I was recently referred to this recipe supposedly penned by Andrew “Bug Breath” Zimmern, which is published on the website of the world’s worst culinary magazine, Food & Wine. Fish Sauce Caramel – sounds edgy! Further reading reveals that the recipe is pompous, intimidating, unbalanced and worst of all, BORING.
The concept is sound, it’s a loose interpretation of a vietnamese nuoc cham, but it’s too lose and really leaves a lot to be desired. So I’m here to rescue this poor concept from the obscurity of what the mentally handicapped authors of F&W consider “unusual”.
Caramel Nuoc Cham, Rogue Estate style:
- 2 C Sugar
- 1 Tbl Lemon Juice
- 1/4 C Water
Combine the Sugar, water and lemon juice in a 6 qt saucepan over medium high until it caramelizes. 15-20 minutes depending on your cooktop. stir occasionally not obsessively. When it gets to a pleasing caramel color, reduce the heat to the warm/simmer and stir in the following:
- 1/2 tsp Cinnamon Powder
- 1/2 tsp Star Anise Powder
- 1/2 tsp Garlic Powder
- 1/4 tsp Ginger Powder
- 1 tsp Sambal Chili Paste (or Sriracha pepper sauce.)
- 1 tsp Ground Black Pepper
- 2 Tbl Rice Vinegar
- 1/4 C Fish Sauce (the brand is really unimportant here.)
- 1/4 C Water
- 2 C finely diced Red or White Onion (whichever you prefer.)
Keep the whole mess simmering for 5 minutes while stirring to get everything cozy and warmed up, then turn the heat off and move the pan someplace to cool. Once it’s below napalm levels, transfer to an appropriately sized bowl or jar with a sealable lid. Use it on damn near anything, keep it in the fridge for 2 weeks, as if it would actually last that long.
“Using a wet pastry brush, wash down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan” my ass. If you F&W tools are going to ghost write recipes for Zimmern, you could at least pretend to write in his voice and, heaven forbid, make the crap you’re peddling accessible to your dwindling audience.
Braised meats aren’t usually thought of when pondering Asian cuisine. Braising is generally associated with the French in dishes such as Boeuf Bourguignon, or American Pot Roasts. This is a fool-hardy assumption, however. Enter the Japanese preparation and staple of any ramen-ya worth its weight in rice, braised pork belly, or Chashu.
Yet another adaptation of a Chinese dish, char siu, chashu has become something else entirely. While char siu usually refers to a roasted meat glazed with honey and soy (and added red food coloring in some cases) the Japanese took most of the same ingredients, turned it into a braise, and added their own flair with the addition of mirin and sake. Also, the Chinese use the term “char siu” to refer to any number of meats roasted in the same manner, for the Japanese however, chashu is made with pork belly. Nothing else. We can get behind that.
The recipe that follows is a cross-reference between two other recipes I found and my own added spin here and there. The process is fairly long, as with most braises, but the ingredients are pretty cheap and simple. The differences in my recipe and the ones I referenced are these: One recipe called for rolling the belly, which is traditional, and the other did not. I went with the flat preparation. While rolling the belly takes longer to cook it comes out juicier, or so I hear, but that can be solved by simply cutting down on the oven time and keeping vigilant watch. There was, however, the issue of the skin. It likes to be cooked for a LONG time, which would make the rolled method more logical. I soldiered on with my plan though. The rolled recipe also called for skin on (or rind on) pork belly, while the other called for skin off. This suggestion I did follow. The flat prep recipe said to sear all sides and blanch the meat before braising while the other said to roll it and go. I seared, only the meat side, and did not blanch. I left the skin un-seared, and blanching after searing would inevitably wash away some of the brown color the sear provided. Color = flavor, a fundamental philosophy in all of cooking, so blanching after searing just seemed like a bad idea to me. That recipe was from a very highly respected chef, though, so what the hell do I know. One recipe also called for the addition of typically Chinese or South-East Asian spices like cinnamon, star anise and black peppercorns. This, too, I followed, predictably. Perhaps just as predictably the fish sauce was my addition. Had to be done. There was no way around it. It was for the benefit of science and all mankind, you see.
I expected the skin to be tough and un-chewable but I was wrong. Very wrong! It was gooey and sticky and gelatinous, and provided a very interesting contrast in texture to the supple fat and the chewy yet melting to the tooth meat. Next time I try this I’m going to try one of the suggestions I shied away from this run just to see the difference. But for now, I’m satisfied with these results. It was good. It was really good. It was really fucking good!
This is going to be a picture heavy post, so those of you who are easily offended by unadulterated and unapologetic food porn may wish to close this window now or just fuck off from the room. It’s about to get real up in this bitch.
Chashu, Japanese braised pork belly.
2-2.5 pounds raw Pork Belly – uncured, not smoked, rind on
1 cup Mirin
1 bottle (300 ml) Hakutsuru Draft sake
½ cup of Honey
1 ½ cups Soy Sauce (Yamasa brand is my preference)
3” knob of fresh Ginger – peeled and crushed
1 Star Anise
1 stick of Cinnamon
1 tsp. Black Peppercorns
5 cloves of Garlic
6 cleaned and chopped Scallions
3 Tbsp. Red Boat Fish Sauce
Kadoya Sesame oil
Light Vegetable or Olive oil (No extra virgin!)
Preheat oven to 275 degrees, 250 if it wil go that low. Oil a pan with the light veggie oil and heat until just starting to smoke. Sear the meat side of the pork belly until golden brown. Set aside.
Add a little bit of sesame oil and toast the dry spices (anise, cinnamon and black pepper) until aromatic, about 90 seconds. Add the crushed ginger and sauté for a few seconds, then add the garlic whole and stir fry for a few more seconds. When the garlic is just starting to take on a bit of color deglaze with the sake and mirin.
Reduce by about half, we’re really just looking to burn off the alcohol. Once reduced add the soy sauce, honey, scallions and fish sauce and bring back to a simmer.
Place your pork belly skin side down in a deep and tight fitting oven-proof container and cover with the hot liquid. Cover loosely and place in the oven for 2 hours. Check on it at this point, the point of a paring knife should sink through to the bottom of the pan with little resistance.
Once it’s finished, pull it out of the oven and place it in the refrigerator, still covered in its braising liquid, until fully chilled.
What will emerge is a slightly gelatinous liquid and pork belly that is much easier to slice into serving sized portions. If one were to slice it hot one would end up with a mess of basically pulled pork belly. Decidedly NOT what we are looking for here.
Slice into 3 or 4 blocks through the narrower width (if it was whole this would be the length of the belly) and then into ½ to ¼ inch slices against the grain of the meat at the time of service.
To reheat there are a few methods you could take. You could thicken the liquid with cornstarch and use it to glaze the slices in the oven or in a steamer until heated through. Or you could simply drop the slices in some simmering soup and pour that over some ramen. If you own a brulee torch you could char it slightly, which is certainly the most dramatic approach. Or you could do what I did. I placed the slices on a broiler plate, covered it with its braising liquid and put it in the broiler until it started to audibly pop. The popping is from the skin that was left on. At this point I pulled it from the boiler, basted the slices with the liquid in the pan, and put them back under the broiler, repeating this a few times until the slices were nicely browned.
Serving suggestions for this are myriad. As already stated, this is a classic topping for ramen, but Chef Takashi out here in Chicago serves it with steamed buns. Hell, you could just shove it in your slavering maw straight outa the broiler! By this point it’s been long enough in the making that any delivery method would be simply that. Just a means to get that unctuous pig belly into your impatiently awaiting face! The braising liquid in and of itself is a thing of beauty! Use it to season soup broth, as a pig infused marinade, as a fucking beverage! Seriously, its used to marinade the soft boiled, runny yolk but firm white eggs that are also a staple ramen topping!
I REALLY hope you guys try this, time investment be damned! Just like most braises, this one just gets better if left in the fridge for a couple days before serving. Which means you can make it well in advance and be the fucking hero of any dinner party! All the work having been done the day before, and being better for the aging, leaves you to focus on other things that might need to be done at the last minute. The pork belly will wait. It’s patient like that.
This is a seriously good accompaniment to just about any vaguely Asian inspired menu. You will be in love. You will want to pour the liquid in your eyes.You will want to rub the meat all over your body to attract a mate. And if they are repulsed by it, fuck them! They aren’t good enough for you anyway if they don’t like perfume of pork fat, ginger and soy sauce!
Live well and COOK PORK!
We have a great number of inventive brewers and quality brewhouses here in this country. People who have instilled a few generations of brewers, now, with an eye for quality ingredients and the care, knowledge and artistry needed to make some seriously world class beer. We riff on tried and true European styles, stamping them with our own spirit of adventure and exploration. We took the Pale Ale and made the American Pale Ale, for example. Somewhat lighter in color and body than the Brit version, but much more aggressively hopped, so creating a new species of fermented magic. We took the tradition of the Imperial Stout and applied it to, well, every style we could think of! It’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “Imperial Pilsner” or “Imperial IPA” bandied about in beverage stores like sports stats or celeb gossip. We have started our own tradition of brewing, borrowing, as we are wont to do, from the great traditions that preceded us. We call it “craft beer.” And I call bullshit on that!
Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, hear me out. The idea of American craft beer is based on one simple fact. One easily recognized difference from our Brit, German, Irish and Scot friends across the pond. Most of the beer consumed in this country is garbage. The status quo in this hemisphere is cheaply produced, mass marketed swill that tastes like it was collected from a urinal where somebody, who may have at one point in his existence brushed against a hop plant, took a piss. A vapid and unapologetic shadow of what real beer tastes like. There is a long history behind this though, and prohibition didn’t help matters at all. In fact, that’s the single biggest reason Anheuser Busch is the biggest brewery in this, or any other country. Our taste for beer got dumbed down. We, collectively, would pretty much drink what was available in those dark years between 1920 and 1933. There is a lot to this story, but Anheuser Busch was a well established company before the teetotalers and pretty much just ready and waiting to seize the opportune moment, to fill the void the nanosecond alcohol was legal again. Like Cthulu, dead but dreaming, awaiting the right words to be spoken to awaken and spread darkness over the land. Well, at least that’s how I envision it happened…
So, given this wretched state of affairs, it seems any brewery in this country that is trying in earnest to make a quality product is said to be making “craft beer.” You know what they call that in Europe? They simply call that a brewery that makes BEER! The word “craft” never enters the equation because most of them actually give a shit about quality product, grains, hops, water, yeast, etc. By our standards MOST breweries in Europe (admittedly not all) are producing “craft” beer. To them it’s simply what one does when one calls oneself a brewer. Quality is implied, a standard that tradition demands adherence to. The very act of calling our best offerings craft beer in itself shines light on the fact that the average quality across the board here in this country is far lower than theirs. I don’t want to have to use that word. I don’t want it to be necessary to use an adjective to describe quality above the norm. I want the norm to BE quality, making it only appropriate to add a descriptor if something sucks!
Suck, however, is the bar by which beer is measured in this country, and so the term “craft beer” was born out of necessity, but we CAN do something about it! Stop drinking shit beer! I know there are a lot of brewers and beer nerds out there that will drink swill because, as my home-brewer uncle says, “eh, it’s beer flavored.” I find that completely unacceptable! The next time you’re out in public (at a metal show it will be easier to get away with this) and see a hipster (yes, even at a metal show… they are everywhere!) looking particularly smug with his beverage choice of PBR, smash that cunt in the face with a Two Brothers, New Holland, Sierra Nevada or even a fucking Sam Adams! Stop kneeling at the altar of mediocrity! Let us all unite!
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Live well and drink better.
The word ‘ramen’ for most people conjures up images of college days or other times in their life when money was scarce and nourishment needed to be had on the cheap. Plastic bags of dried noodles with an accompaniment of soup base powder, that was primarily salt, in a small foil packet. This is a travesty. A disgrace. An outrageous insult to the soul of the real deal. Bear in mind, fair reader, that I’m not shunning the product in its entirety. The noodles are perfectly serviceable. Most of the offense comes from the contents of that little foil packet. Let’s face it though, at 20 cents a pack you get what you pay for. Most people know that going into the deal, and I’m just as guilty of slurping them down as the next guy, but with a well-stocked pantry and/or freezer you needn’t suffer through another nearly flavorless salt-bomb. My love affair with Asian style noodles has been long, and it all started with those horribly addictive foil packets. Once I started exploring outside the bag, though, and once I got my hands on the good stuff, my addiction only worsened…
Ramen was one of the many things that the Japanese adopted as their own. As with many other Japanese dishes, the impetus came from China in the form of chow mein. They are a little more delicate in flavor, but fresh Ramen noodles differ little from chow mein still. The biggest difference is in how the Japanese use them as opposed to the Chinese. Often in delicate broth-based soups. Though, the heartier chow mein noodles are used in one of Japans favorite dishes and (I’m convinced of this) what could be their greatest export next to sushi, Yakisoba. That’s another post, however.
This is a dish I recently made for myself that is a good representation of Ramen done right. Simple ingredients and simple, technique driven preparation. The format of soup/noodle/garnish is usually a very forgiving one. As long as the right noodle is served with a sauce of the right intensity the rest of the cast of characters is more or less interchangeable. I wouldn’t recommend that approach with this recipe though. Maitake mushrooms are very delicate, and easily stepped on or shoved out of the way by other flavors in my experience. With that in mind I would advise against using other mushroom varieties in conjunction with them under any circumstance. Just let them and (in this case) the clams shine on their own, the noodles and the broth will do the rest of the work. Fresh Ramen can be found in the freezer section of most Asian or Japanese markets, and some have a section dedicated to refrigerated or frozen noodles specifically.
Ramen with Baby Clams in Dashi: Serves 2
- 1 lb. Littleneck, manila or any small variety of clams
- 1 bottle Hakutsuru Draft Sake
- 2 tsp. peeled and minced fresh ginger
- 1 tsp. crushed garlic
- 3 cups(ish) dashi stock
- 1 bunch Maitake mushrooms, sliced thin, stems discarded
- ¼ pound snow pea pods, cut across into ¼ inch strips
- 1 lime
- 2 packets or bundles fresh Ramen noodles (also known as chuka soba or chow mein)
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
- Soy sauce
- Kosher salt
- Shredded nori and sesame seeds for garnish
Start by putting a large pot of salted water (1 gallon or more) on a back burner over high heat and bring to a boil for the noodles later.
While that’s coming to a boil check the clams thoroughly. The general rule when cooking ANY bi-valve is if they are open when they’re raw, they’re garbage. If a tap doesn’t get the little bastard to close its shell, throw it out. And conversely, if they are closed after they’re cooked, they’re garbage. In either case you may be dealing with a dead mollusk, and it’s not worth finding that out the hard way. Throw it out.
After inspection, heat a 2 quart sauce pan over medium heat with a small amount of sesame oil and a small amount of any other light, tasteless oil. Sesame oil can be overpowering, so it’s sometimes a good idea to cut it
with a lighter variety like peanut or canola. When the oil is hot and with your Sake already opened and at the ready, stir in your crushed garlic and minced ginger. DO NOT LET IT BROWN! Continue stirring for about 30 seconds, or until the smell of garlic and ginger fill the kitchen, and pour in half of the Sake. Bring to a boil and reduce the Sake by ¾, then add the clams and cover. Steam the clams for 90 seconds and check on them. If they aren’t open yet replace the lid and count to 10, repeat until they do. When they are open kill the heat and pull them out of the pot. It will not take long to cook them and the penalty for overcooking is tiny rubber balls of unchewable nastiness. Remove them to a plate and after they have cooled a bit pull the meat out of the shells. All but the 6 prettiest shells, leave the meat in these and use them for garnishing the finished plates or pull the meat but place it back in the shell for easier extraction at the table.
Now put the dashi in the pot with the clam cooking liquor and bring to a simmer. DO NOT BOIL! Boiling will destroy a well-made dashi. If you need a recipe for dashi stock, it’s simple. Soak a strip of konbu in 2 quarts warm water for 30 minutes then bring to a simmer. Remove the konbu, add 6 onces shaved bonito flakes and simmer for 30 minutes. And DO NOT BOIL! Kill the heat and let it sit, unmolested, for another 30 minutes, then strain and use, refrigerate or freeze.
Once the soup base is at a simmer, add the soy sauce in small amounts and taste between each addition. The goal of this is so the soy flavor doesn’t dominate the broth. Once you can taste the soy on even terms with the dashi add some kosher salt to bring the salt content up to where you would like it to be. You want the broth to be about as salty as seawater. This may seem like overkill but the noodles will absorb it, and if the salt content isn’t high enough once the noodles are added the whole dish will taste flat. Add the noodles to the boiling water on the back of the stove and cook as the package directs. Probably in the neighborhood of 4-5 minutes. Drain and rinse the noodles
under hot running water until the sticky film coating them is gone. While the noodles are draining and rinsing, now that you’ve seasoned the soup the way you want it we can add the mushrooms and snow peas and stir until the peas are cooked. Cook ONLY until the snow peas are bright green, any longer and their color will be unappealing and they will lose most of their sweetness to the soup liquid. At this point add the shelled clam meat and heat through. Squeeze the lime juice into the pot until you can just taste it. Lime, too, can overpower.
To plate, put the noodles in serving bowls and ladle the broth over, making sure to distribute the veg and clams evenly. Arrange the reserved clams still in the shell around the bowl and add the sliced scallion, black and white sesame and shredded nori, and serve.
Some of these instructions may seem a little intense. For optimum flavor this is not a dish you can walk away from, though. It will need constant attention, but it will come together and ready to serve in less than half an hour if you already have dashi on hand, so this is also not a long babysitting job like a stock.
(Tip: make dashi, or any stock for that matter, in large batches and freeze it in usable portions for future consumption.)
These are not high level techniques, in any case. If you can’t focus on your cooking for half an hour at a time then I can’t help you anyway. At that point I would suggest following the package instructions and just cover your ramen with water in a bowl, add the contents of that foil packet, and let “Chef Mike”(rowave) do the work for you.
Live well and cook better,