Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Improvised Belly Trance

Pork Belly with Braised Savoy Cabbage and Cauliflower Purée

I think I may have unwittingly converted a couple of friends to the ethereal delights of pork the other night while deliberately endeavouring to convert myself to the cruciferous displeasures of cauliflower by enlisting the help of my trusty sidekick, the never disappointing pork belly. The stars must have been aligned that night, or could it have been the mystical influence of the Supermoon? The evening culminated into an unplanned and improvised process that ultimately left everyone glazy-eyed and content.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and we were driving back from the country, having spent the day going to a couple of farmers markets, dropping by a local vineyard for some wine tasting, and ending the trip with a visit to a cheese shop. I was in good spirits, my sensory requirements have been well looked after and I was now eager to share the joy. I was in the mood for something cozy and comforting like a stew with white beans but my partner can’t stand beans. I resented it because I missed eating beans since arriving in New Zealand. They remind me of meals from my childhood ( i.e. white bean soup with tarragon) and of my travels through the Caribbean and Central America where beans are a staple ingredient to so many dishes. But then I reminded myself that I too wouldn't go near some foods. There are less than a handful of vegetables to which I refuse bestowing the attribute of "comestible food", namely broccoli, okra, and cauliflower. I can’t stand the things!  I pride myself on eating everything as long as it is tasty and made well, however I have yet to be converted to these three vegetables. My partner, on the other hand loves them and he too has missed eating them since my move here. So there and then I decided to take the matter into my own hands and coax one of these vegetables into submission. Cauliflower it is!

As I was rolling the idea around in my head a menu began to come together. I was going to make pork belly, with braised savoy cabbage, and cauliflower purée. Being Romanian, the one thing that I am sure of is that cabbage and pork are a marriage made in heaven. I had a nice piece of free-range pork belly from Freedom Farms that had the potential to transform even cauliflower into something edible. I had to get my head around it all, guests were coming in a couple of hours and I had no idea if this was going to work. Once I started on the pork belly however, I fell into a trance, I was in the Zone.

Forward a couple of hours into the evening and we are all sitting around the table enjoying some excellent wine and eating our meal. Suddenly, my friend confessed that she doesn't normally eat pork. I felt terrible, it's one thing to inflict cauliflower on myself but I didn't count on my guests not fancying pork. I was relieved to know how much they enjoyed it. The sweetness of the braised savoy cabbage and cauliflower purée lay in perfect harmony with the savoury pork belly. The thyme ever so subtly lent a fragrance to the underside of the pork belly while the crispy cracking provided the perfect contrast to the tenderness of the cabbage and the silkiness of the purée . My guests were happy, I was happy, and I can now cross off cauliflower from my list of forbidden foods.

So here is how to make this flavourful dish by special request from Alex and Jamie:

            The Pork Belly:
Good size chunk of pork belly
            1 medium onion - halved
            2 large heads of garlic - halved
            1 carrot – coarsely chopped
            1 baby fennel (use only stalks here, set the bulb aside for garnish)
            Olive oil
            Salt and pepper
            White wine and/or vegetable stock

  • Score the skin.
  • Massage the belly with olive oil, and plenty of salt and pepper
  • In a roasting pan, lay the pork belly, skin side up, on top of a bed of whole garlic cloves and onion that have been sliced in half, chopped carrot and fennel stocks. Top off the bed with a substantial cover of thyme sprigs.
  • Pour in about 2 cups of white wine into the pan.
  • Cover with tin foil.
  • Place in preheated oven and bake at about 160 C/ 320 F for about 2 hours. Check now and then to ensure the liquid has not completely disappeared in which case, add more wine or vegetable stock.
  • Towards the last 15 minutes, remove the pork belly from its bed of herbs and vegetables and let grill (set oven to ensure the heat is coming from above) by itself uncovered so that you get a nice crispy crackling.
  • Remove the carrots, onion and some of the caramelized garlic from the pan and set aside.
  • Create a sauce from the remaining jus and bits of roasted garlic by deglazing the pan with more wine, add some butter and adjust seasoning to taste.

While the pork belly is cooking…

           The Cauliflower Purée :
½ a head of cauliflower – chopped into florets
1.5 – 2 cups of milk
1 garlic clove
            ¼ tsp. cumin
1 small potato (optional)
1tbsp butter
  • In a medium sauce pan, pour in the milk then add in 2/3 of the cauliflower florets and a whole clove of garlic. I added one small potato for more consistency but this is up to you.
  • Let simmer on low heat until softened, about 25 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, take the remaining 1/3 of the florets, sprinkle with olive oil, cumin, salt & pepper and roast them in the oven for about 20 minutes or until they begin to soften and caramelize. I toasted some cumin seeds which I then ground and sprinkled on top of the florets before popping them into the oven. Cooking the cauliflower two ways will give the purée a richer and more complex flavour. Once both are cooked, tip in the contents, including the remaining milk that the florets were cooking in, into the food processor and blitz until silky and smooth adding butter, and salt & pepper to taste.
  • You can also add some of the caramelized garlic paste from the pork belly into the puree for extra richness of flavour.
  • You can set it aside and reheat it later before serving.
             The Braised Savoy Cabbage:
             1/3 of a head of savoy cabbage – chopped into thin slices
             2 shallots - sliced (or ¼ sliced leek)
             1 garlic clove - crushed
             1 tbsp. chopped bacon or pancetta
             Olive oil
             1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
             1 cup vegetable or chicken stock

  • In a large pan, sauté a couple of shallots, a crushed garlic clove and a small amount of diced bacon or pancetta.
  • Add the thinly sliced savoy cabbage, sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir letting the ingredients sweat and soften.
  • Add the apple cider vinegar and ½ cup of vegetable stock into the pan, cover and let cook at low heat for about 35 or 40 minutes. Keep adding liquid along the way if the cabbage looks too dry.
  • You are now ready to make use of the caramelized carrots, onion, and garlic that you have removed from under the pork belly. Squeeze out the garlic paste and chop up the carrots and onion then stir them into the braising cabbage. This will add some sweetness to it and loads of flavour! Let it continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so.
          Garnish the dish the reduced jus and thinly sliced baby fennel and voilà!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Give Me Some Tail!

Imagine wondering around a four thousand year old city on a hot Andalusian summer afternoon, the tree-lined streets are quiet, whitewashed, serene.  I am searching for the quintessential Spanish eating experience. I want timelessness, I want old school Spain minus the kitsch, and above all, I want the Andalusian oxtail stew (the Spanish refer to it as Rabo de Toro or Cola de Toro). It was my first time in the city of Jerez de la Frontera , a city I have been to numerous times since and will return to many times over for its entrancing beauty and its delectable food.

I slipped onto a narrow street (this seems to be a running theme) and there it was, Restaurante Gaitan. Taking a good look inside, it was clear that this place had not changed in eons. It had the feel of a bygone era; a timeworn dining room crammed with old paintings, the rooms framed by arched doorways lined by the distinctive colour of Jerez, warm mustard yellow. The clientele looked like the loyal die-hard type. They were settling in for their pre-siesta afternoon meal and I was settling in for my first ever Cola de Toro a la Jerezana. For a second I wondered if I was about to partake in the wanton devouring of the loser of last night’s bull fight. Thankfully these days they use ox tail. It was a lovely meal of simple, succulent braised ox tail, the meat barely clinging to the bone, served on top of sliced potatoes. 

Once I returned home to Toronto, I decided to recreate it simply from memory. I didn’t bother to look for a recipe, I trusted my palate’s memory to guide me. I am certain that in Jerez they would have used a dry sherry ("sherry" is an anglicization of Jerez) to braise the meat but a good bottle of fino is not easily attained in New Zealand and it costs a fortune. If living in Toronto, Tio Pepe’s Palomino Fino is perfect and costs only 16 CAD. Instead I use a nice red wine, which is fine considering that outside of Jerez this dish is made with a good local red. As for good free range oxatils, I love Cumbrae's in Toronto (http://www.cumbraes.com/) and Farro (http://www.farrofresh.co.nz/) or Nosh in Auckland.  Here goes this delicious and very forgiving one pot dish:

4 large meaty ox tails
Olive oil
2/3 large capsicums or 2 red bell peppers - sliced in thin strips about 3cm long
One whole onion - diced
1 carrot sliced (optional)
Bottle red wine
Beef stock (optional)
1.5 tsp pimenton dulce or sweet paprika
Fresh thyme - about 2 sprigs
Salt and pepper

Lightly dust ox tails with flour then brown them in olive oil. Set aside.

In same pot, sauté the onions, carrots, and capsicums for 3-4 minutes.

Add the tails back in and let the veggies and meat sweat together for a minute.

Pour in a bottle of good red wine so it just about covers the tails. Alternatively, you may use half a bottle of wine and an equal amount of beef stock depending on your preference. Play around with the ratio of wine to stock.

Sprinkle in the pimenton, thyme, salt and pepper to taste.

Cover the pot with a lid and pop into the oven at about 325 F or 165 C for about 2 hours. Check in now and then to turn the meat over and to adjust the seasoning.

Serve over round slices of potatoes either roasted or boiled.

Buen provecho!