My posts have been sparse to say the least. Why? Well, I think I’ve lost track of why I was writing in the first place (See what this blog is about). Originally, it was about documenting my growth as a professional cook. I wanted to post my ideas to the public. Ideas that would otherwise be relegated to a small notebook in my back pocket. At some point in the last few months I started to post entries only if I thought there would be some broad appeal. The fact is, by not writing about less “interesting” things, and documenting my failures, I am cheating my future self of valuable lessons.
This post is back to my roots in two ways. First, is what I just mentioned. Screw you guys (sorry) but I’m writing for me – though I do hope you find some of this stuff interesting. Second, I’m ashamed to say, as a full fledged Chinese immigrant, that I don’t have a firm grasp on Chinese cuisine. I decided here to learn about Chinese pork belly and see how I can incorporate its techniques into my cooking.
What is there to say about Chinese pork belly. Tender meat and CRAZY crispy skin. Quite a combination and, as far as I’m know, uses a technique for crisping the skin that are not typical in the western culinary lexicon. As I was going through the recipe, I thought it would be a novel idea to also apply the same techniques to an Italian dish called Zampone, a pig trotter made into a farce and stuff back into the skin which is left in tact.
As a control, I made a traditional pork belly first. This video was very helpful and provided great results. I won’t go into too much detail here (just watch the video) but the trick is to draw the right amount of moisture from the skin and to poke many many small holes into it. In fact, if you want to follow a recipe that will lead to a great product, you should definitely watch the video. Otherwise, read on.
I stumbled upon a few obstacles while doing my trotter. First, I had to remove the meat from the trotter for the farce and skin that is not firmly attached to meat will shrink and almost seize up when cooked. Second, the shape of the trotter skin, which encapsulates the whole farce is a lot harder to cook evenly than a piece of belly where all the skin is only on one side. Lastly, unlike the traditional method which cooks both meat and skin together, the trotter farce has to be cooked separately and put back into the trotter.
The steps for the trotter were as follows:
– Remove meat and bone from the shank of the trotter up to the first joint
– Braise shank and the rest of the trotter with skin, plus one more whole trotter in stock
– Remove trotter skin after 5 minutes (this was enough to soften skin enough to poke holes into, but in retrospect I think this is the step that set me off course). Let the rest simmer for about 3 hours
– Poke small holes into skin once it is cool enough to handle (at this point, I had to remove the skin from the rest of the trotter because it shrunk so much, there was no room to stuff it. I made an incision around the hoof area and took off the skin which was essentially a tube)
– Stuff the tube of skin with aluminum foil for structure, salt heavily, and cook in the oven on a rack for about 30 minutes at 375°F, rotating frequently. I kept salting it hoping to draw out as much water as possible. It was difficult to keep the salt on because it was round
– Let air chill
– When trotters are done cooking and are cool enough to handle, pick the the trotter and separate them into three piles- meat, skin, soft tendon. Discard bones
– Weigh meat
– Shred meat. Dice skin and tendon. Add about 3% by weight of each skin and tendon into the meat.
– Season with salt, white pepper, five spice powder. Add 0.8% by weight of transglutaminase
– Stuff farce into skin
– Broil in oven until the skin pops. (In my case, it burnt and didn’t pop)
Definitely not how I wanted it to be. It could have been the result of many missteps but one stands out of the culprit. The salt crust used in the video not only seasoned but helped draw quite a bit of water from the skin. It also protected the skin from the heat which prevents burning.
To prevent skin shrinkage – cook trotter whole until the skin cooks and denatures. Then remove shank. Why did I put the trotter in the water!?? I saw pork belly recipes that had this step but the results never looked as good as the product from the video.
Dry skin more – lower and slower in the oven. Make a salt crust by adding enough water to salt to give it the consistency of wet sand. Pack the crust around the trotter.
Other thoughts – add some braising liquid into the farce. The gelatin will set in place when cool and release moisture when cooked. This will allow more time for the skin to get crisp without drying out the farce.