Monday, July 29, 2013

Rice crumb pork in lotus leaves


I  tried many versions of Sichuan- and Hunan-style rice crumb pork when I lived in Taiwan. Some were terrific, such as the insanely spicy piles of meat served in small bamboo steamers at Old Zhang’s Dandan Noodles close to downtown Taipei. None, though, could hold a candle to one version a friend made for dinner.

This friend was one of the most amazing women I’d ever met. She had started out on the bottom rungs of society, her family so poor that they embroidered the bottoms of the slippers that were placed on dead bodies for funerals. She worked hard, studied harder, got a couple of degrees, and soon had a good job and a family of her own in a nice apartment.

Rolled up & in the steamer
One day she served this rice crumb pork at a dinner for us, and I was blown away by its genius. 

My friend had used pork ribs, and the sauce that had worked its way down to the bones was subtly spicy: hot enough to please the adults yet gentle enough for her kid to enjoy, too. Her version became the bar I had to reach when it came to this recipe, and I think I’ve succeeded here.

Both Sichuan and Hunan have great riffs on this dish, and since it is almost always served at banquets, not a trace of chilies can usually be found. And so, this is more of a street-stall variety. If you want to be totally authentically fancy here, just leave out the chilies and you will have something mildly delicious in the style of Lake Dongting in Hunan’s north country.

This is a great party dish because it can be made way in advance—even cooked completely and frozen—so that it only has to be resteamed before serving.

Lotus-wrapped spicy rice crumb pork
Héyè zhēngròu  荷葉蒸肉
Sichuan, Hunan
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

Pork and marinade:
Boned shank
14 to 16 ounces boned pork shank with the skin on, pork butt (i.e., shoulder), pork ribs, pork belly with the skin on, or other fatty meat (see Tips)
¼ cup liquid from Fermented Bean Curd, or rice wine
¼ cup sweet soy sauce
2 tablespoons finely minced ginger
2 green onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sweet wheat sauce
6 tablespoons solids from Citrus Chili Oil with Black Beans, or hot bean paste to taste, optional

Rice crumbs and lotus leaves:
2 cups rice crumbs, but use sticky (a/k/a glutinous or sweet) rice here; spices in the crumb optional
4 dried lotus leaves, soaked in hot water until pliable

Dry-fry the rice
1. Rinse the meat and pat dry with paper towels. If there is skin involved, be sure and remove all of the hairs with tweezers. Cut the meat (including all the fat, skin, and possible tendons) into thin slices; if the ribs are slightly larger, that's all right. If you run across any particularly tough bits—especially tendons and fat, cut them into smaller dice.

2. Mix the marinade in a medium work bowl; taste and adjust the seasoning to fit your taste and menu and guests. Add the meat to the bowl, toss, and let the meat marinate in there while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (This can be made up to 8 hours in advance.)

3. Prepare a deep steamer and bring a couple inches of water to boil in the steamer. Pour the Rice Crumbs into the marinating pork and toss well.

Marinated meat with rice
4. Wipe the lotus leaves dry with a clean towel and cut off the hard stem section in the center. Cut each leaf in half and then cut each half into 3 even triangles, which will give you a total of 24 triangles. Divide the pork into 24 portions and place these small mounds near the bottom of each triangle. Fold the long edges over each mound of pork and then roll the leaf up from the wide bottom end up to the pointy tip. Place the leaf packets in a single layer into the steamer baskets. Steam the pork for about 3½ hours, or until the meat is utterly tender. Either serve them immediately with steamed rice and some vegetables, or cool the packets down, store them in a resealable freezer bag, and freeze until you want to steam them again.

Tips

Any nice cut of pork is perfect for this recipe, so see what looks good to you. Again, choose something that has a good ratio of fat to lean; about 1:3 is very nice. If you select ribs, have the butcher saw them into pieces no longer than 2 or 3 inches. Then, cut them apart so that each bone is surrounded by meat and fat. And by the way, for some strange reason "pork butt" comes from the shoulder of a pig, not its hind quarters. Don't ask me why.
Roll up lotus packets

As with any rice crumb dish, fat is a very important component to its success. It should have a creamy texture, and the meat should practically melt on your tongue.

This dish can be made over several days, if you like. This makes it great for fancy dinners when your stress level is already in the red.

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