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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sugar + Spice

So, what do you do when you have a meaty fat-capped slab of Stonecross Farm pork belly and a sexy bottle of Bluegrass Soy Sauce from Bourbon Barrel Foods? For me, it was a no brainer. I plunged head first into an East meets West mash up of red cooked pork.

Hong shao rou (red cooked pork) is a classic mainland Chinese dish that raises pork belly to an ethereal level. Although many variations can be found throughout China, most versions contain pork belly, two types of soy sauce (light and dark), ginger, garlic, Shaoxing wine or sherry, rock sugar and spices.

While most of the ingredients are fairly standard pantry items, great ingredients make the classic comfort dish soar . For the most part, it's all about the pork and the soy sauce. Chinese dark soy sauce, aged longer with molasses or caramel, is sweeter, thicker, and more full-bodied than light soy sauce. The combination of the two helps create the signature color and depth of flavor that characterizes red cooked pork. While dark soy sauce can be found at any Asian market, we have our own wonderful homegrown version of light soy sauce right  here in Kentucky. Bluegrass Soy Sauce, a light bodied version,  is a fabulous example of Kentucky craftmanship and care that is uniquely special.

This sauce is from the only small batch soy sauce brewery in the United States. It's made from whole non-G.M.O. Kentucky grown soybeans and pure limestone filtered water Kentucky Spring water. It is brewed and aged in bourbon barrels. The result is a smoky, brothy sauce with hints of oak and mild sweetness reminiscent of fine Kentucky bourbon.  - Bourbon Barrel Foods.

Red Cooked Pork Belly.
With crisp soy flavor, the clean salty undertones of Bluegrass Soy Sauce helped balance the combined spicy sweet forwardness of dark soy, caramel, Shaoxing wine, aromatics, and spices that make up the flavor base for red cooked pork. Although it was a simple lazy braise to throw together, building layers of flavor was key in developing the intense complexity of the classic comfort dish, special occasion meal, or drunken late night snack.

Belly Up.
After slicing 1 1/2 pounds of gorgeous Stonecross Farm pork belly into 2" cubes, I blanched the pieces in salted water for 5 minutes, drained them, and set them aside. Blanching the pork leached out some of the impurities while tightening the skin and fat for the quick saute and braise.

I placed a wok over a medium high flame and added 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When the oil started to ripple, I tumbled 4 heaping tablespoons of white rock sugar into the oil, gave it a quick stir, and let the sugar melt into the oil. I was shooting for caramel, so I took it to the edge of reason.  Just before the umber-colored rock sugar self-combusted, I quickly added the belly pieces to temper the heat and bathe in the bubbling caramel.

When the molten caramel started to blister the fat, I added 3 star anise pods, 4
sliced green onions, 4 crushed garlic cloves, and a 4" knob of peeled fresh ginger (sliced) before delgazing the wok with 1/3 cup shaoxing wine, 1/4 cup dark soy sauce, and 4 tablespoons of light Bluegrass Soy Sauce.  After coating the pork pieces with the combined sauces, I added 1 cup water, brought the shallow braising liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the wok, and let it rip until the pork was meltingly tender, stirring every 20 minutes or during wine breaks.

After 1 1/2 hours, I removed the lid, cranked the heat to medium high, and reduced the braising liquid until it formed an unworldly aromatic stickiness that burnished the pork with a deep red mahogany glaze.  I tossed the pork belly with the glaze and  pulled the wok from the heat before finishing with pickled red chilies, enoki mushrooms, green onions, and fresh cilantro.

Braised in caramel, soy sauce, shaoxing wine, and pork jus, the unctuous meat surrendered to the terrific explosive sweet ooze of the plumped caramelized fat bombs. That said, with the deep underlying layers of flavor from the ginger, star anise, and garlic fortifying the glaze, it wasn't simply a caramelized pork one note wonder. While the quick-pickled chilies countered the salty sweetness with biting heat and bright acidity, the chilled scallions added grassy wet crunch.

Sugar + Spice.

Lip smacking pork candy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Market Fresh

I love the early growing season. Year after year, I hop on board with unabashed abandon. Right now, I have Grandpa Admires lettuce, Bloomsdale Spinach, and Appolo arugula seedlings nestled in covered peat pots tucked into a sunny corner of our dining room bay window. Enthusiastic? Yes. Practical? Not so much. Curbing my enthusiasm has always been a challenge. Downtown urban gardening has its ups and downs. As much as as I try, I've had hits and misses throughout the years. While planting space is always an issue ( even with containers), the biggest obstacle might be the nineteen enormous mature shade trees surrounding our downtown farm.  Well, that and my impeccable impatience. If patience is indeed a virtue, I'm a slut. A gardening slut. Thankfully, we've had a spring awakening at the farmers market. While over-wintered potatoes and root vegetables still  rule the roost, tender lettuces, micro greens, pea shoots, and ramps have quietly joined the rugged winter stalwarts. Long before the big guns flood the market like thundering wildebeests, the dainty early season jewels flutter into the market like dancing sprites offering hope, renewal, and long awaited inspiration.

Fresh Angel Hair Pasta with Pea Shoot Pesto.

Pea Shoot Pesto.
Early season pea shoots and pea tendrils are wonderful little things. With delicate twisting tendrils, floppy leaves, and crisp juicy stems,  tender young pea shoots sport the subtle flavor of fresh spring peas edged with soft grassy undertones. Although  hampered by a very short season, pea shoots and tendrils are incredibly versatile. They're great in salads, soups, sandwiches, stir-fries, and/or pesto.

Small effort. Big payoff.
I tumbled 3 tablespoons of shelled pistachio nuts and 2 crushed garlic cloves into the base of a food processor. After pulverizing the nuts and garlic, I added 3 cups (loosely packed) Hoot Owl Holler Farm pea shoots, a dash of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon white pepper. With the motor running, I drizzled 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil into the bowl and let it rip until the pesto formed a rough puree. After scraping down the sides of the processor, I added 1/2 parmigiano- reggiano, gave it a quick pulse to incorporate the cheese, scooped the pesto into a small glass bowl, drizzled it with olive oil, and slid the pesto into the refrigerator to chill.

Angel Hair Pasta.
I interviewed with a local restaurant a while back and was hired on the spot because of my angel hair (capelli d' deangelo)) pasta. Here's the deal. Making fresh pasta is fairly straightforward. Most pastas incorporate a combination of very simple ingredients (eggs, flour, salt, sometimes olive oil, sometimes water) in various forms and ratios. That said, angel hair pasta can be a little tricky. Because the fragile strands are so delicate and thin, the dough needs to be a bit drier than most other pasta doughs and kept well floured throughout the process to help the cutting process.

I kept it very simple.
I changed out the bowl of the food processor and replaced the metal blade with a plastic dough blade. After scooping 2 1/2 cups Wiesenberger Mill unbleached all purpose flour into the bowl, I cracked 3 large Elmwood Stock Farm organic free range eggs into the flour, added a pinch of salt, a smidgen of olive oil, and ripped the dough into a rough ball. Instead of pulling the dough from the processor, I let go for another 30 seconds before plopping the dough onto a floured board. After kneading the dough for 5 minutes, I formed it into a small disc, rolled it in flour, wrapped it plastic wrap, and set it aside to rest for an hour.

When the dough relaxed, I used a bench scraper to divide the dough into fourths. Working with one piece of dough at a time, I floured and rolled the pieces through a hand crank pasta machine, changing the settings to thinner settings after each pass (flouring the pasta at every stage) until I had four long pliable pasta sheets. After letting the sheets dry for 10 minutes, I sliced them in half and used the machine to cut the pasta into wispy strands before feathering them onto a floured dish towel.

I brought a large pot of water to a rolling boil, heavily salted the water, and added 2 handfuls of the pasta.  After 2 minutes, I scooped the pasta out of the water with a spider, dropped it into a large glass bowl, and tossed the pasta with 1/2 cup pea shoot pesto. To loosen the sauce a bit, I added 1/4 cup of the starchy pasta water, gave it another toss, and twirled the pasta into large pasta bowls before finishing with a splash of lemon and Harmony Hill organic microgreens.

Spring renewal.

Like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bluegrass Paella

While paella is common throughout all of Spain, the dish originated from early field workers using local ingredients found in and around the eastern coastal region of Vallencia.  As the dish spread across the country, the ingredients in paella intermingled and changed from region to region. For the most part, any given paella is open for interpretation.  Almost anything can be tossed into a paella. That said,  the three big guns in the paella world are Valencian paella (chicken, rabbit and snails), paella marisco (seafood paella), and paella mixta (a meat and seafood mixed paella). Aside from the various meats, fish, shellfish, and rice, the most common additions to paella are tomatoes, garlic, green vegetables, stock, and saffron. Depending on the region, season, and availability, other add-ins can include garrofo (lima beans), tavella (long white beans), ferraura (local green beans), artichokes, chorizo,  peas, and sometimes lemon.

Although paella can be a free form affair, there are some hard and fast rules that purists embrace for paella excellence. First and foremost, paella is a rice dish. It's all about the rice. The rice has to be either Bomba or Calasparra, tiny fat rice nubs that can absorb tons of liquid while still remaining firm to create the sexy crunch of the socorrat  on the bottom of the pan. While sofrito (garlic, onion, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, and grated tomatoes) is the key flavor base, it's the exotic saffron-infused stock that packs the most alluring  potent punch. Finally, when possible, paellas are best cooked over an open flame. An open fire provides even heat distribution (for the soccorat) and additional smoky undertones.

While embracing the essence of Valencian paella, I honored the big rules
while bending a few others for a nontraditional and unconventional take on the original.

Bluegrass Paella.
I finely diced 1 onion, minced 5 cloves of garlic, grated 2 large tomatoes on the large holes of a box grater (skins discarded), and set them aside.

Sure, fresh artichokes are bear to trim and clean (frozen or canned artichokes would have been fine), but I adore the earthy taste and unique texture of fresh artichokes. Patience was key. I sliced the top 1/3 off of one large artichoke and plucked off the remaining leaves until I reached the base. I peeled the stem, scooped the fuzzy purple choke from the center of the heart, rubbed all the exposed flesh with fresh lemon juice to prevent oxidization, used a paring knife to trim the cleaned artichoke, and quartered it before plunging the artichoke quarters into cold acidulated water.

My rabbit butchery is average at best. Because I knew breaking down a whole rabbit would be tricky business, I ditched the hare altogether and used local Marksbury Farm chicken drummettes and thighs. For the pork factor, in lieu of Spanish chorizo, I opted for a Kentucky spin with diced pieces of Brownings country ham. For true Valencian flair, I rinsed, boiled, and drained two 7 ounce cans of imported land snails. Yep. I had snails tucked away in the pantry. Go figure.

Paella lipstick. After blistering 2 large red peppers over a gas flame, I transferred the peppers to a bowl and covered the bowl with plastic wrap. While the peppers steamed and cooled in their juices, I sliced 1/2 pound of green beans on the bias and blanched them for 3 minutes before plunging them into heavily salted water to stop the cooking process.

I brought 6 cups of homemade chicken stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and added a generous pinch of saffron. After reducing the heat to low, I covered the pan to let the saffron steep, bloom, and release its warming golden yellow hues into the stock.

With all the prep on deck, I lit a fire in an outdoor grill. As the flames died down, I slid a paella pan over the grate above the fire and drizzled the hot pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil started  to spit and smoke, I browned 8 well seasoned  Marksbury Farm chicken drummettes and  3 split boned chicken thighs in the hot oil. Just before removing the chicken from the pan, I tumbled 1 cup of medium diced Brownings country ham into the mix to crisp up and render its salty fat. After sliding the chicken and ham onto a side plate, I scooped the sofrito into the screaming hot paella pan along with 1 heaping tablespoon of Spanish smoked paprika.

When the sofrito thickened and caramelized into an aromatic brick-colored paste, I deglazed the pan with the reserved saffron-kissed stock. Within seconds, the heat from the pan brought the stock to a rolling boil, so I sprinkled 2 cups of bomba rice over the stock and shook  the pan to evenly distribute the rice. As  the rice settled into the stock, I tucked the drummettes, chicken thighs (skin on), and the quartered artichokes into the rippling stock. After scattering the snails around  the paella, I let it rip (without stirring) for  35 minutes, rotating the pan every once and while to keep things loosey-goosey.

At the 30 minute mark, I could hear and smell the precious socorrat forming on the bottom of the pan, so I left the paella alone to allow the ingredients to settle into the gorgeous rice. When the rice was cooked through, yet firm, I pulled the paella from the heat, covered it with a dish towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes before finishing with julienned roasted red peppers, green beans, lemon, and olive oil.

Nestled in the jeweled rice, the tender chicken absorbed the smoky spice of the sofrito.  While the artichokes seemed to melt into the paella, the country ham added salty crisp bites that balanced the the springy chew and earthy funk of the plumped snails. Scattered over the top, the roasted peppers provided subtle sweet smokiness alongside the bright crunch of the green beans. Even with so much going on, the rice was key. Both tender and firm, it popped with intricately woven layers of highly seasoned flavor. Beneath it all, the prized toasted socorrat caramelized, forming crunchy sweet and savory swaths of spiced rice candy. The hidden treasure.