cool especially if you have guests who have never experienced this before. I would love to make maybe a Mai Tai next on a base of coconut or pineapple granita.

Modernist Cuisine Barbecue

Most probably assume that Modernist Cuisine only makes food that looks like foam or spheres or something extra fancy. Well, sure it has all those things, but that is not the point. It’s just modern food, using all the information that was learned over the past few decades. The point is not to make “weird food” but to make delicious food and to make the most out of every ingredient. Sometimes it follows fairly traditional recipes, other times it completely dumps those processes in favor of better and/or more efficient ones. There are few things as humble and that trigger as much debate as barbecue. Barbecue is simple, really the polar opposite of fancy food. I am talking not about quickly grilled foods, but about slow smoking meat for hours until it is infused with flavor and perfectly tender. I’ve been doing this for years on my Chargriller BBQ and smoker. It works great, but I wanted to see how the modernist approach works. So for the 4th of July this year  I made a whole menu from the Modernist Cuisine books.

The meats I made were two classics, pulled pork (using the butt) and spare ribs. First I lightly salted and seasoned the meat and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Then it was smoked for 7 hours in my smoker using pretty low heat. This step separates the cooking from the smoking. The low smoke and the moist environment deeply flavor the meat with sweet smoke (you can see the awesome smoke ring on the ribs) but they keep it essentially raw. Next the meat goes into FoodSaver bags and is cooked sous vide at 65C for hours, specifically 72 hours for the pork butt and 48 hours for the ribs. That cooking process preserves all the flavor and ensures that the meat is cooked in a moist environment at a proper temperature. The meat will not dry out or burn and will end up wonderfully moist. The end result is delicious and perfect barbecue, especially those ribs. They are not so overcooked that they peel off the bones at the merest touch (“fall off the bone” is not a plus in bbq ribs BTW), but are just tender with the perfect texture.

I made two barbecue sauces, a thin Lexington style one that got tossed in with the pulled pork and a thicker, spicy tomato-based Kansas City sauce for the ribs. Neither one has any specialty ingredients and both can be done in less than 15 minutes. The potato salad was just a little more involved than a typical potato salad but it was so good that I could easily eat it by itself. The salad included fingerling and small red potatoes that were cooked sous vide. It also had “petals” of pickled red and pearl onions (I had made those a couple of days before) and egg yolks cooked to 65C. The yolks are really a brilliant touch. They add lovely yellow accent to the mix, a rich creamy mouthful and a subtle unique flavor. To make them I just cooked eggs with the immersion circulator at 65C. The whites were discarded and the yolks gently cut into 2 or 3 pieces each before getting tossed into the salad. The dressing here is not mayonnaise based, but instead it uses creme fraiche, mustard and walnut oil. The creme fraiche gives it just enough richness and a welcome tang. Lastly I made the White Cole Slaw. That’s just thinly sliced savoy cabbage tossed with green apples dice and an emulsified dressing consisting of another of those 65C yolks, grapeseed oil, buttermilk, vinegar and celery seeds. The slaw is very light and crisp. It worked wonderfully on top of a pile of pulled pork on a bun.

Wild Boar Loin, Puy Lentils and Apple-Port Sauce

 

It’s amazing how I manage to find more boar meat in my deep freezer overtime I look in there. I still have a couple of loins, some shoulders and maybe two hind (ham) legs. I see some boar sausage in my future, maybe Italian or Greek flavored…or some of each…we’ll see. Anyways, I took a package labeled boar loin from the freezer and what I thought was one whole loin was in fact more like a couple of pieces from two loins. Either way, the loins were too thin (think half the diameter of a pork TENDERloin) for what I wanted to do, so I knew I will be using some Activa, aka meat glue, to make a nice sized piece of meat.

I am currently in the middle of reading/studying the Modernist Cuisine collection of books and it is very much like drinking from a fire hose. There is so much information in there that deciding what to read and what to start with is a little intimidating. I figured I’ll look through the 70+ page index for pork and see if they have anything interesting I can use as an inspiration for the boar loins. The recipe for a leek-wrapped pork tenderloin fit the bill, but I did not follow it exactly since I did not have the time (Though I love the idea of using Activa to bind leeks that have been steamed with gelatin onto pork tenderloin). I just used the brine ratios from that recipe and added star anise to mine. Then I dusted the boar loins with Activa RM and wrapped them tightly into a cylinder shape along with thyme springs and garlic slivers. Using the Modernist Cuisine tables as a guide (those would be in volume 2 and in the Kitchen Manual as well), I cooked the meat sous vide and then seared it in grapeseed oil.

To serve it I boiled up some French Puy lentils and dressed them with sautéed leeks, a bit of cream and red wine vinegar. For the sauce, I cooked a cut up tart apple with port and beef stock. The stock is also a Modernist Cuisine recipe made in the pressure cooker and also includes port as a base flavor. When I got the exact flavor I wanted for the sauce, instead of reducing it to the proper consistency and risk it loosing its balance, I just thickened it with a very small amount of Xanthan gum. The gum has no taste and, if used correctly (less than 0.5% by weight of the sauce), makes a smooth perfectly thickened sauce and leaves no flavor of its own.