Easy Delicious Pork Belly + The Best Things I've Eaten Lately

 I've had some incredible meals lately, despite being very busy. I have a bunch of books I need to review, but you know how that goes. I think things will calm down for me after my work gets a real office and I also move into a new apartment. And stop traveling so much. 

I have a bunch of new cookbooks I've been trying out. The first is April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig. I only ate at her famous restaurant, The Spotted Pig, once. It was quite an ordeal since they don't take reservations. I remember waiting for four hours and being very very very hungry. Luckily she is known for her fatty British-style food. Later she opened up the Breslin. Back then I wasn't exactly rolling in money, so I lurked outside at the Ace Hotel and ate the snacks at the coffee shop there, which included homemade pork rinds and fried lamb belly.

The most memorable dish I had at the Spotted Pig was a parmesan custard with asparagus and prosciutto. I was thrilled to find this in her book. I had only made custard once and that was probably two years ago when I was an idiot and didn't understand that there was a reason for cooking it in a hot water bath/double boiler. I was unfortunately making frozen custard. What resulted was a terrible ice cream with bits of scrambled egg throughout. If you ever want to make ice cream that you aren't in danger of overeating, this is an excellent method of food unreward. 

This time I actually followed the instructions. The result was delicious and it tasted good on everything I put it on.

Farm egg + parmesan custard + grilled asparagus

I also used another of her recipes as a complement to one of my own. I've been in love with fresh pork belly for several years, ever since having it at Momofuku. I think I love it more than I love bacon. When the Momofuku cookbook came out, I started cooking it at home, riffing off their recipe. I use less sugar than Chang and more umami. I'm now quite happy with my method, which involves just putting a cube of it in my crock pot, drizzling it with a little honey + lots of tamari + a few drops Red Boat fish sauce + a bit of lime juice and leaving it on low overnight. Then I chill it and slice it (it is easier to slice when chilled). Because it's pork belly you get fat to sear it with accumulating at the bottom of the crock pot. I sweat some chilies in that and sear the belly a little. Then I season to taste with salt and pepper. 

It is rich though, so it's nice to have something to cut it. This night I used a crispy and bright radish salad from April's book, which involved a nice technique of rubbing the radishes with herbs and flaking parmesan on top + some delicious pickles that my guest brought me. Pork Belly's bonus, which is the rendered pork fat and jelly, is absolutely fantastic for cooking everything. So I cooked some fingerling potatoes in it and dressed them with little tiny lumps of farm butter and freshly ground black pepper. 

The fun doesn't stop there, because what doesn't taste better with the flavored pork fat? These shrimp that I cooked in it were incredible.

Another cookbook I bought recently was Beginnings by Chris Cosentino. I first encountered him in college when I was writing about food law. He was an ardent critic of the foie gras ban in Chicago (which was later overturned) and received death threats from animal rights activists. He is also known as "Offal Chris" because he promotes the use of offal. I credit him for piquing my interest in the subject. So when I heard he was coming to one of my local favorite restaurants, the Publican, to cook for a night, I took out reservations immediately. The meal did not disappoint. 

Every dish was really really good, but a standout was the spaghetti. When it came to the table I was not very happy because to be honest it looks like it was pasta made out of onions. And to be honest I don't like spaghetti very much and never have. But our waiter told us it was actually pasta made out of pork skin! Don't ask me how he does it, the recipe is not in the book. The sauce was amazing, it had some kind of oceanic element in there that worked really well with the briny olive flavor and the bright tomato. Chris needs to perform a valuable public service and tell the world how to make this. 

Another dish I really want to learn how to make is his pork belly with clams. The sauce tasted very much of egg yolks, but I have no idea how to make it. Maybe some kind of light bearnaise-like sauce with stock?

 

The next day I tried my hand at one of his recipes for a sardine "iron chef" party. This required fresh sardines, which I got at Issacson and Stein, an excellent place to get cheap fish. The cost is that they are not going to baby you and help you with things. And while I sometimes fry smelt, which is a whole fish, this recipe called for fileting the fish, which I had never done in my life. I had some help, but he didn't know anything either. We followed some instructions from youtube and the result was some mangled, but passable, filets. Cosentino's recipe calls for just marinating them in olive oil and serving them raw, but this isn't San Francisco, and we pan seared them. And then layered them on sourdough crostini with Cosentino's Boccalone nduja, which is a delicious rich spicy sausage that spreads quite luxuriously. I don't know if I will be doing fresh sardines again for awhile, since I live in a studio apartment that reeked for days, but I definitely could stand to have some more nduja, which can be found at Publican Quality Meats. 

But one of the most innovative dishes at the party was from my friends Nick and Shannon. I told Nick he could make a zillion dollars if he had a stand selling this. Nick made his own katsuobushi from sardines. I can't explain how, but they have their own blog and hopefully they will post on it. But katsuobushi is a umami flavor goldmine, which he grated on to braised pork belly and spread on pickled ramp aioli. But the amazing thing was that the bao bread here was made with just baking soda + bright yellow farm fresh egg yolks (from Paulie's Pasture), which is somehow steamed in a pressure cooker. The original method is described here.

I was at Belly Shack and I noticed they have gluten-free items, but they are all also vegetarian and somewhat miserly considering the rest of the menu is so decadently fatty. I definitely did not order them. I notice this pattern at other restaurants, where anything non-standard, vegan/XYZ-free/etc, is relegated to some low-fat bland "healthy" ghetto. How much awesome would it be to be able to get something that normal people want to eat, like these delicious bao?

Apparently if I wear almost no makeup and a cute ruffled shirt, I look very young. At a party the day before my birthday, two people told me I looked 12-13, which I thought was hilarious. I turned 26 the next day and went out to the last night of One Sister, an underground supper club. It was the last night because chef Iliana Regan is opening up a restaurant called Elizabeth in Lincoln Square. I'm very much looking forward to that, because I love her style of cooking. It reminds me a lot of the New Nordic movement. Lots of foraged goods and naturalistic presentations. 

Where else can you get a cured Alaskan wild bear wild rice crispy treat with Wisconsin cheddar?

Or chocolate covered chicken liver mousse? If only I could eat such things every day. You can see much better photos of her menus at Jen Moran's photography page.

It was an amazing birthday dinner. As I've written before, Iliana is a chef to watch.

Unfortunately the weather here in Chicago has been quite hot lately, which coupled with low air quality ratings I have trouble tolerating due to lung damage that occurred when I was younger. Perhaps I need to move away from the city (or at least far away from anywhere with a real summer), but for now I am heading to visit my cousin in CA, to read and eat oranges. Food recs in the South Bay area are welcome!