Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hunan Harvest Pork

This twice-cooked dish is served year-round in the Hunan province of China. Hunan cuisine was not very well-known outside China until the 70's. Henry Chan, a famous San Francisco chef, writes that this is principally because this rugged and lush land offered its inhabitants virtually no reason to emigrate, so the Hunan native elsewhere in China is a relatively rare bird. In California people have better reasons to emigrate on occasion, but the richness of the land is nonpareil. Especially when it comes to good food, the natural resources here are great. Produce is available from meticulous farmers for delicate dishes that flirt with disaster, such as French food, alongside hearty greens produced by farmers who use traditional methods and down-to-earth approaches for the highest-quality yield at reasonable prices.

My eyes were first opened to the surprising delicacy of Chinese cuisines in 1997, when I went to Hong Kong to pay my respects to the last remaining bastion of non-PRC Chinese culture outside of Taiwan, before the hand-over. To my surprise, I ended up spending most of my time in food markets, learning about ingredients and their tastes when prepared right there in simple, traditional ways, and about the exquisite delicacy of a food that has as its most stunning attribute harmony among ingredients and the showcasing of simple fresh flavors.

Many of the dishes I tried then, much to my surprise, were every bit as respectful to quality ingredients as the cuisine that has made California famous in the US. The indiscriminate corn-starching, greasing, and salting of cookie-cutter Chinese eateries in the west was gone altogether, replaced by perfectly steamed flowering broccoli with ribbons of lightly sauteed goose-intestine, and the like. I was in love.

In any case, cooking is a bit like traveling. You will be happiest if you work with what is available and remain as flexible as necessary. Otherwise you will find yourself quickly using substandard or overpriced ingredients out of season, and losing heart as the resulting dishes turn out less than inspirational. There are, however, many dishes that can be made quite well most of the time, as they rely on nothing too seasonal. Here is my family's favorite, Henry Chan's recipe for harvest pork, a la Juan Cristián:

During harvest-time, the pork is sliced thicker because landlords want to show their generosity to the workers, thus insuring that the workers will take care to waste nothing when harvesting the fields. This dish is also served to the sixteen pall-bearers in a traditional funeral. A group of pall-bearers might consume an entire pig in one sitting. My family of 4 can hardly get through a pound of pork in one sitting when we're starving....

-A note about ingredients: The importance of quality ingredients cannot be overstated. This dish does not make heavy demands on the ingredients beyond basic quality. The beauty of this kind of cuisine is that there is such profound harmony among the ingredients that it's hard to mess it up completely. This is not sauce Bordelaise or any such acrobatic combination of ingredients and temperatures, so an absolute disaster is not likely. There are six sacred ingredients, however, attention to which will make the difference between a memorably delicious dish and a perfectly lackluster one: water, rice, stock, chile, bean-paste, and oil.

Water carries a lot of flavor, good and bad. I use carbon-filtered San Francisco tap water for everything edible. It makes a big difference. Cast off notions of tap-water being sub-standard. It is, in most municipalities in Europe and North America at least, a far sight cleaner and better regulated than bottled waters, and tastes quite good. The best tap-water smells of chlorine when it comes out of the faucet, and is not too hard. Many modern municipalities use chloramine for water treatment, because it does not smell like chlorine. The thing is that chlorine smells because it evaporates, can be boiled off, and disappears completely from water aged two or three days, whereas chloramine is not volatile and has health-risks associated with it, though it does not alter the flavor of water significantly.

A younger rice will usually work better than a drier, older one. Buy new crop rice when you can get it. I personally prefer slightly sticky rices, those that have a little more than 20% amylose (the remaining starch being amylopectin) for the bed of this dish, but any rice will do as long as it cooked well. A rice-cooker is cheap and will do it perfectly for you every time. Just put the rice in with enough water to cover the rice under a layer of water 1/2 inch thick, soak it there for 30m or so and replenish if it is an older rice (to keep the layer of water over the rice nearly 1/2 inch thick), and then let the rice-cooker do it's thing.

Chicken or pork stock can be used almost interchangeably in this dish. The trick is to be sure that the stock has a hearty concentrated flavor. Better Than Bullion concentrated stock works great, is very practical, and commonly available. I usually start with a normal-strength stock made from this, and reduce the result of boiling three or four pork-butts in this over time, to end up with an unusually concentrated stock.

There is a Hunan chile pepper of legend, but I have never found it locally. Hunan restaurants use dried chile de arbol flakes that are found everywhere. I find that if you have access to a Chinese farmer's market, there are small red Thai chile peppers that bought whole and processed or finely diced make a better flavor. The trouble with these is that they are seasonal, but once you try them, you'll be happy to fall back to the flaky dry stuff during the off-season and enjoy the change in the dish as they come back in. Beware, though, that chili peppers mold very easily, so keep them airtight in the refrigerator after dicing, or parboil them.

Any dish that calls for black- bean paste will be deeply insulted by most of the pastes available at your local grocery store. The best black bean paste is made at home. Preserved black beans from the Yang Jian State Operated Black Bean Facility in Kwang Tunc, PRC, are good and readily available at many Chinese grocery stores. It comes in these cardboard containers that look like old Morton Salt cans, wrapped in yellow paper. Put some in a container (about a cup) and just cover them with water. After an hour or so, toss the mess in a food processor, make a paste out of it, and there you have it. If you cannot find this, Lan Chi bean paste with chili is quite good, but I have only seen it once. Not easy to find. Barring these, preserved black-beans in  plastic vacuum-packs are a little easier to find in most Asian grocery stores and work fine.

Sesame oil has a high flash-point and the hotter you get the wok before tossing stuff into it, the better everything will turn out. In a pinch, olive oil works, but sesame is better for this. Short searings are the general idea.

About the cooking: There is one absolutely essential thing about this dish, and most Chinese dishes - start the rice, prep all the ingredients, and don't heat up the wok until the rice is done! Trying to prep as you cook is inviting disaster, as the cooking part happens very fast. You will dirty lots of small containers. We find that an assortment one-cup and half-cup french ceramic pastry bowls works great.

Step 1 - Cooking the pork

  • 1/2 lb pork butt
  • 2c chicken stock


Put the pork in the stock over a high flame. Reduce the heat as soon as it boils, and simmer until it is just pink in the middle - about 10 minutes for 3/4" thick slices. We typically do 2 or 3lbs at a time, to have a supply for the week. This one step done well in advance renders the dish a much lower-effort proposition than trying to cook the meat as part of the prep.

Save off the strained stock, and let the pork drain for a couple of minutes.

Step 2 - Cooking the dish: Harvest Pork

Ingredients -

  • 1/2 lb lightly boiled pork, in 1/4" slices, about 1" square
  • 1 tbsp black bean paste
  • 1/2 tbsp garlic, fresh minced
  • 1 tsp fresh grated ginger
  • 1 cup cabbage, cut into ribbons about 1/2" think and 1" long
  • 1/2 cup bell-pepper, cut into 1" slices - cut red bell-pepper longitudinally, or green pepper diagonally to get more sweetness out of it
  • 1/2 cup scallions (green garlic is a great substitute when it's available) - cut the scallions into 1/3" slices, as far up the green part as you can - the green is actually the best flavor for this dish
  • 1/3 cup chicken stock
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp diced Thai chiles (or less, depending on how hot you like it - skip them if you're serving kids)
  • 1c rice

  • Heat the work over high heat with a sprinkling of sesame oil until the oil just starts to smoke.
  • Add a teaspoon of oil, and the pork, garlic and ginger, bean-paste, cabbage, and bell pepper all at the same time. Stir everything in the wok constantly.
  • As soon as the aroma of the garlic, ginger, and bean-paste get stronger (1 to 2 minutes) toss in the remaining ingredients
  • Cook until the scallions glisten evenly, about 2 minutes, and serve over rice.