Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Twice-cooked pork

The classic dish of China's Sichuan province, according to Fuchsia Dunlop, is twice-cooked pork. Like any other widely-regarded and cooked meal, there are many different variations on the recipe. The basic plan is to parboil pork belly then stir-fry it with sauce and vegetables.

I tried Dunlop's version of this dish and have been eating leftovers from it since then. The final result was a little too oily for my taste (but when you're dealing with pork belly, maybe that's par for the course). No, wait, scratch that last parenthetical comment: braising pork belly for Japanese chashu does not lead to a greasy result. Hmm.

Boiling the pork, then stir-frying it, distills the essence of porkiness. It also leads to a rather chewy result. This is not normally a problem, but when one is trying to have a quick birding meal (and one's compatriot has already finished his sandwich), chewy is not a good thing. Duly noted.

On the other hand, the sauce was divine. Dunlop recommends 1 1/2 tablespoons of hot bean paste, 1 1/2 teaspoons of regular Sichuan bean paste (made with broad beans, aka fava beans, rather than soybeans) and 2 teaspoons of fermented black beans. I'll have more to say on the bean pastes in another post, but the result for this dish was deep and savory. I liked the sauce to the point that I would happily make it for some other application, but then it might be missing the extra dimension of rendered pork belly fat. C'est la vie.

Unrelated footnote: the leftovers made lunch while The Lurker and I were birding around Cape May County, but dinner led us to Applebee's, a chain we haven't visited in some time. We both had burgers and although the server told us that our burgers were going to be better done than not (i.e., no pink), the resulting burgers were very good (even for a medium rare fan like The Lurker). The char was terrific and the flavor equally so. My burger was a "Bruschetta Burger," and it turns out that putting some diced tomato, basil, garlic and mozzarella on a good burger makes a very nice entree. The rosemary-seasoned fries were just a plus.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another tweak to donburi

The joy of a hearty, simple dish like donburi is that once you've mastered the basic technique, it's easy to start changing some of the variables and experimenting. The other night I followed my usual recipe for chicken donburi but used chicken thighs rather than breast meat. Knowing that this would give a stronger flavor to the completed dish, I decided to use shrimp stock as the base for the broth, rather than dashi (shrimp stock recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything). I also added a few drops of pepper sherry to the broth.

As expected, the shrimp stock enhanced the darker flavor that chicken thigh meat gives to donburi. The pepper sherry was not noticeable in the broth, so I guess I need to use it less timidly next time. I'm still deciding if I like it this version of donburi or not, but playing around like this is part of what you do when you start making a dish your own. Besides, donburi is forgiving.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hijiki somen

I haven't been cooking as much as usual lately, but last night I wanted something more than pasta and sauce from a jar. After a bit of dithering, I decided to have some hijiki. What I ended up doing was my usual recipe for braised hijiki but I used somen noodles rather than abura-age. I just put the dry somen into the pan and let it braise along with the hijiki. The noodles did a good job of soaking up the sweet shoyu broth (somen noodles are normally cooked by letting them steep in broth, rather than boiling them separately). In the end, the noodles probably gave the dish more body than it normally has; not a bad thing on an evening when a spring sleet storm was clattering on the windows. Then again, a sleety evening probably calls for mizore nabe.

The next time I try this braised hijiki variant, I might zap it with a bit of pepper sherry to add just a bit of heat to the broth's sweetness. I suspect that might be a good combination.