Thursday, August 10, 2006

Red Braised Pork

Fuchsia Dunlop is the most talented non-Asian exponent of Sichuan food around - and it was with some delight that I found she was doing the recipe page in the Observer recently. She's a joy to read because she is so deeply knoweldgeable, she provides all manner of interesting information about the food, its history and narratives. All her recipes sound fabulous. The first one I chose to make was red braised pork - a favourite of Chairman Mao apparently, and a central dish in Hunan province cuisine. A deep glossy red and intensely flavoured, once you've eaten it it's easy to know why.

I bought a lovely piece of belly pork at the Ginger Pig, it was about a kilo in weight so I planned to make a double quantity and freeze half for another time. All was going well, I blanched the meat, toffeed the sugar, watched the meat take on its rich colour when added to the pan, pottered happily in the kitchen wrapped in the delicate aromas of the dish as it braised for nearly an hour, reducing down to a rich glossy sauce. I cooked some basmati rice, chopped the spring onion to toss in at the last moment and the final element, as dinner was almost ready, was to steam some leeks in an inch of water in a covered pan. Rather than freeze spring onions, I ladled half the pork out of the wok into a tub just as all was ready.

And then.... and then...

My sweetheart, who likes being in the kitchen while I cook, and is generally happy chopping and stirring and basting whatever needs it, offered at that moment to help. I was draining the rice and so suggested he stir the spring onions through the pork. He seemed hesitant and said he thought they'd be better separate and, with my back to him while I was at the sink I said no, add them now, they'll just wilt a fraction in the heat. I know not what possessed him - he is after all a man who knows his onions - but he picked up my little pan of steaming leeks and tippped them, water and all, into the meat. I was gobsmacked. Disaster for a dinner. A look of horrified comprehension passed over the lovely boy's face.

We did eat dinner - the half that I'd already removed from the pan with rice and a sprinkling of spring onions over the top. It was extraordinarily good. I sort of rescued the other half - I drained the contents of the pan through a colander, skimmed the fat from the juices and added them back into the meat (and leeks!) and we had it for dinner later in the week. My lovely glossy reduction was a bit disappointing rehydrated but it was okay. The delightful boyfriend is a little more hesitant about his helping but it could have been worse - stuff happens!

Red Braised Pork

500g belly pork (skin optional)
2 tbsp groundnut oil
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine (or medium dry sherry)
20g fresh ginger, skin left on and sliced
1 star anise
2 dried red chillies
a small piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
light soy sauce,
salt and sugar
a few lengths spring onion greens

Plunge the pork into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized chunks.
Heat the oil and white sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and splash in the Shaoxing wine.

Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chillies, cassia and salt to taste. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40-50 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce and season with soy sauce and a little sugar to taste. Add the spring onion greens just before serving.

It really is very good.

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