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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.

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