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every dish has a story

CarnitasOct 10, 2011

Ah, pork. Be it crispy golden tonkatsu, softly simmered chile verde, or even a perfectly pan-fried chop, I can't get enough of the other white meat. At the forefront of my porcine passion: carnitas: that tender, flavorful pork crisped at the edges by a hot bath in its own fat. Surprisingly, recipes are bountiful for such a simple dish. I've seen preparations involving braising, roasting, and deep-frying in a backyard turkey fryer, and an exponential number of seasonings, from a healthy dash of salt to a myriad of unconventional ingredients. In the end, it depends on personal preference, and I like my carnitas about as simple as can be with a little Mexican oregano and orange notes to highlight the sweetness of the meat. As for condiments, the more the merrier, but I tend to enjoy pork the most with "green" flavors (tomatillo salsa verde and guacamole), pickled red onions, and salty cotija cheese with homemade corn tortillas, fresh radishes, black beans, and rice on the side. For my recipe, read on.

Momofuku-style Pork Belly BunsMar 07, 2011

Last month, my husband had a business trip to NYC where he enjoyed his long-awaited meal of hwae naeng myun in Koreatown as well as a much hyped dinner at Momofuku Ssam where he tried those infamous pork belly buns. I was soooooo jealous. Last August, I went to Momofuku Ma Pêche with my coworkers where we ordered the closest thing on the menu and a poor stand-in, slow-cooked pork spareribs. Don't get me wrong: they were lovely, perfectly cooked spareribs, but I really wanted to try that pork belly. So, a little miffed at the fact that my husband conquered one of my food goals for me, I decided to make them at home (of course!).

I found a recipe that adds a few flourishes to the original like rosemary and thyme in the dry brine and gotchujang instead of sriracha for the sauce. Once assembled with the pickled cucumbers and gotchujang, the medley was tasty, but there were three areas in which I felt this recipe was lacking. First, the pork on its own was a salt lick. We were guzzling water all night and through the next day. The meat ended up a little tough, too -- not the moist, succulent pork belly I had envisioned. Finally, I was hoping for a little more sweet (like charsiu pork) next to the spicy and pickly flavors. So, based on the "true" recipe I found online plus my own palatal desires, I have adjusted my recipe according to what I'll do next time. I'm sure that further updates will be necessary! For the recipe, read on.

Tennessee Whiskey Pork LoinMar 01, 2011

My Grandpa was from Tennessee. I think my dad mentioned something about the Blue Ridge Mountains and that he lived in Nashville for a time. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to visit the state of his birth (funnily enough, my dad and my husband visited Knoxville together for the Cal-Tennessee football game...they said the people were unbelievably welcoming but that stadium full of orange was the scariest sight they have ever laid eyes upon), but maybe I have a little bit of Tennessee in me because I read this recipe in my BBQ cookbook and had to make it.

Now, I have no qualms about cooking with alcohol: a splash of brandy in lobster risotto or shao xing rice wine in dumpling filling, a half-cup of sake in miso sauce for fish or wine in my duck ragù -- heck, a bottle of wine in my shortribs. But by the time these porky suckers were ready to go on the grill, I had used nearly 2 cups of JD. If I drank that amount instead of letting it burn off over the flames, I would be hanging out the car window on my way to the emergency room. Needless to say, I was daunted.

Some learnings from this effort:

  1. Get yourself a good grill man. In our household, I don't touch the grill. The hubby might be afraid of the stove, but he is a whiz kid with the grill (just don't let him watch the NBA Finals and grill at the same time...sometime ask him about the $40 Porterhouse Disaster of '10).
  2. Be prepared to get messy. When it comes to cooking, I'm kind of like Phil Hartman's Anal Retentive Chef. All waste materials have their own place (compost, recycling, trash); everything gets wiped up as I cook. By the time I had trussed up these piggies, I was up to my elbows in rub and fillings, and some had even dripped over the side of the counter and down my legs. As soon as you fold over the other half of the pork, everything gushes out the sides, so make sure you have a large, contained work space.
  3. Make your own BBQ sauce. It's sooooo worth it.
  4. I'm not sure if it was the whiskey or the 10 other ingredients, but this pork loin was BAD ASS (all caps and expletives required). It's sweet, spicy, tangy, and smoky all in one bite. The author of my cookbook (Steven Raichlen's BBQ USA) merged together a few different recipes he gathered on his travels throughout Tennessee, and if this is the end result, then I'd better buy some bigger pants before my first visit.

For the recipe, read on.

Jiaozi (Pork Dumplings)Feb 11, 2011

It's funny, two of my favorite Japanese dishes actually find their roots in Chinese cuisine. Perhaps this is related to the phenomenon whereby many people mistake me and my best friend (who is Chinese) for sisters. Or the fact that I can pronounce "har gow" with a native speaker's precision (I assure you, that is the only word I can annunciate...the others sound hacked and tortured). Both ramen and gyoza are known to most Americans as Japanese fast food, but in fact, both were brought back to Japan by soldiers stationed throughout China during WWII. Gyoza is the Japanese name for the pan-fried version of jiaozi, which is basically the Chinese term for a meat-and-vegetable-stuffed dumpling. Regardless of where they come from, I eat them with gusto!

So alongside my New Year's-inspired shrimp dumpling experiment, some celebratory jiaozi seemed in order. The fantastic thing about making dumplings from scratch is that you can never make too many. Cook only as many as you can eat the day of assembly, and any uncooked dumplings can be frozen (first lay out on a cookie sheet in the freezer, and when frozen through, toss into a freezer-safe Ziplock) to be cooked later. So go bonkers. Make three recipes-worth. On those nights when you have nothing in the fridge and are too lazy to call for take-out, you'll thank me for it. For the recipe, read on.

Chanko Nabe Miso-AjiJan 23, 2011

Japan is a country of extremes -- nothing is sufficient until it is perfected to the nth degree. It is the home of geisha, bonsai trees, tea ceremonies, ninja, eating contest champions, harajuku girls, and -- of course -- sumo wrestling. You'd think that being as large as they are, rikishi (literally "strong man," as the wrestlers are collectively known) would maintain a diet similar to six-time hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, but remarkably, the sumo diet is remarkably healthy and low in fat. In fact, despite being what medical professionals would call morbidly obese, rikishi have a very low occurrence of obesity-related illness such as heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol due to the placement of their fat. Thanks to a disciplined regimen of intense exercise paired with high-volume consumption of high-protein foods, most of their fat is subcutaneous, lying just under the skin. Compare that to visceral fat which is located inside the abdomen and often infiltrates the internal organs. This is the same phenomenon that causes even your fittest of friends to have cellulite deposits and some outwardly skinny people to suffer from hypertension or high cholesterol.

So what do these big boys eat? Since they live together in heya (literally "stables," or training establishments), chanko nabe is an efficient means to provide a healthy, high-protein meal in immense volumes. A stew made with a protein and plenty of vegetables, chanko nabe is prepared in a communal hot-pot style, with a base broth simmering in the center of the table and ingredients added as they are needed. Generally, the protein used is pork, chicken, or fish, although some heya believe it's bad luck to use four-legged animals (symbolizing being down on all fours) or fish (no hands or feet), so chicken is the only allowable meat.

Seeing as how we had no upcoming sumo matches planned, we tried chanko nabe miso-aji (miso-based) using thinly sliced pork belly and an assortment of  vegetables. For a true hot pot experience, serve it with hot rice and individual bowls of ponzu for dipping the meat and veggies. For the recipe read on.

OkazuJan 20, 2011

In Japanese, okazu means a side dish intended to accompany rice...which could really represent anything you eat in Japan because rice is such a staple. But in my grandmother's day, okazu and rice was a full meal. My great-grandmother passed away from tuberculosis when my grandma was just 8 years old, and that left her, the sole daughter, to cook for her father and six brothers. Okazu was filling, could be made from any vegetable and/or meat that happed to be available, and was all that they could afford being indentured farmers in the Sacramento Valley.

Grandma's okazu is one of my earliest flavor memories -- the broth was virtually the same, regardless of the main ingredients -- and it's a tradition my mom continued throughout my childhood for fast, easy dinners, especially on cold nights. Generally, we eat okazu with pork sirloin and vegetables ranging from nappa cabbage to Chinese long beans to cauliflower. Tonight, we had pork and nappa okazu to accompany a New York strip steak...normally, I attribute such a large meal to my bottomless pit-of-a-husband (as my hairdresser says: "I wish I had his metabolism"), but I have to say that with such a nostalgic meal, I was the glutton tonight! For the recipe, read on.

Daeji BulgogiDec 14, 2010

When I began dating my Korean American husband, I knew I would need to quickly develop a tolerance for spicy food if our relationship had any hope of lasting through the first year. Although I enjoyed some types of spicy foods (mainly Mexican or Latin American dishes and sauces), my family generally stuck to mild but flavorful food: Mom is not particularly fond of spicy, and Dad practically melts into a puddle at the presence of a jalapeño. All of this history should make me mortally fearful of a plate of spicy pork, but last night I confronted daeji bulgogi like a brave armored knight against the dragon, and I have to say: I slayed it.

For the recipe, read on.

Mapo DoufuOct 04, 2010

One of my favorite dishes of all time is mapo doufu.  A fiery hot tofu casserole that leaves your lips tingling hours later (think DuWop Lip Venom!), it's also richly flavored with many difficult-to-isolate flavors. After trying it for the first time at Spices in the Richmond District, I quickly researched recipes and added it to my early repertoire. But the flavors I was searching for eluded me. I could taste the ginger and garlic -- that part was easy. My next quest was for fermented, salted black beans which I found after scouring the aisles in Sunset Super. Many recipes also called for sichuan peppercorns, which were difficult to find, so I summarily dismissed that ingredient, assuming that I could recreate the flavor with regular black pepper. This assumption, I later realized, was terribly wrong.

On Sunday, after researching a few more recipes online, I headed out to Sunset Super to search for this spice. Finally, among the dried beans, fungus, and star anise, I found a one-pound bag of these curious-looking pods. I took my prize home. And now my mapo doufu is about 90% of the way there. I have noted my future adjustments after the recipe. For the recipe, read on.

TamalesAug 26, 2010

The thing I love about Mexican food is that every dish is one comfort meal on a plate. Take tamales, for example. It's soft, delicately seasoned meat wrapped in pillowy masa, coated in a satiny mole and sprinkled with cheese. Not too different from mom's casseroles, with just a few ingredient substitutions.

Last week, Mom and I took in a Rick Bayless book signing at the Commonwealth Club, and there's only one place you can eat after such an event: the Mission. We hightailed it over to Roosevelt's Tamale Parlor on 24th Street where I savored one of their Famous Round Pork Tamales and washed it down with a fresh strawberry agua fresca. ¡Delicioso!


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