This Little Piggy Got Braised

More Heston Blumenthal for dinner last night: braised pork belly. If braising is happening, it must be fall…

I cheated a bit with this dish, which calls for a 12 hour brining followed by an 18 hour braise and at least an hour of rest prior to the last few steps. I was only able to brine for 8 hours, and I left out a few of the aromatics in the brine. Although I’m looking forward to making this again “properly”, I can report that these shortcuts didn’t prevent the dish from being fantastic.

The brining involved salt, star anise, bay leaves, coriander, allspice, juniper and garlic. Since I was running late for a lunch date with MC Warmspice, I left out cloves, thyme, rosemary, and orange and lemon zest.

While the belly brined, I made Heston’s brown chicken stock. That’s the subject of another post. Suffice it to say that pressure cooked stock is some excellent sort of voodoo. Here’s the lovely, gelatinized stock, surrounding the pork belly and some chopped carrots and onion:

20120904-190051.jpg

Having brought that to a simmer, I sent it off on an 18 hour odyssey in a 160’F oven. With five hours remaining, I took the pig’s skin, put it on a rack, and left it in the company of the belly from whence it came.

20120904-190314.jpg

The skin had a tattoo and a nipple, but the nipple wasn’t pierced. Does that still count as a hipster pig?

Anyway. Long story short: braising liquid was reduced, mashed potatoes were made, pork fat was scored in a diamond pattern…

20120904-190936.jpg

… then warmed up in the reduced braising liquid and seared for about 30 seconds in a cast iron pan.

20120904-191136.jpg

The cracklings… chicharones… pork rinds had formed an artful little tube:

20120904-191515.jpg

(Okay, YES, it looks like a hybrid dog toy / dog turd.)

And here’s the plated dish, in all its lipidacious splendour:

20120904-191731.jpg

Holy Crêpes

Ohhhh, man. You are going to want to make this, and soon. I can say without a doubt that this is the best under-$5/person meal I’ve ever had. Galettes Bretonnes au Sarrasin – Buckwheat Crêpes from Brittany, via Anne Willan’s impressive and beautiful cookbook, “The Country Cooking of France.”

Buckwheat has a flavour that’s hard to describe: it’s nutty, but it also has a deeper undercurrent of minerality – MC Warmspice says graphite (but he spent a lot of time licking pencil tips as a child, so it might have been lead.) It tastes wholesome, only better: like something that comes from a magical health food store where things aren’t heavy and clunky and hopelessly earnest.

The recipe uses equal parts buckwheat flour and unbleached white flour – we had run out of all-purpose, so we used King Arthur bread flour. That has a high gluten content, so our crêpes may have been chewier than intended, but we highly recommend it all the same. The flours are mixed with salt and milk.

After a couple of minutes of beating, the batter rests at room temp for 30 or 40 minutes, and then gets beaten again with water (same amount as the milk added earlier), and some clarified butter.

To cook the crêpes, we used a very hot, well-seasoned cast-iron pan, swabbed with clarified butter before each addition of crêpe batter.

The crêpes had some thickness in the middle – they weren’t paper thin. Judging by the photos in the book, ours were a little on the thick side, but not far off.

As they begin to brown around the edges and it becomes possible to slip a thin spatula underneath them, it’s time to flip ’em.

Parchment paper keeps each crêpe separate as the next ones cook.

Meanwhile, we had some eggs slow-soft-simmering (?) in the sous-vide oven. We set it at 148’F and cooked the eggs for an hour and a bit. You can, of course, use a traditional poached or soft-boiled egg. Having the sous-vide oven just makes it easier to get the exact-right doneness, and to hold the eggs there for at least a few minutes. If you’re going the traditional way, and you want to be able to serve several people, a neat trick is to poach eggs until they’re almost done, shock them in ice water, then reheat them as needed. It takes practice to get it right, but it’s worth the effort if big brunches are something you do on a semi-regular basis.

Once the crêpes were done, we filled them with salty goodies. Willan says that either egg, cheese, or ham is traditional. Being North American, we used all three. We didn’t cook the eggs on the crêpes themselves, though, comme il faut.

Gruyère, finely grated on the Microplane to make a little of it cover a large surface area. Neat trick, MC Warmspice!

And thinly sliced ham. You don’t want a smoked ham here; the flavour would overwhelm the buckwheat. Look for unsmoked, wet-cured jambon de Paris, or, if an Italian grocer is closer to you than a French shop, prosciutto cotto – cooked, wet-cured ham, not to be confused with the intense, dry-cured normal prosciutto.

Fold the stuffed crêpes into quarter-circles, crisp/warm them up in the pan…

…and enjoy!

Variations on a theme by Noma

I was so excited to make this Noma dish: Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow. A garden full of different vegetables, each shaved thinly and quickly pickled in its own designated brine. And smoked bone marrow – something that sounds almost too decadently awesome to exist.

I made two versions of this: one, with bone marrow, on New Year’s Eve; the other, with seared scallops, a week later. I present both of these below.

For the marrow version: Four days ahead of time, procure your marrow bones. I had six, two-inch sections, and that was about right for 6 people. Soak them in cold water for two days, changing the water every 12 hours or so. Then switch the soaking liquid to a 7% salt brine – i.e., 70 grams of salt per litre of water.

Getting marrow out of the bone is a tricky business. Set the bone down on a cutting board, with the wider cut-side down. Protecting your hand protected (somewhat) with a tea towel or a chain mail glove, grip the base and, using a flexible steak knife or boning knife, carefully stab downward around the perimeter of the marrow until you’ve done a 360. Turn the bone section over, and try to repeat the procedure. This will be easy on the upper and middle segments of bone. Depending on your butcher’s skill and how little he likes you, you’ll likely end up with some segments that are partly or mostly bony at the wider end. If this is the case, carve out an opening wide enough to admit your index finger, trying your best to minimize the amount of fragmented bone that you introduce into the marrow. The next step is to poke the marrow out of the bone – this is best done when the whole thing is ice cold.

The next step is to smoke the marrow, using a combination of hay and wood chips. I found timothy hay at – you guessed it – the pet store, where it’s sold for bunnies and other, more rodent-esque creatures that apparently have invitations to the homes of my neighbours for reasons that are obscure to me.

The smoking happened on my ghetto smoker. Hay smoke is pretty intense – I was skeptical that it would end up tasting like anything other than a barn fire. In the Noma book, Redzepi prescribes a smoking time of 20 minutes. It was hard for me to see how this would impart flavour, but I followed instructions anyway.

For both versions: Redzepi calls for flash-pickling each veggie in a chamber vacuum for 10 minutes. Not having a chamber vac, I used the marinating accessory jar that came along with my Foodsaver. I really can’t say whether it worked better than just marinating in a bowl for half an hour or so – some day, I’ll do a controlled, double-blind trial of Foodsaver vs. bowl. But I can say that it worked just fine.

Many of the brine recipes call for apple balsamic vinegar. This is a hideously expensive ingredient; I paid about $30 for a 250ml bottle. (Yes, mother, I heard your sharp intake of breath from 120km away…) Of course, it’s also amazing: like balsamic with the slight, tangy, autumnal scent of apples gone to cider. Soooo good.

The bone marrow version of this dish had beet (in a very apple balsamic-intense brine), carrot and parsnip (in another apple balsamic brine), kohlrabi (in a brine of white vinegar and seaweed – I used a mix of wakame and laver, but I think nori or kombu would be fine – dulse might be too smoky), and cauliflower (in a straight-ahead vinegar-and-sugar brine). I forgot to make the cucumber and turnip. The scallop version had cucumber (in a watery brine with fresh dill and a tiny bit of vinegar), beets, carrot, and cauliflower.

To pickle the veggies, proceed thusly. Get your mandoline out, and shave yourself some veggies  – you’re going for slices just a touch thicker than a standard carrot peeling, and about 1cm wide. Except for the cauliflower, which needs a mandoline (or a knife wielded by steadier hands than mine) you can get by with a peeler. Carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi like being thrown into ice water after being sliced – it makes them curl up.

Here’s the Foodsaver flash-pickling apparatus, looking very Mr. Wizard:

… and here it is with carrots and brine:

… and here are the carrots after their dip in the brine:

Here’s the cauliflower, cheerily mimicking a cross-sectioned brain in formaldehyde:

And finally, just because it’s so pretty, here’s the pickled cucumber (which did make it into the second version of the dish):

For the marrow version: Slice the cold marrow into coins. Take the pork rib stock you’ve prepped, and boil some of it down into a near syrup.

For the scallop version: If you have pork stock left, so much the better (think bacon-wrapped scallops…mmm.) If not, warm up some demi-glace. Sear your scallops (sea scallops / diver scallops, not bay) in some clarified butter or neutral oil.

Here’s the marrow version – this was plated at about 11:59:10pm on New Year’s Eve, so there are no micro-herbs or flower petals… we did end up garnishing it with some tiny dill sprigs (after the photo session), but that’s about it.

Picture doing 7 plates with at least 2 or 3 rolls of each of 4 vegetables, cauliflower shavings, and marrow coins carefully doused in hot pork jus, between 11:52 and 11:59, and you’ll understand the lack of garnishes.

And here’s the scallop version, replete with edible (duh) flower petals and dill spriglets… (now be honest, does this make me look gay?)

Some thoughts:

  • 20 minutes of smoking was more than enough for the marrow. It was decidedly smoky, and the smoke permeated the pork jus on the plate. Far from unpleasant – downright heady – but I think it would have been better with a more subtle smokiness.
  • Not surprisingly, the quality of the root vegetables, in particular, matters a lot. Older, woody beets, parsnips, and carrots don’t absorb brine well, and their texture is less succulent than that of more tender veggies. Obvious, yes, but worth paying attention to.
  • Once you’ve rolled your veggies up, trim the sides so you end up with even geometry.
  • Do as much prep ahead of time as possible – most importantly, roll up your pickled veggies. But don’t plate and refrigerate, or the fat in the protein/stock components will congeal.
  • Kohlrabi + seaweed… delicious. Who knew?
  • The marrow version was superior, flavour-wise. Very, very rich, but super-tasty. But the scallop version was great too, and more suited to being a course – rather than a taste – for a short menu.
  • Redzepi doesn’t call for flower petals, but they actually added a lot to the scallop version of the dish: it becomes even  more a riot of colour, and their light perfume was oddly parallel to the briny-sweet scallop scent.
  • Crucially, given the cost of the apple balsamic: you can strain, refrigerate and reuse the more acidic/sugary brines a couple of times at least.

Mama Cass-oulet

Cassoulet may just be the ultimate winter comfort food. From the way the word rolls off the tongue, to the supple mouthfeel, the subtle, warm flavours, and the nourished, soporific feeling you have after consuming it… it’s the culinary equivalent of a down duvet cloaked in silk.

Even at its most stripped-down, cassoulet is a labour of love. The one we made for New Year’s Eve was perhaps more labourious and more loved than most. Hell, we did everything but grow the beans and raise the pigs ourselves.

The work commenced about 10 days ahead of time, when the pork belly began to transform itself into bacon, along the general lines of the recipe I blogged last fall. This time, I went with a less assertive treatment, omitting the maple and the smoking. I wanted the flavour of the beans in the cassoulet to be more prominent than that of the meaty garnishes.

The duck confit came next. Around the same time, because I didn’t have enough to do, I began the 2-day process of making Thomas Keller’s veal stock from The French Laundry Cookbook. I don’t intend to make a habit of this, I just felt the need to do the “uber-stock” for the first time in my life. In short, here’s how this insanity unfolds.

  • Start with 10 lbs of veal bones and a stock pot that can hold about 16 quarts. I had to use 2 pots.
  • Slowly, slowly, bring the bones up to a bare simmer in your stock cauldron, skimming all the time.
  • Remove them from the pot, and immediately rinse them in clean, warm water to remove impurities.
  • Wash the stock pot, return the bones to it, fill it with cold water, and return it to the stove.
  • Again, with agonizing slowness, return the water to a simmer, doing what? Yeah: skimming, skimming, skimming. Always.
  • After a few hours, add your aromatics: onion, leek, fresh tomato, a surprising amount of tomato paste, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, garlic, and carrot. Skim, skim, skim.
  • Ladle / gently pour the liquid – which is now triumphantly dubbed “Veal #1” – into a new vessel, keeping the solids in the pot. Quickly bring the liquid to fridge-ready temperature in a sink-full of ice-water (50% ice). If you’re not continuing to make the stock the same day (you probably won’t), do likewise with the solids.
  • Next: fill the stock pot – which still contains the solids – with water once more, and again, bring it to a simmer. Did I mention that you need to skim?
  • Simmer for approximately ever, then (once again assuming you aren’t continuing the process the same day) bring this liquid – now christened “Veal #2” – down to fridge temp. You can now safely discard the solids.
  • Finally, combine Veal #1 and Veal #2 in a clean pot. Simmer ’till the cows come home (maybe they’re looking for the veal?) skimming…skimming… for many hours.
  • According to Keller, you should reduce this to 2 quarts. I lost my nerve and my patience around 3.5 quarts. “Good enough!” I shouted.

That is Veal #1 being chilled. The final product was essentially fat-free.

Was it worth it? Hard to say. It is a helluva stock. Maybe a bit tomato-y for me. It’s intense in a Barry White kind of way: it’s dark, smooth, and all about the bass notes.

Where were we? Oh yeah – that was a sub-recipe for inclusion in the cassoulet! Onward… to make sausage. Chef C and I chose a mildly flavoured Toulouse-style French garlic sausage. We followed the procedure I’ve blogged about before, and we used this recipe from Len Poli – I can’t say enough good things about that recipe – it was just perfect.

We made a mess by overstuffing the sausages (maybe the casings had become a bit brittle over time?) but they remained coherent enough to survive being browned in a pan and sliced into the cassoulet.

So much for the sub-recipes! On to the main event. We went more or less with Anthony Bourdain’s recipe from his Les Halles Cookbook. Our adaptations: We used the unsmoked, roasted bacon in place of fresh pork belly, and some excellent quality Italian cannellini beans in place of the impossible-to-find-except-by-mail-order Tarbais beans. We used duck fat instead of pureed pork rind. We didn’t carefully layer the ingredients just-so. And we compressed Bourdain’s “day 2” and “day 3” together into one day.

At last, Chef C combined the beans, veal stock, bacon, sausage, and duck confit in an enamelled cast iron pot and put it in the oven, uncovered, to burble away happily for a couple of hours. We had to bump the temperature up to 375’F to get the burbling happening. Finally, the cassoulet developed its characteristic crust, and was ready to serve. It was received enthusiastically, and finished with blissful sighs.