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John Thorne

So, what's for supper tonight, big guy?

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Hey, good question! I get into various projects that I don't have any particular interest in writing about -- I hate the idea that I live my life to provide fodder for my writing. Recently I was leafing through a very interesting Chinese cookbook by Kenneth Lo called CHINESE REGIONAL COOKING (Pantheon, 1979). What makes it interesting is that Lo collected the regional dishes by traveling around China and eating in local restaurants, something more or less unheard of at the time the book was published and still relatively rare today. Anyway, one of the dishes that caught my fancy was Cantonese Cha Shao Roast Pork, which he describes as "a specialized Cantonese form of cooking which involves the long marinading and quick roasting over a high heat of strips or pieces of meat not more than 3.75 cm (1.5 in) in thickness, so that they can be heated through in a matter of minutes."

However, the clincher to all this was his description of the finished product: "The marinade encrusted on the outside of the pork by the high-heat roasting frames every slice with a well-cooked rim which contrasts well with the fresh, lightly-cooked centre. This is the special feature of Cha Shao Roast Pork, which is a winner every time it is properly done."

Now, for obvious copyright reasons, I can't give you the recipe as he writes it: the book is well worth searching for online and currently you can find copies for under $10...even a few under $6. But I can tell you where I've gone with it up to this point, for better or for worse. To tell the truth, the first time I made it I wasn't all that pleased with it. This was partly because I found his marinade rather bland and partly because the meat didn't cook through nearly as fast as he said it would: for a total of 13 to 14 minutes at 425F.

My suspicion is that Chinese ovens are much hotter and to amplify this, tonight I'm going to cook the meat inside my oven, cranked up to 550F, putting the meat inside a cheap ten-dollar metal outdoor grill (legs removed) which I had to climb through a snow bank to retrieve. The idea is (a) partly to reduce splattering in the oven which if I make I have to clean and (b) mostly to get the hot metal radiating heat close to the meat. There's plenty of venting so I'm not worried about steaming it. (I was worried about the plastic handles melting into stinky puddles on the oven floor, but a test run showed that they could take the heat.)

Also, and this, too, is no doubt totally inauthentic, I decided to serve the cooked pork with a dipping sauce. (I decided this when I tasted the first batch and found it not only raw in the center but rather bland on the outside as well. More cooking cured the second problem, but not the first.) This turned out to be so good that I have kept the practice even as I've added more pizazz to the marinade. Speaking of which, one of the ingredients for that is something he calls "red bean-curd cheese." Now, in the ordinary course of events, my guess as to what "bean-curd cheese" is would be tofu, but I can't really see tofu, red or not, as a marinade ingredient (as opposed to something >being< marinated), so I've guessed that what he means here is "red bean sauce." Maybe someone will correct me here. Finally, for the meat, he calls for a 2 lb pork fillet and I'm going to substitute two 1-pound pieces of boneless country-style pork ribs, since these were on sale this week for $1.99 a pound, or about half their usual price. (Ken, I hope you're not reading this.)

So, as I head into the kitchen to start the marinading, here's where we stand:

Cantonese Cha Shao Roast Pork (Feb 7, 2003)

2 1-lb slaps boneless country pork ribs

Marinade

2 tablespoons soya sauce

1 tablespoon raw sugar crystals

1 tablespoon red bean sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (I have this, but will probably substitute ketchup manis)

1 star anise

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Coat the pork with the marinade and let it rest in the refrigerator for a few hours (I plan 3 hours).

Preheat oven to 550F. Put the pork strips on a the rack of a roasting pan and put some water in the base to keep the drips from vaporizing. Roast at this high temperature for 8-9 minutes. Then turn the pork over (see that it is not burning or charred) and roast for a further 5 minutes. Check for doneness. Pork should be pink inside but not raw. (Remember, I'm going to be doing this using my ourdoor grill as a kind of roasting pan.)

When the pork is done, slice it thinly and serve it on preheated plates, with a dipping sauce if you wish. (I'll be making this at the last minute so I can't give the recipe, but it's the usual sort.) I also plan to serve this with Szechuan fried green beans and red peppers. I can give this recipe, too, if anyone wants.

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Now is the moment for Ed, our resident Chinese expert to intervene. In the meantime:

1. Ken Lo is no longer with us - so no worries on that front

2. Red bean curd cheese is very strongly flavoured fermented bean curd which comes in jars. I believe that the red one gets its colour from spicing/chillies. Certainly not red bean sauce. This might explain the blandness you mentioned. I believe this is not a favourite ingredient of Ed's :wink:

v

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That sounds fabulous. I do this kind of cooking on my ceramic smoker, which retains heat very well - I'll have to try your recipe.

By the way, my all-time favorite rib preparation continues to be the black mustard seed/juniper/garlic/etc. rub from Serious Pig. Although I give you full credit, among my BBQ buds these are invariably referred to as Cat's Ribs. :wacko:

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Jim, I do use a two-day salt rub when I make Chinese crispy pork belly, but in this instance I don't see the point. Why do you suggest it? (Too late, now, of course, but another time.)a

Vanessa, thanks very much. I looked for something like that but couldn't find it; I'll look harder (or at a different place).

Cathy, thanks for the vote of confidence. I think the ceramic cooker would be great. But you ought to wait until I make these, just in case the oven explodes, or something.

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Well, gang, supper has been cooked, served, and eaten, and if you are expecting the report of a ravishing triumph, I should alert you to the fact that you've stumbled into the wrong forum. Not that it was an unmitigated disaster (although that would have been more amusing to report). As it has the previous two times I've cooked it, I was faced with an alternative: rare pork with a pale exterior or well done pork with a darker, tastier experience. Since I was cooking two pieces of meat, I did both, but this was by no means a case of having your cake and eating it, too. No, it was more like having your not very good pork dish served medium and well-done. Whoopee.

Now, there are different things to be said about this. My own guess is that on its home ground the pork is cooked in a HOT -- let me repeat, HOT -- oven that chars the exterior a bit while leaving the interior just gently cooked through. However, it may equally be the case that my palate simply isn't up to appreciating the subtle difference the exterior and the interior of meat cooked in this manner. But Kenneth Lo himself writes in the recipe that one should turn the pork over after 8 or 9 minutes to make sure it isn't "burning or charred" -- and, believe me, after that long in a 550F oven, the meat is not remotely in danger of this....although it would be if you were grilling over hot charcoal. I'm not sure if this means I'm throwing the towel, but I don't have any ideas of how to proceed further.

On the positive side, we had some fresh arugula left over from a meal we ate a few days ago and we ate it with this one, dipping it with the pork into a standard dipping sauce. The combination was terrific. Really delicious melding of flavors. So, this is something I'll pursue in the future, probably with some other sort of pork dish. Over and out....

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I'm so much more tempted by recipes which don't work quite right, rather than the semi-industrial reproduction of perfection. It poses both the problem-solving question - how can I do that right - but also the what the hell was that dish really about.

So I'm now thinking about correct approaches to pork - half-charred exterior, porky interior.

Thankyou for making me think about this - and doubtless produce a totally inedible version in a couple of days.


Wilma squawks no more

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I've come to the point where I automatically brine pork, unless maybe I'm doing a roast. Even the locally grown pork I get here in Oregon is bred to have less fat, and I find the cooked meat gets dry if I don't brine.

Last night I adapted a Gourmet recipe for pork chops with hard cider jus...used thick, center cut boneless chops from Carlton pork (Yamhill County, considered the best commercial pork producer around here)...I brined them for 45 minutes in 1/4 c kosher salt + 3 c water, dried, rubbed with salt and pepper, browned in butter, deglazed pan with French hard cider ('hard' is only 5% alcohol, and the stuff only costs $4.99/bottle), finished in oven with jus and a few whole shallots from my garden (after 7 months starting to shrivel, but still tasty).

I pulled the chops when they hit 155, maybe a tad too long, but they were still nice and juicy...I attribute that to the brine.

It does even more wonders for chicken breasts, but we still like the thighs better.

Jim


olive oil + salt

Real Good Food

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Yeah, I'm a thigh man myself. And thanks to the ban on American chicken parts in Russia (where most of the dark meat went), you can now get chicken thighs almost for free. A local supermarket every other week is offering a buy one package get two free deal. Just think what chicken breast meat might be like if they made chickens fly instead of just free range! I take your point about brining: in fact, so has the pork industry, since a lot of supermarket pork comes already brined because of meat's universal dryness.

However, the mistake I made last night (I think!) was not thinking out some of the larger issues surrounding the recipe before I started to cook. Apart from the fact that Chinese pork is probably quite different than our own (or so I sincerely hope), American ovens are greatly limited (so far as cooks are concerned) by home safety concerns. Professional pizza ovens, for example, get much hotter than we can get our ovens; Chinese restaurants stir fry over far hotter flames than we can coax out of even a top notch gas range. I should have had the sense to look at the dish at the far side of Ken Lo's recipe and see that he was bowdlerizing it for Western kitchens. This may be the cook blaming the equipment; I'm certainly willing to admit this as a possibility, too. But I've had great success with a crispy-fried pork dish, and I imagine that is because in China or in America, hot fat heats to the same temperatures.

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Gastronomically, those of us who have more discrimination than income live in two separate worlds. There’s the best, which we glowingly report, and then there’s what we can afford for everyday. John Thorne comes right out and tells us what he does with mass-produced American chicken thighs, which even the Chinese have now rejected.

My own high-protein, high-fat diet would send us to the poor house if I did not pay regular visits to Waitrose in order to seek out the packages of meat, fowl and fish that have reached their sell-by date and have thus been reduced two-fold, often to less than half their original price. (When did you last see a slab of meat in an artisanal butcher shop with a sell-by date on it? Meats can mature like fine wines, gaining value with age.)

I take comfort from MFK Fisher’s description of her first Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, who was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however decrepit – and yet, in Mary Frances’s memory, “. . . she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.”

I’m quite prepared to believe it. There are tricks of the trade to rescue foodstuffs which are ready to flee the kitchen under their own power. Years ago Mary and I bought a duck on the Grimsby market. Her parents in those far-off days did not own a fridge, but their neighbor across the street, Mrs. Broxholme, was happy to give us space until our return to London.

Mary’s father warned us that nothing of Mrs. Broxholme’s actually worked, but we were young and foolish. We collected the duck – ominously warm – from the fridge and put it in the boot of the Mini. Halfway home the smell began to reach us, even against the wind, and by the time we arrived, the windows were wide open.

Thirty-five years ago, newly-married couples in straightened circumstances didn’t lightly throw away a duck, and so Mary went to our local butcher on Bute Street, South Kensington, and asked his advice. (In those days, you didn’t have to be a rich Arab to live in South Kensington.)

“No problem,” he said breezily. “Give it a good bath in washing-up liquid and then rinse it well – you don’t want bubbles in the sauce!” We took his advice and it worked perfectly. The duck was magnificent, with an opulence born of – shall we say? – maturity. We didn’t ask if this was in fact his own usual practice.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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