Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pancetta | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 2

When ken and I first purchased the Charcuterie cookbook several years ago, we made an ill-fated attempt at the pancetta, which turned out to be a complete disaster. We were both living in Boston at the time, a city neither of us knew well enough to source good ingredients. Unable to find a decent butcher to obtain an entire belly, we turned to a nearby Asian grocery store where we did a lot of our student budget shopping, for smaller slabs of pork belly. The meat we got there in the past was of questionable quality, so to compensate, we cured the belly for much longer than suggested (despite the small size), and probably used much more pink salt than necessary. When the “pancetta” finally emerged from its cure, it was firm, beautifully pink, but had an overwhelming chemical-saltiness. Even after blanching the belly in an attempt to flush out some of the salt, the meat was irreparable.

When this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge: the salt cure, was announced one month ago, I was ecstatic - this was our chance to redeem ourselves. Keeping in mind our earlier mistakes, we were much more careful in weighing out the cure ingredients. Back on my home turf of new york city, procuring a larger (and better quality) piece of pork belly was not a problem. After 7 days of curing in the fridge, parts of the belly were still quite squishy so we left it for another couple days. After nine days the pancetta was still slightly squishy, but haunted with memories of our first over-salted failure, we declared it sufficiently cured, and moved on to the next stage: rolling the belly, and tying it tightly to avoid air pockets where bacteria might grow. I had practiced the tying process on a paper towel roll, and with helpful twitter advice from @BobdelGrosso and @KatedeCamont (of A Hunger Artist and Camont a culinary retreat in Gascony, respectively) became fairly competent. I discovered however that working with actual meat is a whole new ball game - a difficult project even for two people. The meat was slippery, greasy, and certainly did not want to stay rolled up. Plus as the twine got wet, it become fragile, often tearing when we pulled too hard in our attempt to tighten the roll. After a lot of cursing, re-rolling, and wasting of twine, we finally had a pancetta roll we were reasonably happy with.

For the next step, air drying, I was determined to find a better solution than I had for the duck prosciutto, which I hung in the fridge. The problems of before (apartment (small very dry one bedroom) and boyfriend (low tolerance for cold temperatures)) were equally applicable now. The compromise solution I came up with, was to turn the bedroom into a meat curing chamber by day (while ken was at work). Each morning, we would put a steaming tray of salt water into a small bookshelf near the window, which we had loosely covered with a shower curtain (to preserve the humidity). As ken was about to leave for the day, we’d open the windows until the temperature dropped low enough to hang the pancetta in the bookshelf, where it remained for the rest of the day. Each night we’d return the pancetta to the fridge, where it spent the night on a rack over a tray of salted water (again to avoid overdrying). Although our meat drying solution was laborious and far from elegant, it was entirely worth it! There were days (20 degree days, when I needed a winter coat just to grab something out of the bedroom) when I had my doubts. But after tasting the final product (compared to a sliver we had cut and fried up immediately after taking the belly out of the cure) it was clear that it was worth the effort. After our taste test, even ken wanted to extend the drying process as long as possible. The difference in flavor was drastic. The meat was denser, porkier, and had some of that funk you get from a good cheese or a dry aged steak.
I am a little ashamed to say how much of the pancetta our two person household has already managed to consume. The very first dish we made with our homemade pancetta was an English pork pie from one of our favorite cookbooks, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book. We followed the recipe pretty closely with a few small changes in the flavor profile. Although pancetta only played a small role in the recipe, I wanted to mention it here for a couple reasons. First, because it was our very first use of our newly cured pancetta. Second, because it felt like a nice precursor to potential charcutepalooza adventures in the future (a meat pie is really just a rustic - and round - pate en croute, after all). And lastly, because I’m particularly proud of the charcutepalooza inspired decorations!
The biggest failing of this dish was the result of a lack of patience on our part - a common theme for us. We cut into the pie before the jellied stock filling the space between the meat and the crust had a chance to set, causing a huge mess reminiscent of the gulf oil spill. Despite the mess, the meat pie tasted wonderful with a little mustard and cornichon, paired with a light radish salad.
And, we have a couple jars of jellied stock leftover in the freezer which I have big plans for!

The second dish I wanted to share, arose out of an entirely unexpected and generous gift. Last Wednesday at the greenmarket, I was buying a few clams when the guy working at the fish stand asked me: can you make chowder?
Thinking I misheard him, I answered: no, I’m planning on doing a pasta.
He shook his head: no, you’re not understanding what I’m asking you. Do you know how, and do you have time to make chowder?
I nodded, although to be honest, I’d never done it before but had been wanting to recreate a favorite of ours which we used to eat regularly back in Boston.
He reached under his stand and pulled up a bag full of some of the biggest clams I’d ever seen, and handed it to me: These are for chowder, it has to be made today.
So, what could I do? I lugged the bag home (close to five pounds!), canceled my dinner plans and started looking up chowder recipes.
I can’t stand gritty clams, so the first thing I did was scrub them down and put them in cold salted water to soak. Later that evening when we were ready to start preparing dinner, we gave the clams a last scrub, and put them in a pot with about a cup of white wine, to steam them open. I have to confess that I was pretty nervous at this point. I can be pretty cynical at times, and am generally suspicious of anything that looks too good to be true. When offered something for free usually my first thought is, what’s wrong with it? or, what’s the catch? Wary of these free monster clams, I was expecting the worst. But clearly my nervousness was misplaced. Not only did each clam dutifully pop open, but some were so strong they took up to twenty minutes before giving up the ghost. After the last one popped, we strained the liquid out, yielding about four cups of rich salty clam broth.
Once the broth is prepared the rest of process can be done fairly quickly. A couple slices of our pancetta were cut into lardon, sauteed until crispy, and then set aside.
Diced onion and russet potato, along with a couple cloves of minced garlic and two stalks of celery, sliced, were added to the pancetta fat, and cooked until slightly browned. About half of the clam broth was then added to the pot (the rest was put away in the freezer for future use). The vegetables and broth simmered together for about 10 minutes, after which time we added about a cup of half and half, and let it continue cooking until the potatoes were tender, and the creamy liquid had thickened somewhat. Once the potatoes were cooked through, we tossed in the clams, which had been extracted from their shell, and roughly chopped. I would normally put the clams in at the very last minute of cooking, just to reheat the meat, but once again, I let my suspicious nature take over. Despite all evidence that the clams were perfectly healthy, I let them simmer another five minutes to ensure they were completely cooked through. Pepper was added to taste. Between the clam broth and the pancetta, additional salt was unnecessary. And finally, each bowl of soup was garnished with chives and the crispy pancetta, and served alongside slices of sourdough bread for mopping. This soup was delicious, despite the fact that I overcooked the clam meat, which was chewier than I’d like. Although less rich and creamy than the version we loved in Boston, this soup certainly satisfied our craving. Next time, assuming we have a little more notice, ken will bake sourdough bread bowls to complete what was otherwise a perfect cold weather meal.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Happy Year of the Rabbit | Pun Choi

Last Thursday was the beginning of the year of the rabbit. As a child, Chinese new years was always an exhilarating time of the year. The air was electric, raucous with the sounds of fire crackers and the clanking of mah jong tiles. The loud noises terrified me but were thrilling too in the way a roller coaster, or a scary movie can be - the fear gave everything an exciting edge. Life during that time felt like an adventure. Although still a favorite time of year, the tenor of the holiday has changed for me. I rarely attend the chinatown parades and festivities, so the excitement, the noise, is gone. Now the holiday is all about the gathering: sharing a feast of good food with loved ones. Last Wednesday, we went to my parent’s home to partake in a pun choi with close friends and family.

Pun Choi, which roughly translates to “basin food,” is a one pot meal. The ingredients, pre-cooked separately, each with its own preparation, are then arranged into one large pot. When you are ready to eat, you pour in a rich pork broth, and heat it on a hot plate in the middle of the table until the broth is simmering and the ingredients are heated through. Unlike most one pot meals like stews or casseroles, here, the components are partitioned and layered within the bowl, the meal feels more like a multicourse banquet which happens to be served in a single vessel. Although pun choi, a Hong Kong specialty, is reputed to have been invented during the Song Dynasty, it only recently regained popularity. This likely explains why, despite my mother’s roots in Hong Kong, I only first learned of this dish last spring when ken and I travelled there to visit family. According to this article, the resurgence of this dish was fueled by a desire of the people to reaffirm their Hong Kong identities as separate and distinct from either Britain or China. While I don’t dispute that, I believe another major factor was likely mere practicality. Although apartments in Hong Kong make those here in NYC seem palatial, large family gatherings are still de rigueur. Pun choi provides a celebratory way to feed large gatherings in small spaces. I learned this first hand, when we celebrated my grandmother’s birthday while visiting Hong Kong. Over 15 of us, four generations of Lees, gathered together in her small apartment, where we all comfortably enjoyed pun choi.
The ingredients in a pun choi can be quite varied (as evidenced by the two photos above). Last weeks’ was chock full of fortuitous foods that are traditional to eat on Chinese new years, many of which are meant to ensure prosperity in the coming year. Some like fat choy (a fungus which resembles black hair), lettuce and dried oysters are lucky because their names sound like other Chinese words which happen to have lucky meanings. Others, like abalone, fish maw, sea cucumber and dried scallops indicate prosperity because they are considered rare delicacies. The idea being, I suppose, that if you eat like a rich person on new years eve, then you will actually be a rich person for the remainder of the year. In addition to the traditional new years food, the pun choi also included stuffed fish, roast chicken, pig & duck feet, tofu skins, shrimp, all eaten over long uncut noodles, which symbolize long life. This is the perfect dish for a holiday that epitomizes community and comfort. The simmered meats and vegetables, eaten from a communal vessel, are hearty and belly-warming. Despite the extravagant ingredient list, the best and most coveted part of the pun choi, is the turnip. Turnip is a common ingredient in all pun choi, and is always nestled near the bottom of the pot where it turns sweet and soft from the long slow cooking. The turnip, which absorbs the different flavors of all the other ingredients, is a delicacy to rival even the priciest components of the dish. Lesson learned - I will approach the new year hopeful and expectant of great things, but will celebrate the small things that make the journey worthwhile... and tastier!

Gong Hay Fat Choy! Have a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!