Monday, February 18, 2019

Red-cooked double winter pork

I have a long-standing and very passionate affair with Zhejiang’s cuisine. I mean, I adore the foods of Jiangsu and the whole Yangtze River area’s foods, but something about Zhejiang just equals excellence in my book.

A lot of this has to do with their love for Shaoxing rice wine. It has a gorgeous sherry flavor that insinuates itself into every morsel, no matter whether that particular dish has been braised, stewed, or steamed. Stir-fries are not that big a deal here because the connoisseurs there tend to enjoy their meats and poultry as tender chunks filled with the flavor that only time and low heat can create.

This dish, red-cooked double winter pork, is an old friend. "Double winter" means that it has winter bamboo shoots (the big and meaty ones, not the long, slender spring shoots) and winter mushrooms, which is the Chinese name for black mushrooms, aka shiitakes. Get fresh shoots and mushrooms if at all possible, as they are both in season now at busier Chinese markets. 

This is simply excellent pork belly!
For the pork, hunt down a great butcher shop. I want you to take a long, hard look at the pork I'm using here: look at the striations of fat and muscle. That equals tenderness. Don't settle for bellies that are massive blocks of red and white -- those will be tough and boring. 

Also, notice that this belly has skin on it. Skin equals collagen equals stickiness on the lips. You want this, I promise. My favorite place in the Bay Area for great pork belly is The Local Butcher in Berkeley -- that's also where Chez Panisse gets its meat, so you'll be in good company. 

We used to enjoy this dish in homestyle places in Taiwan before we got to know the amazing culinary palaces that sprung up in Taipei during the late Seventies and early Eighties. Those were the best years to eat there, for the great chefs were finally hitting their stride, but they were also nearing retirement age, so this was a short-lived last hurrah for the truly classic dishes of that area. About the only place you can enjoy things like this anymore is at home, so give this one a try. See if you don’t fall in love, too.
Parboiling the fresh bamboo shoots

Red-cooked double winter pork
Hóngshāo shuāngdōng ròu 紅燒雙冬肉
Zhejiang cuisine
Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 inch | 30 g fresh ginger, thinly sliced
Around 8 ounces | 250 g fresh pork belly
1 bunch scallions, trimmed, with the white and green parts separated; or, half a small onion plus a fistful of onion greens
About 10 ounces | 300 g fresh black mushrooms (xiānggū), or a dozen dried black mushrooms soaked until pliable
2 large winter bamboo shoots, fresh or frozen and defrosted
Boiling water, as needed
¾ cup | 180 ml Shaoxing rice wine
2 ounces | 60 g rock sugar
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce

1. Set a wok over medium-low heat and add the oil. Toss in the ginger as soon as the oil starts to shimmer. While the ginger is slowly browning, slice the pork belly into cubes about 1 inch | 2 cm wide, and then add them to the wok.

2. As the pork sizzles away, prep the mushrooms by removing the stems and saving them for something else. If you have nice, fresh, fat caps, simply tear them in halves or thirds so that you can revel in their meaty texture. Or, cut them into ½-inch | 1-cm slices. Add these to the pork, toss them around, and add the rice wine, rock sugar, and about 1 quart | 1 liter boiling water. Roughly chop the scallion whites or the onion and toss that in, too. Don’t add the soy sauce at this point, as it tends to toughen the pork. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat, and cover the wok.

Fresh, meaty mushroom caps
3. Once you have done that, prepare the bamboo shoots: If you’re using fresh ones, cut off the bases and remove the tough sheath. Trim off any brown or hard areas, and then cut the shoot lengthwise into quarters, and then crosswise on the diagonal into ½-inch | 1-cm slices. Place these in a saucepan and cover with boiling water. Simmer the shoots for about 10 minutes. Taste a small piece, and if it is not bitter, drain the shoots and add them to the pork. If it's still bitter, then repeat the parboiling process. If you’re using defrosted bamboo, simply cut them into ½-inch | 1-cm slices, parboil for about 10 minutes, drain, and add to the pork. Cover the wok again and simmer over low heat for about an hour. Turn off the heat and, if you have the time, let the mixture rest for a couple of hours so that the flavors get a chance to marry.

4. About half an hour before serving, add the soy sauce and bring the pan to a full boil. Quickly boil the sauce down until it is thick and luscious. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as you wish. You can also make this dish up to this point and refrigerate or freeze it for later on. It only needs to be heated through (preferably by steaming) and sprinkled with the thinly sliced scallion greens before it’s served.