Caramel. The braising liquid was caramel. Fatty pork braised in CARMEL.
Nearly all of my get-togethers seem to stem out of an unconscious but important rule. If I am going to braise fatty pork in caramel, certain things need to be in place. My shirt needs to be tucked in And, you know, bed made, clothes off the floor, toilet paper IN the holder and not just sitting on top of it.
In other words, company. I feel like if I don’t have friends over, I’ll go Lord of The Flies and basically eat the entire pot with my hands on the kitchen floor with my face painted. Remember: I’m still trying to be a once-a-week vegetarian and things have been stressful and I haven’t made pork in a while and haven’t really slow cooked anything for even longer. I NEED least this thin veneer of civilization as a hedge against Dark Urges.
Like I said, I haven’t really made a pork dish in a while. But this post in the New York Times Magazine last month sold me on the spot. The dish in question was something called Thit heo kho, a traditional Vietnamese braised pork dish that typically includes hard boiled eggs. It looked beautiful and perfectly balanced: tender mouthfuls of pork creating this warm, rich platform upon which sweet and sour could shove each other around once again. I. HAD. TO. MAKE. THIS.
A few emails later, it was set. Friends over.
The specifics of the recipe, though, seemed a bit much. The article specifically details a cooking event born of crisis – how the author improvised a very creative version of the dish with on-hand ingredients in the run-up to Hurricane Irene. It was a compelling read, but I’ve never cooked a pork cheek before, (Amy’s version is on my list, like basically everything else on her blog.)
In my search for the “right” recipe, I came upon a new to me blog, which I really liked. I found Wandering Chopsticks though Lan’s blog, and was instantly impressed. The writing typically has this upbeat, casual tone to it, but it’s peppered with just enough whimsy and snark to keep me laughing. The dish I made owes much to this site, and I am grateful.
This is not a complicated or fussy dish: Looking over the ingredients, it should be fairly obvious what is about to happen. Pork will be cooked at a low temperature for a relatively long time, and I doubt you are reading this blog if you do not recognize what a tasty, borderline miraculous chemical event that is. I will, however, offer one speculative caution. The pork is going to be smothered in caramel Caramel, by nature, is hot. Water boils away at 212 degrees but sugar does not begin to burn until, I think, 320ish. Those higher temperatures could, conceivably, overcook the pork if you are not careful. So I suggest you keep the heat QUITE low (250ish) and check it every 15 minutes or so. Anyway:
Thit Heo Kho (Vietnamese Braised Pork)- Inspired by recipe in NYT Magazine and adapted from Wandering Chopsticks
2 lb pork shoulder cut into 2 inch chunks
1/2 Cup of homemade caramel syrup (equal parts water cooked down over high heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until dark amber)
1 Medium nion, diced
1 Cup coconut water
1 tablespoon fish sauce
! hard-boiled egg per diner (this dish serves 5-6 with a bit of jasmine rice) gently liberated from their shells and set aside (make sure to “shock” them in ice-water to prevent overcooking)
Lime wedges, scallion slices, and carrot batons, for fancypants garnish.
Preheat oven to 225
Prepare the caramel, and pour into your braising vessel. Set the stove to medium-low heat. Add the pork pieces and a pinch of salt. Cook gently until most of the water evaporates. Add the chopped onion, and continue stirring for another few minutes. Onions should be translucent.
Add the coconut juice (I used milk) and the fish sauce, Stir until combined. Add water, if needed, until the pork is mostly submerged. Bring to a bare simmer, cover tightly and place in the oven.
Check the pork every 15 minutes or so. It should take between 1 1/2 – 2 hours for the pork to really break down and the color of the braising liquid to intensify. Add water if needed.
After about 1 hour, place the eggs gently within the mixture, and cover with a spoonful or two of the braising liquid. Eggs should take on a deep color.
To serve, place pieces of the pork in a bowl, along with an egg, a wedge of lime juice (This is not called for in either recipe, but braised dishes often need an acidic “pick me up” after a slow cook. Garnish with scallion pieces and carrot matchsticks. Rice is optional.
Also! Have you ever cooked a side-dish that really steals the evening? I think I did this. I had never made Nuoc Cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce based on a combination of lime juice, fish sauce, hot peppers, garlic and sugar. I had always been intimidated by the ingredient list – those of you who know me personally realize what a wuss I can be with heat, specifically chile-heat, and “raw” fish sauce is… a lot to ask.
But this sauce WORKS. I think it’s a verbal crutch for food writers to talk about the “Balance” of ingredients, but this is one of those cases where the interplay of all of these intense impulses creates not just balance but… tension. There is a liveliness to being able to recognize that essentially raw fish sauce and lime juice and hot peppers and garlic are in your mouth, but the sweetness of the sugar reigns in the extremes. Just make the sauce. Once. For Me.
Nuoc Cham adapted from Simply Perfect Every Time
1/4 C fish sauce
1 T white or rice wine vinegar
2 T lime juice
1 T sugar dissolved in 1/4 C very hot water (cookbook uses less water. I think breaking down the sugar in hot water will spread out the sweetness more effectively)
2 large red chilies, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Combine everything. Taste. Add more of whatever you think the sauce lacks.