now browsing by tag


Bacon’s More Sophisticated Cousin


The cast of characters. See also: The Usual Suspects.

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. The ingredients:    

Fuck you, Malbon! Any blood spilled because of this addiction is on YOUR hands!

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!)        

Yeah, yeah, I already know what your gonna say about overcrowding the pan... The meat is thick enough and is going to be cooked long enough to render that point moot.

Procedure: 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.        

Most of the flavor in dry spices is locked in their oils. Toasting in a little oil brings them out more than if just pitched right in and gives them a little more complexity

    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.        

Ready to cover and lounge in the oven for a couple hours

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.    

Ready for it's semi-final destination. The Broiler!

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!    

Finally ready for a vicious tongue lashing! You dirty little pork belly...

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!    

Kadoya. Ask for it by name!

Live well and COOK PORK! -Jack        

Serving suggestion! This or dive at it like a savage that hasn't seen pork belly in years. Either would be completely appropriate.

Ramen Speed!

Ready to serve.

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.

The raw ingredients.

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
  • 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
  • Soy sauce
  • Kosher salt
  • Shredded nori and sesame seeds for garnish

Tightly closed and ready to steam. (Insert tight clam joke here.)

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

Ready for a sake steam bath.

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.

All opened and fit for consumption.

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 cold water for 30 minutes then bring to a simmer. Remove the konbu, add 6 onces shaved bonito flakes and bring to a full boil then immediately kill the heat and let it sit, unmolested, for another 30 minutes,  or until the fish flakes fall to the bottom. 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

Evicted from their homes, but not finished yet!

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.    

Block of dashi pulled from the deep freeze and into the pot.

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.

Veggies in for a VERY quick swim.

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.

Pre-dinner snack. Sashimi plate of Surf clam, Hamachi belly, and Bonito tataki.

Live well and cook better, Jack-                        


A couple of the methods I've employed for storing the finished product, used soy sauce bottle and empty Sake bottle.

The most popular condiment in Japan, bar none, is Ponzu-Shoyu. A citrusy, soy based dipping sauce, it can be found commercially made by dozens of companies. It is, however, extremely easy to make yourself and the results are not only far superior to anything bought from a store shelf but also keeps almost indefinitely in the refrigerator. Simple ingredients, simple preparation, amazing flavor and versatility. In Japan it's eaten with everything from Tempura, to Shabu-Shabu, to noodles, to sushi and sashimi. Some of the ingredients I'll be listing you can only find at a Japanese grocer, but none of them are expensive and if you make it in bulk you'll not need to make the trip to one more than once a year. It's used fairly sparingly, being that it's fairly strong flavored, so a little will last you long while (unless you're like me and drink it straight outa the bottle...). The combination of flavors makes it my personal favorite condiment ever, but, if you haven't noticed by now, I'm fairly biased toward the Japanese palette of flavors. That aside, I can't recommend this enough! Make some, dammit! The ingredients (for a 2 cup batch): 1 cup + 2 Tablespoons Usukuchi Soy Sauce (regular soy sauce will work, but back off to an even cup) ¾ cup + 2 Tablespoons Unseasoned Rice Vinegar 2-3 Tablespoons mild Honey (optional) ½ cup Lemon juice, Lime juice, or combination of (lately I've been using straight Lime, but your call) If on the extremely off chance you find fresh Sudachi, or Green or Yellow Yuzu at the Japanese market, use that! One 5g packet Shaved Bonito flakes 3 inch x 3 inch square of Konbu (dried giant kelp) The procedure: Now here's where I get to talk about some of the basic concepts that run through all of Japanese cooking. There are a couple things to remember here about the handling of these ingredients, and how these ideas should be remembered whenever you use them for any reason. Boiling = Bad. You never want to boil anything containing Soy sauce or Bonito... Period. Miso also falls into the “never boil” category, but there's no Miso in this recipe so I'll leave that discussion for another post. If you boil Soy sauce it tends to give it an astringent after-taste, and if you boil Bonito you loose a lot of the depth it can bring to the table. You also never want to boil any citrus juice if you want it to be a star player in the final product. Doing so takes away a lot of the freshness of flavor, and just dulls the punch fresh citrus juice provides, which is the entire reason for using it. That said, you'll understand why I structured this recipe the way I did.

Damp cloth, not dripping wet, and don't worry about getting all of it.

Remove the Konbu from the package and wipe with a damp cloth to remove most of the powdery white coating. Don't be anal about this, you don't need to get rid of all traces. Next, place the vinegar in a non-reactive pot (meaning NOT aluminum, stainless steel or glass preferably) with the Konbu and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once simmering, dissolve the honey into the vinegar (if using) and add the Bonito flakes and turn the heat down a bit. Allow to steep, much like making tea, at just under a boil for 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Adding the Bonito. I was making a much larger batch in this build than the recipe I'm providing, no difference in concept though. Don't boil it!

Pour the vinegar through a fine mesh strainer into a mixing bowl to remove the Konbu and Bonito and discard them. Add the Soy sauce and citrus juice. TASTE! If the vinegar is too strong, add a splash more soy. Want the citrus to be more prominent? Add some more! Once you are happy with the results pour the Ponzu into an empty bottle for storage. I used the empty Usukuchi bottle, and have also been known to use empty Sake bottles to store smaller batches. So throw out that bottle of Kikkoman Ponzu, and make some yourself! Take notes on the process to remember how you tweaked it to suit your own tastes for the next time you decide to make this (and you will). The balance of soy, vinegar, and citrus with the undertones of Dashi are what make this my favorite condiment, and what makes me want to always have some on hand. Combined with it's sheer versatility, it's a must have for any aficionado of Japanese cuisine. Live well, eat better, and as Francis says, “good luck in the kitchen!” Jack

Cooking Styles: Simplicity

In this post I'm looking to set up the groundwork for (yet another) series of articles. With this series I want to focus on what makes a certain cooking style unique. I'll be focusing mainly on nationalities and ethnicities in this series, as each one has it's own tricks and techniques. On this maiden voyage of new topic, however, I want to compare and contrast three popular, yet different cooking styles that share a common undercurrent. Those would be Italian, Mexican, and Japanese. Have I lost you? Yes, they absolutely share a common thread, and that would be utilizing the best ingredients available with the least amount of tampering. Let me elaborate...
Italian Caprese salad, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, and olive oil.

Italian Caprese salad, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, and olive oil.

If you have a perfect tomato, or tomatillo, or tuna, the last thing you wanna do is over complicate the dish you wish to use it in! Let that perfect ingredient shine on it's own! The biggest mistake I've seen in my near 20 years as a chef is making a dish so complex that the "soul" of the star ingredient is restrained, over shadowed, muted, or nearly obliterated by too much medeling on the cooks part. Let me give you examples using the items I've already mentioned. Perfect tomato = caprese, imperfect tomato = into the sauce pot. Perfect tomatillo = salsa verde, imperfect = soup anyone? Perfect tuna = sashimi, imperfect = casserole (or some other atrocity upon which I dare not speculate...). Simplicity, more often than not, will yield the best results when dealing with something at the height of it's season. Which is another thing these food cultures have in common, a highly developed sense of seasonality, when an ingredient is at it's absolute peak. Every meal revolves around this concept, especially in Japan. Mexico not as much since their climate is tropical and sub-tropical they can grow pretty much whatever, whenever. Ever wonder how we get melons and berries in the winter and spring? Look at the label, their most likely from Mexico.
Mexican classic pico de gallo.

Mexican classic pico de gallo.

Every festival in Japan (and there are a ton of them throughout the year) is accented by the food selections, which are almost universally seasonal in nature. The traditional home meals follow this as well. Though, with the younger generation in Japan becoming more and more Westernized this is on the decline somewhat. Add modern shipping and flash-frozen items to the equation and for a modern nation nothing ever has to be "off the menu". The traditional foods served at these festivals remains seasonal and local, however, and Japan is still very big on tradition.
Taglietele Bolognese.

Tagliatelle Bolognese.

Italy, as well, has a strong sense of seasonality and locality. Most Italian dishes can be traced directly to a region, or even a city. A good example of this is a favorite pasta sauce, Bolognese, originating in Bologna. Southern Italy where it's warmer gave us the tomato based sauces, while northern Italy where the majority of dairy farms are gave us the cream based sauces. Fish dishes from the coast, cheeses from the mountainous north ect... A growing number of the top restaurants in the U.S. have adopted this mantra of seasonally changing menus and buying everything locally to ensure as little time spent in a warehouse or in transit as possible. Some chefs even go out themselves and meet with the farmers and ranchers to develop a personal relationship with them to ensure the best possible quality. No where is the concept of simplicity more apparent than Japanese sashimi. Top quality fish sliced thin and served raw. But then there's also Italian carpaccio, seasoned and briefly seared beef (most often tenderloin) sliced paper thin and served cold and very rare. Or consider the South American delicacy ceviche. Raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in citrus juice and various other herbs and peppers, at the chefs discretion, served cold, usually with corn chips or just a fork! Or the Mexican favorite pico de gallo. A variety of raw vegetables, usually containing tomatoes, onions and always chilis of some sort, tossed in cilantro and lime juice or cider vinegar.
Assorted sashimi tray.

Assorted sashimi tray.

Point being, these three completely disparate cultures came upon the same conclusions (for the most part) regarding food. Under any circumstances, do NOT fuck with perfection! Instead, find a simple way to showcase it. Let it be the star of the "performance". You'll eat much better for it... Jack