A lot of my posts are just descriptions of a single meal, which is a logical format for a blog, especially if one is diligent enough to document them regularly. Ahem. Moving on. I thought that this time around I’d show a little more about how unlike my actual approach to cooking the concept of an isolated, free-standing meal really is.
When I went to pick up a pork belly and shoulder recently, I also grabbed a slab of ribs since it had been pointed out to me by the smaller, noisier constituency in the family unit that it had been AGES since we had any. I put them in the freezer while the belly cured for a week in its usual mixture of miso and maple syrup (plus salt, to speed osmosis, and pepper, and probably some herbs and garlic too).
A few days later, it was getting late and there was nothing easy on hand for dinner, so I cut a hunk off the belly and put it in the pressure cooker with a quart of phở from the freezer. While it hissed, I steamed and mashed sweet potatoes and ran outside to pick dandelions, wild garlic, arugula, sorrel, radicchio, and parsley (and probably some other springy things that were up) and made them all into a bright green mash with lots of garlic, olive oil, and apricot vinegar. And I opened a jar–one of the few remaining–of last fall’s apple sauce.
After about 45 minutes, the belly was tender and the phở had become a thing of profound, smoky beauty. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but bacon-infused phở is about as good as a broth can get. I removed the meat and let the liquid reduce some while I got everything together. The meal, pictured above, was meat on spuds with broth, mash, and apple sauce. It was a good one, and perfect for the damp day.
The following weekend, it was lovely, so I fired up the smoker and put in the belly and the slab of ribs, the latter well rubbed with my usual assortment of spices: salt, pepper, coffee, cumin, coriander, chile, garlic, thyme, paprika, 5-spice, and probably some other stuff. They smoked for about three hours, though the bacon came out once it got to an internal temperature of about 135˚.
Three hours is really the minimum required to get ribs to that falling-apart place of extreme specialness that one looks for. I mopped them periodically with my also traditional sauce, whipped up for the occasion, of tomato, vinegar, maple syrup, tamarind, fruit juice (papaya in this case), espresso, mustard, wine, soy sauce, and I think that was it. As they rounded third, I made polenta and cooked some collards with onion using the very first of the still-steaming bacon to flavor them in porky, southern-style sympathy with the ribs. Actually, that’s not true; we ate the first of it with our fingers because bacon hot out of the smoker is fucking orgasmic.
As always, I saved all the bones, and a few days later another wet day beckoned for soup. I made a stock with all the rib bones, plus carrot, celery, and onion, and let it simmer for an hour or so. Separately, I cooked kale and udon, and made these little fritters out of leftover chick pea coconut curry from an intervening (vegetarian) meal that I blended up with the rest of that green mash from up top and a bit of flour and an egg yolk to hold them together.
I sliced some bacon thinly to double down on the porkitude, and finished the bowls with a generous hit of togarashi. Smoky, meaty, pan-Asian goodness ensued.
As with life, the trick with cooking is to keep the dance going as long as possible, to fold new ingredients in but always have the syncopated but rock-solid beat of leftovers and value-added staples like stock and smoked pork on hand so three stiff little bundles of noodles can become the bowl above long before Paul’s Boutique is done playing.
Levon Helm is buried just a few hundred yards from my house, and the outpouring of love from all over in the days following his death was moving and fitting for such a beloved and influential figure. Even though he was not particularly old, he was of the generation which, like it or not, is beginning to leave us. Adam Yauch was five years older than I am. There’s just nothing about that that’s OK.