Friday, May 9, 2008

Twice-Cooked Pork

I am absolutely enamoured with Sichuan cuisine (Szechuan? Googlefight says Sichuan). It's very interesting to me because, like French cuisine, it is highly codified. However, the methods are very divergent from what most western foodies might consider classical technique. Sichuan cooking is comprised of twenty-three flavors and fifty-six techniques. But instead of methods like "braise", "steam", "saute", and so forth, Sichuan cuisine boasts "explode-frying", "scallion-braising, "rice-meal steaming", and "hanging-oven roasting". Of the twenty-three flavors, "fish-fragrant", "strange flavor", and "salt-savory" are a few choice examples.

A while back, I picked up a copy of Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, determined to cook my way through the 23 flavors of Sichuan; so far I've made 14 (I keep track on an online spreadsheet). So when I saw this Chinese take-out party on Is My Blog Burning?, I thought that it would be fun to contribute a Sichuan dish. I wanted to do an authentic (yet lighter) version of a Chinese take-out staple, like Kung Pao chicken or Mapo Dofu. However, I settled on twice-cooked pork.

According to Wikipedia, the history of twice-cooked pork is as follows:

The dish is said to have originated from the Qing Dynasty while the Qianlong Emperor toured Sichuan. Qianlong demanded a feast in every stop that he made, and, when he approached one particular village, the villagers fretted. The crops had not been harvesting well that year and there may not have been enough to host the emperor. Fearing prosecution, the villagers hastily dumped their leftovers into the pot, cooked them again (thus "twice cooking" them) and served the resulting dish to the emperor. To their surprise, the emperor enjoyed it, and so the "Twice Cooked Pork" became a famous Sichuan cuisine.
Is it true? Who cares! It's yummy! This is a consummate example of jia chang wei xing, or homestyle flavor. Dunlop's description of homestyle flavor is as follows:
This uniquely Sichuanese taste is based on the hearty flavors of domestic cooking. Homestyle dishes are described as salty, savory, and a little bit hot...The basic seasonings are typically local: chili bean paste, salt, and soy sauce. Pickled red chilis, fermented black beans, and sweet fermented paste can also have a role to play.
Enough chattering, onto the food! First, you'll probably need to make a trip to an Oriental market for some of this stuff.

Like cute little itty-bitty baby leeks! You could substitute scallions if you can't find these. Unlike most Americanized twice-cooked pork dishes, Dunlop restricts the veggie content solely to leeks.

And fermented black beans! These are chewy, salty, wonderfully pungent little morsels of soybean. The flavor is kind of like a stronger, richer soy sauce. On the left you can see them in the original container. That big beige slab is a piece of dried ginger; fermented black beans often comes packaged with this. To the right you can see a couple teaspoons of these soaking in Shao Xing (Chinese rice wine). You could alternately soak them in sherry or water. Dunlop doesn't soak them at all, but I prefer the texture and lessened saltiness. I wish I'd used more, though. Next time perhaps! The recipe called for 2 tsp but I would've used 2 tbs.

You'll also need some chili bean paste. That's the stuff on the right. If you've ever tried the replicate the taste of authentic Sichuan food but couldn't seem to find a lost chord, it's probably because you were missing this. Nothing else tastes quite like it, but the flavor screams Sichuan like nothing else. Make sure to buy the stuff with fava or broad beans instead of soybeans. It's spicy and rich and salty with chili flakes and bits of fava bean. On the left is sweet bean paste, which I substituted for sweet wheat paste (I couldn't find the latter). It's an admirable substitute, though; it's kind of like a muted hoisin sauce.

Anyhow, the first thing you want to do is simmer your pork in salted water 'til it's just done. Dunlop suggests skin-on pork belly, but that sounded pretty decadent for a weeknight supper. I made this once for my mother-in-law with boneless country ribs, but tonight I used lean pork loin. Though mark my words, one day I will cook pork belly in its own fat. If you use pork belly, make sure it's completely cool before slicing so that the fat and lean hold together. I didn't have to worry about that too much so I just let it cool til I could slice it without burning my hands. Trim off the gristle as you do this; I fed it to an eagerly waiting mouth.

After slicing your boiled pork, heat up a wok or a cast-iron skillet with a bit of oil. More would work better but in the interest of keeping it light I just used a little canola oil spray. Cook it on both sides until it gets nice and crispy.

I couldn't get a good action shot because of the steam, but I love seeing the transition from soft gray slices to browned, crispy, Maillard-alicious little tidbits.

Then, add about 2 tbs chili bean paste, 1.5 tsp sweet wheat or sweet bean paste, fermented black beans (with or without the soaking liquid, you decide), a teaspoon of soy sauce, and a teaspoon of sucanat/agave nectar/evil white sugar/whatever you use. Cook it until the pork is all crispy and glazey and everything is all gloppy and fragrant and delicious.

Then, remove the pork from the skillet and add your leeks. You want about 6 tender baby leeks, sliced very thin on the diagonal. Just barely cook them and then spoon them on top of your pork.

I served this with green beans in ginger sauce, also from Land of Plenty. It's an easy recipe; just toss steamed green beans with fresh ginger, Chinkiang black vinegar (or malt vinegar), chicken broth (I used vegetable broth), and sesame oil.

I, of course, used organic haricots verts from the farmer's market.

Okay, okay, I didn't feel like snapping off the stupid string bean ends.


Mochachocolata Rita said...

looks absolutely delicious!! yummm...thanks for bringing this to the party ^_^

tigerfish said...

That's some bits of history in this. Thanks for sharing.

Came from the round up :)

Jolivore said...

Just a suggestion: ditch the "light"—meaning, cutting the oil—obsession. It's not grounded in any facts and just makes the food taste dull. I just returned from Chengdu, Szechuan (Sichuan) capital city. Ate the food, lots of dumplings and noodles, tofu, wok-ed greens, all drenched in chilli oil. I was never hungry, ate like a king for pennies. One meal: some green I couldn't identify, velveted beef with lots of green chillipeppers (don't eat them!), various wild mushrooms in a thick sauce, and beijing duck, and no rice (they often have none), for $9 for 2. No (NO) obesity there at all. 11 million people and I must have seen them all. I lost 2 pounds in 12 days. Our idea about "fats" isn't right. Check out Michael Pollan's new book, "In Defense of Food."
I also devoured my son's Dunlop book, found you when I was looking for a twice cooked pork recipe while waiting for my own copy to arrive. I especially liked the blow by blow of cooking the dish (and the pics!)

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