Monday, March 11, 2019

Something fit for a Sichuan feast

Pork hocks are severely under-appreciated parts of the animal, so much so that I usually can only find them in markets that cater to people who really know how to eat the best parts of the pig, namely Latino and Chinese places. 

Nowadays high-end butchers are finally beginning to offer them, too, so see if you can get grass-fed pigs, for they taste so much better than factory farm ones.

This dish is simply wonderful. The thick layer of fat slowly melts down during the braise and turns into a creamy blanket for the juicy meat. And surrounding it all is probably the best part of all—the skin—for it takes on a silky texture that offers yet one more bit of textural contrast. 

Most of the time, pork braises that feature the spicy fermented bean sauce of Sichuan known as là dòubànjiàng use only small chunks or ribbons of meat, and so the porky flavor and meaty texture is easily lost in all of those fireworks.

But if you use a chubby hock like here, the meat gets to keep its individuality. It also has enough heft to stand apart from the sauce, so that when you take a bite, you’ll first be pleasantly assaulted by the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, but then these will fade away as your teeth sink into the meat and other, more earthy flavors and juicy textures take over.

Absolutely delectable
This dish is only vaguely spicy after this long braise, but that is what you want for in a fancier, more classical dish like this. Traditionally, this would be one of the centerpieces of your banquet, and you want each course to have a different amount of heat, numbness, saltiness, and even sweetness, so that your guests enjoy a wonderful array of flavors as they dine.

Dòubànjiàng (both spicy and mild versions) are finally starting to get some recognition outside of China, and for good reason: these offer remarkably tasty ways to jump-start the flavors in braises. You usually find them in dishes featuring things like freshwater fish, chicken, eggplant, and (of course) pork, for they are complex pastes made out of things like ground chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, salt, and moldy beans. The moldy beans are what set off the fermentation in this thick mahogany brew, and they are also what give us such foods of the gods as soy sauce, so think of these as your slimy little friends.

I’ve made this sort of paste from scratch, including soaking-steaming-drying-wetting-molding both fava beans and soy beans. It’s a bit smelly, and my husband thinks I'm more than a bit crazy, but that way I get to have as much fermented bean sauce as I want, so I’m definitely not knocking it. Going this level of granular in the kitchen also gives me a better understanding of what goes into making China’s magnificent battery of fermented sauces, and also what to look for when I really need a fix and don’t have time to waste. See the Note below for some suggestions.

Again, think about making this sort of dish for a party, because it really is festive food. It looks incredibly beautiful, too, and if your diners are sophisticated, the surprise of being served a perfectly done pork hock will bowl them over. And even though it looks and tastes complicated, this dish is a timesaver, for you should make it a couple of days ahead so that it has time to simmer and sit, which matures the flavors in amazing ways. You then only need to do a couple simple steps after that, and you're done.

Keep this recipe in your hip pocket for those times you really need to impress.

Spicy braised Sichuan pork hock
Dòubàn zhŏuzi  豆瓣肘子
Sichuan cuisine
Serves 6

1 fresh pork hock (about 2 pounds | 1 kg)
Trivet in the pan
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup | 80 g Sichuan spicy fermented bean sauce (là dòubànjiàng, see Note)
2 tablespoons | 15 g finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 scallion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 ounce | 25 g yellow rock sugar
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 g Shaoxing rice wine
2 quarts | 2 liters unsalted (or low salt) chicken stock, divided in half

To finish:
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 bunch spinach or other greens, washed carefully, dried, and lightly chopped
Chopped scallions

1. Place the hock in a narrow 4-quart | 4-liter saucepan. Cover it with water and bring the pan to a full boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and blanch the pork for about 20 minutes to remove most of the impurities, which will give you a much nicer-tasting piece of pork. Dump out the water and rinse both the pork and the pan.

2. Set a small trivet at the bottom of the pan and place the hock on top of that. This will help keep the pork skin from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

3. Pour the oil in a wok set over medium heat. Add the bean sauce, ginger, ginger, garlic, scallion, and peppercorns. Stir the aromatics until the paste starts to bubble. Add the rock sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, and half of the stock to the wok. Raise the heat to high and simmer for about 15 minutes. Pour this over the pork in the saucepan and top it off with the rest of the stock. (This thin liquid should come up about halfway on the pork hock. It will thicken up later on.) 

Ready for its long braise
4. Bring the uncovered pan to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. The sauce will probably froth at this point, so don’t cover it yet. After about 15 minutes, when the sauce has settled down, cover the pan closely, reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and slowly cook the hock for around 2½ hours, carefully turning the hock over a couple of times. If the bones fall out, that’s ok, as the pork ought to be nicely tender at this point. 

5. Remove the pan from the heat and let it come to room temperature. Taste the sauce and make any adjustments you want at this point. It should be thick, velvety, and full-flavored. Place the pork in a 1-quart | 1-liter heatproof bowl with the pointy end of the hock down, add the sauce to about 1 inch | 2 cm from the top, cover, and refrigerate for at least one day and up to four. (You can freeze it if you need to store it longer.) Pour the rest of the sauce into another container and use it for something else, like braised bean curd. 

6. Set the cold bowl in a steamer or pan fitted with a trivet. Add water to the bottom of the pan and slowly bring the water to a full boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Steam the pork for 1 hour. Remove it from the steamer and let it cool down for about 10 minutes. 

7. Use a turkey baster or ladle to transfer the sauce to a wok. Set a rimmed plate or shallow bowl over the pork and then invert the pork onto it. Boil the sauce for 10 to 15 minutes on high to concentrate the flavors. Mix the cornstarch into the water to make a slurry. When the sauce is covered with bubbles, stir in the slurry so that it doesn't lump up, and then boil the sauce quickly for about 30 seconds to cook off any raw taste in the cornstarch. Pour this over the hock.

8. Add the sesame oil in the wok and set it over high heat. When the oil starts to smoke, add the spinach. (Do not add any salt, as the sauce will already be savory enough.) Toss it around over the heat until it turns an emerald green, and then arrange this in a nest around the pork hock. Sprinkle the dish with the chopped scallions and serve with a small knife to help cut the hock into thin wedges and a spoon for the sauce.
One of my go-to brands

I like the Sichuan bean sauces made in Taiwan. I’ve used them for decades, and the flavor has been very consistent. Lots of Mainland brands claim to be made in Pixian nowadays, but the demand for them is so high that I’ve found many to be lacking in flavor and depth. If you’d like to try Taiwan’s brands, check out Haha and Szechuan. I like to get these in small cans like the one on the right, since the sauce stays fresher that way. I just scrape out any leftover sauce into a clean jam jar, label it, and refrigerate it.