Alinea: Pork Belly, Pickled vegetables, BBQ sugar, Grits

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How does barbecue done in a three star restaurant look like? Like this dish that I made using the last third of pork belly I had. It’s a one bite of porky smoky spicy and pickle-y goodness! In more detailed terms we have a cube of cured and spiced pork belly, topped with pickled vegetables and encased in a crunchy glaze of barbecue flavor.

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The trickiest component of this entire dish is that crunchy glaze that coats each bite. It requires some practice and a light touch to get it thick enough to coat the meat and vegetables with a translucent film. Make it too thick and you’ll be fighting to bite through it and picking candy out of your teeth. If it is too thin it will slough off the pickled vegetables and not cover the whole bite. The glaze starts off with isomalt, a product that is not as sweet as sugar but behaves very much like sugar so it is very good for savory applications. I mixed the isomalt with fondant and brought up to about 325 F (NOT the 160 F the book specifies which I am sure they intended it to be 160 C).

Tuile

I poured it on a Silpat and allowed the mixture to harden. The isomalt-fondant mixture hardened into very clean and clear glass. I broke it into shards and pulverized it in a food processor with a smoked paprika and cayenne. This mixture is what gives the pork bites the “barbecue” smoke and spice flavor. but we are not there quiet yet…

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The Isomalt mixture is made into thin wafers or tuiles. To do that I sifted the powdered mixture into a Silpat using stencils to get even 2 inch squares that are about 1/8 inch thick.We need to work fast here because the powedered mixture sucks up the humidity very fast from the room and gets difficult to work with.  After a few minutes in a hot oven the powdered spiced sugar squares melted but kept their shape. When fully cooled they were nice thin crunchy squares. I stored them in a box with a pack of silica to wick away humidity and keep them crispy. These can easily last a week or more like that if needed.

Carrot Pickle

Like any good barbecue plate this one needs a tart crunchy element, like pickles and fresh veggies. The pickles here are tiny spheres of carrots made with a parisienne scoop, the tiniest melon baller you can imagine. Just like any other vinegar pickle the vegetables are soaked in a hot mixture of vinegar, water and sugar and allowed to cool and chill for a couple of days. The other vegetable topping are also tiny cucumber balls and small cubes of red bell pepper.

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Pork Belly-Pickles

Corn and barbecue is a delicious combo, maybe on the cob, creamed or corn bread. Here we have creamy rich grits that combines almost all three. Maybe a few charred corn kernels would have been nice too. Chef Achatz actually uses yellow polenta but I had some good South Carolina stone-ground grits. So I cooked those in water and stirred in butter and mascarpone.

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For the pork, I made a mixture of sugar, salt and a healthy dose of smoked paprika and chipotle powder. The paprika along with chipotle gives the meat a good smoky-spicy flavor. After several hours in the fridge I washed the meat off and then cooked it sous vide for 4 hours at 85C. To finish I cut the meat into even  2 inch squares and seared them gently . I topped them with 4 tiny balls of the vegetables and 2 squares of the bell pepper. Balancing a square of the tuile on top of the vegetables is a tricky thing but I managed to get most on there and under the broiler. The broiler quickly melts the squares of barbecue sugar and coats the meat and vegetable cubes.

Pork Belly

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To serve I put in a dollop on the grits and topped it with a cube of the glazed pork. A few leaves of fresh oregano and it is done. The flavor is rich, spicy and sweet with lots of crunch. the grits work great to tone down the sharp flavors and for that great creamy element. It is labor-intensive but it’s one hell of an impressive looking and tasting bite. It went perfectly with a home-brewed red rye ale. Cheers!

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Under Pressure: Glazed Breast of Pork with Swiss Chard, White-Wine-Poached Granny Smith Apples, and Green Mustard Vinaigrette

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A bit more complicated to make than those delicious pork buns is this dish from Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure using the second chunk of the pork belly I had. Pork and apples is a classic combination that always works well. On top of that we have strong sweet-tart flavors and sharp mustard with chard to round up a very unctuous and rich dish. As usual with these dishes I split the prep over a few days and it worked very well even if the plating was not quiet as ideal as the book picture.

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To start I soaked the pork belly in a spiced brine that has some cure #1 (Sodium Nitrite) overnight to give it a cured flavor and color (like bacon). I packaged the meat with chicken stock and some herbs then cooked it sous vide at 82 C until very tender, about 12 hours. Here the goal is to go for a very tender texture not something like a steak texture. When the meat was cooked I really should have figured out a way to lay it very flat and weigh it down to get a nice even flat block. Instead I just chilled it and kept it in the fridge until ready to serve.

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Thomas Keller’s recipe asks for a specific kind of mustard, green apple mustard. It is something you can find online. However, I figured why not make something on my own. It is most likely not the same thing but will be delicious never the less and is all mine! I’ve made mustard condiment before and I like a simple recipe from John Currence’s book Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey. So I used that recipe as a guideline and started by poaching Granny Smith apple slices in Apfelwein (homemade apple wine) until the apples were tender and most of the wine evaporated. More apple wine (Currence’s recipe uses Guinness; also an excellent version) and apple cider vinegar are also used to soak a bunch of mustard seeds overnight.

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The next day, I simmered a mixture of mustard powder, honey, turmeric, salt and pepper in more apple wine and apple cider vinegar. I added the soaked mustard seeds and allowed them to simmer for a few minutes. To finish it up, I pureed most of the seeds along with the cooked apples and left the remainder of the seeds whole to mix in and add some texture. I ended up with a delicious mustard that is great on anything from vinaigrettes to sandwiches.

Using a melon baller, I prepared several spheres from Granny Smith apples. I packaged those along with a poaching syrup (sugar, apple wine, water…) and cooked them sous vide at 85 C for 30 minutes until tender but keeping their shape. After cooling they went in the fridge as well.

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I was really hoping for three different chard colors but of course the one time I go to Whole Foods to buy some they only had red and green. So two colors it is. I separated the leaved from the stems and trimmed the stems. The leaves get coarsely chopped. I cooked the stems packaged with herbs and oil at 85 C for 1.5 hours. Then I trimmed them into 2 inch long batons. These get seasoned with vinegar, salt and pepper and warmed up right before serving.

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The chard leaves get turned into an intense side for the pork. I cooked them with aromatics, butter, a chunk of bacon and vegetable stock. After the greens cook in the oven for about 30 minutes or so I cooled them a bit then finely chopped them.

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Last item to prepare is the green mustard vinaigrette. It’s just a mixture of the apple mustard, Dijon mustard, honey, olive  oil and a touch of vinegar. To serve, I reheated the pork in the pouch at 55 C, removed the meat from the bag and patted it dry. I crisped and browned the pork in a skillet but I did have a few issues keeping the pieces flat and even. Turning them frequently alleviated some of the issues. I used a mixture of the pork cooking juices from the bag along with butter, wine and some stock to make a quick pan sauce for the pork. I added the pork pieces to the pan with the sauce and got them nicely glazed.

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To serve, on a plate goes a few drizzles of the vinaigrette and the pork pan sauce. Top that with a piece of meat and line up three apple balls along the side. The marinated chard stems go on the apple and a neat Swiss chard oval goes next to the pork. It’s delicious, a refined dish with a lot of rustic flavors going on from France to the American South with all those earthy bacon-y greens.

 

The Fat Duck: Pot-Roast Loin of Pork, Braised Belly, Gratin of Truffled Macaroni

I will kick this off by saying that this is every bit as delicious and as satisfying as it looks. It’s a great comforting combination of a cured piece of pork belly, a perfect impeccably cooked portion of loin, tart cabbage cooked with onions and bacon, seared marinated mushrooms and a rich flavor-packed pork sauce to round it all off. Did I mention that all of this goes with a side casserole of truffle-flavored cheesy macaroni? There is nothing here that does not hit a perfect note. The inspiration of this dish according to the recipe intro is Heston Blumenthal’s love of the cast iron pan called cocotte  that he uses to cook meat over an open fire while camping. Now, at a fine dining establishment like the Fat Duck where consistency and efficiency are paramount using a cast iron pan is not the most efficient way of cooking the “Pot-Roasted” loin of pork. The title of the recipe is meant to invoke a nostalgia of the cast iron pot-roasting even though the meat is perfectly cooked sous vide.

I started working on the dish by preparing the pork belly and the pork sauce. The belly was cured in a brine of salt, nitrite salt, water, lots of herbs, lemons zest, juniper berries, allspice, cloves, coriander and star anise. After sitting in the brine for 48 hours, I soaked the belly in several changes of fresh water. Then I bagged it with some water and cooked it sous vide for 36 hours. After it is cooked and cooled I skinned it and trimmed all but a thin layer of surface fat and divided it into several perfect cubes that got bagged individually in FoodSaver pouches. The pork belly pieces were frozen until service day. At that time, I warmed up the pouches in water to loosen the pork belly and then removed them from the bags and seared them gently on the fat layer until they got brown and crispy.

For the sauce, I sautéed pork bones, pork meat, onions and carrots  in a mixture of oil and butter. These then went into a pressure cooker along with chicken stock, water and some herbs and cooked at full pressure for a couple of hours. The stock is then cooled, strained and reduced to a sauce consistency. Right before service, I heated it with a few sage leaves and whisked in a little butter.

Preparing the pork loin was a bit similar to the belly process. The loin, on the bone, is poked at several places and stuffed with sage and garlic. It is then salted heavily and left to cure with lemon zest and a lot of thyme for 48 hours. Then I washed the salt off and soaked it in a few changes of water. I removed the bone and wrapped the meat into a tight cylinder in plastic wrap. That went into a FoodSaver bag and was cooked at 60 C before serving.

Two other items actually go on the plate with the pork: sautéed cabbage and mushrooms. To make the cabbage, I first made the “Choucroute Onions”. That’s basically a very flavorful mixture of onions, bacon, juniper, allspice, white wine and vinegar. At dinner time, I cooked thinly sliced Savoy cabbage in some butter. When the cabbage was tender, I tossed in the Choucroute Onions. The mixture of cabbage and tart bacon-y onions is delicious. It’s kind of like a mild buttery sauerkraut and is a very good use of cabbage. It’s a classic that goes perfectly well with the rich pork meat.

The recipe specifically asks for Porcini (or Cep) mushrooms to serve with the meat. I can never find those tasty but expensive mushrooms fresh anywhere, but I can find them dried and use them all the time. Instead of Porcini, I opted to use king trumpet mushrooms and large white button mushrooms. I marinated those by vacuum packing them with olive oil, thyme and a few pinches of pulverized dried Porcini  mushrooms. They marinated for several hours and then I patted them dry and cooked them with butter to a nice golden brown.

As opposed to most fine dining recipes where every dish is self-contained typically with all components on one plate or bowl, several recipes in The Fat Duck book include “side dishes”. A lamb dish is served with a sweetbread hot pot, a venison saddle has a beaker of clarified stock with it, sole is served with triple-cooked chips, and this pork dish gets a luscious side of truffled macaroni. Originally, Blumenthal instructs the cook to boil zita macaroni (long tubes) and then cut them into 1 cm cylinders. Instead, I decided to make my own pasta. So, following the Marc Vetri process that I posted about recently, using semolina and water I made the dough and extruded it using the rigatoni plate on the machine. I cut the pasta much shorter than typical rigatoni as it was being extruded to mimic the short zita that the recipe asks for. After the pasta is cooked it gets tossed in a mixture of cream, stock, and Parmesan cheese. The recipe asks for truffle juice to be added in as well, but I skipped that pricey item and seasoned the mixture with excellent Italian white truffle salt. To finish the pasta, I plated it in small individual casseroles and topped it each one with a few tablespoon of an egg and cream mixture. The casseroles then get broiled to brown the surface a bit and are good to go.

To plate, I put a small pile of the cabbage and flanked it with both types of meat. A couple of mushrooms go in the center and the sauce is poured gently around and over the meat. We each got a small casserole of the macaroni on the side and enjoyed this complex and tasty plate of food.

Noma: Pig Belly and Potato Skins, Cep Oil and Wood Chips

Cooking with woodchips and hay (yeah, hay) might seem way weird at first glance. My 8-year old was beyond shocked when I told him that I am buying hay at the pet store (all natural packaged and never used hay that is) to use in cooking  at home. He kept asking and double checking that I am not messing with him. He finally believed me when I covered a baking dish filled with small potatoes with hay and stuck it in the oven. If we really pause and think about this though, it makes sense. Usually stuff like hay or, more commonly, wood chips (oak, charred oak) are used as flavorings in many products. The wood barrels, charred or not, are exactly how products like Bourbon, Scotch and wine are aged and get their distinctive look and taste. Brewers add charred wood chips to stouts and porters all the time for their unique flavor. So why not use some wood chips to flavor a sauce that will be served with a rich piece of pork belly? Hay has been used to cook ham in it for a few centuries as well. I believe this is a classic British preparation where ham is fully covered in hay and baked/boiled. Ryan at “Nose to Tail at Home” prepared a version of that from Fergus Henderson’s book. The process gently steams the meat and flavors it with its unique aroma. All these flavors match perfectly with pork, mushrooms and potatoes to create a lovely and comforting dish.

The chef at Noma in Copenhagen uses all kinds of interesting ingredients in his flavor profiles including oak chips, spruce, hay and ash (as in burnt and powdered vegetable matter). His cooking is fiercely local and when your locale is cold northern Denmark you really do not have access to so many of the ingredients we take for granted these days like tomatoes, olive oil, chocolate…Still Chef Redzepi manages to coax flavor from products, both wild and cultivated. He obviously knows what he is doing because he produces beautiful thoughtful food and Noma is named the “Best Restaurant in The World” for the second year in a row. In this dish he combines braised de-boned pork tails with hay-steamed small potatoes and a sauce made from stock, cep mushrooms (porcinis) and flavored with applewood chips.

I did not have any pig tails for this, but I did just make some smoked bacon (two versions this time: maple and brown sugar) and I had a few pieces of thin pork belly that did not get cured. Speaking of bacon, here are a couple of nice shots of said cured bellies. You can also see some of the Canadian bacon I smoked along with the regular bacon

I bagged the pork -I pretty much buy all my pork from Yonder Way Farm these days, it really is great stuff- with some home-brewed stout, thyme, butter-sauteed vegetables and stock then cooked them sous vide for a few hours. The cooking liquid is then strained and reduced to a glaze to finish the pork.

Redzepi uses two kinds of small potatoes, a purple one and a yellow one. These are baked gently under a few handfuls of hay. When done, I cut each in half and scooped most of the flesh out. Right before serving the potatoes are heated up in a water and butter emulsion and plated. The water had some toasted wood chips soaked in it to flavor it before whisking in the butter. The sauce for the dish is a clear mushroom bouillon made by simmering sautéed mushrooms and vegetables in chicken stock. The resulting stock is then clarified using the traditional method for making consomme (i:e using egg whites). The clear liquid is then reduced to about a cup. To further flavor the already very tasty bouillon, a few applewood chips are toasted and then soaked in it for 10 minutes. Lastly, birch wine is supposed to be added in as well. I had none and could not find any at local stores. So, I decided to just go by my own taste and seasoned the bouillon with my homemade maple vinegar. It worked very nicely.

Another two items emphasize the cep flavor, an oil and powdered ceps. Redzepi uses fresh porcini trimmings to make the oil. These are very hard to find and expensive. The dried version though is available everywhere and makes a great substitute in an application like this one. The oil is just heated up and the dried mushrooms are steeped in it. The cep powder is just dried mushrooms pulverized in my spice grinder. That would be the dust-like substance all over the plate. All in all this was a delicious dish to welcome Autumn. It’s rich, full of roasted umami tastes, mushrooms and rustic flavors. The wood chips do add a nice mild flavor. The hay…not too sure honestly. I think that might be more noticeable if the dish they are cooked in includes a lot of liquid, like the ham in hay dish I linked to above. As a cooking medium for the potatoes, I do not think they contributed much.

Momofuku Ramen

I’ve had David Chang’s Momofuku Cookbook for a couple of months now. It is a very good, fun read and the recipes look so porky and tasty. Ramen is where Chang got his start and I knew that’s the first thing I was going to make. The broth is, of course what makes a bowl of ramen great, once you have that done, the rest is a cinch. So, a couple of weeks ago I made a batch of ramen broth following the instructions in the book. The broth is delicious, made with chicken and roasted pork bones, flavored with shiitake mushrooms, konbu and bacon. It’ fantastic on it’s own, let alone in a bowl full of roasted pork butt, crispy pork belly, noodles, a slow cooked egg and sauteed greens. I am very happy to have a good 6 more bowls worth of ramen broth in the freezer.