Shanghai Red Cooked Pork Belly

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I first fell in love with Chinese red cooking when I adapted a red cooked beef finger recipe. It was truly addicting. So much so that I ran, nay sprinted, many blocks, in flood water rains to procure the necessary items to make steamed bao buns.  During the treacherous drive home, my mind had a stroke of genius…if red cooking made beef that tasted like a magical gift from the heavens, what would it do for  my dear and longtime friend, Mr. Pork Belly. If the fatty beef fingers were delectable in the deeply satisfying red-cooked sauce, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Pork Belly would be absolutely divine. So, I sprinted again, through monsoon rains to our local Asian market for a couple of pounds of pork belly…and a cup of hot tea, a bowl of beef Pho, and a cruise around the store to pick up $100 bucks or so of stuff I absolutely needed (quail eggs, new chopsticks, wuyi oolong tea, sake, rice seasoning, etc.).

Like the beef recipe, most pork belly recipes called for blanching the meat prior to braising. Like the recipe for Chinese Red-cooked Beef, I opted to sear the meat to add to the depth of the final dish. I also wanted a bit of the ‘bark’ or crispier edges that searing provides. Again, bao buns were on my mind. Soft pillowy clouds wrapped around crispy, sticky, sweet and salty pork nuggets, all laced with spicy Kimchi. Yes. Please.

The ingredients are identical to my Chinese Red-cooked Beef recipe, but pork belly brings a whole new level of business to the game. Add Kimchi and you are all up in it. All I can say is ‘no leftovers’. What? Yep. No leftovers. I shouldn’t admit it, but we (proudly) took down 2, count them, 2 pounds of pork belly. It took a whole day, but we indeed did it (and made sure a hefty workout was on the books for the next day!). This stuff is like meat candy. You’re gonna want to get on this. Pronto.

Shanghai Pork Belly

  • 2 pounds of pork belly, skin on, in 1.5 to 2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 and 1/2 cups dry sherry
  • 1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce or liquid aminos
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel (you can substitute fresh zest if necessary)
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 red chilies, diced (or 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes)
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1.5 cups water or pork or vegetable broth (no or low sodium); as much as needed for appropriate liquid level

Caramelize your sugar and make the Sherry-sugar sauce just like in the Chinese Red-cooked Beef recipe.  Next, brown those little nuggets of goodness, or pork belly cubes if you prefer to call them that (*frowns*). Remember, dry your pork nuggets thoroughly, make sure your oil is well heated, allow plenty of room between the nuggets, and allow the pan to come back to temp between batches.  Remove the nuggets and set aside on a plate.

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Remember to dry the pork thoroughly, heat your oil well, and leave enough room between pieces so they don’t steam instead of sear.

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Golden pork nuggets!

Drain most of the fat from pan.  I know, I know.  I usually display exaggerated disapproving facial expressions at those committing the crime of  ‘fat draining’, but sometimes there are exceptions.  More fat will render during cooking and all will be well. Trust me.  Now, reduce your heat to medium-low, add your dry spices to the pan, and heat them for about 1 minute. This allows the oils in the warmer spices to bloom.  Add your red pepper flakes here if you’re not using fresh chilies. Next, add the soy sauce or liquid aminos. Add the ginger, garlic, and peppers. Deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom with the edge of a wooden spoon. Once all the good bits are worked free from the bottom of the pan add the sugar-sherry mixture. Return your pork nuggets to the pan, placing them in evenly in one layer.

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Check out the beautiful mahogany-colored sauce. The scent of star anise, orange, cinnamon, and ginger will fill the house. Commence drooling.

The sugar-sherry liquid level should come up to about 1/2 the level of the top of the meat (we want to braise the meat, not stew it). Add water, pork stock, or chicken stock if needed to achieve the appropriate liquid level.  If you add stock, be sure it is no- or low-sodium as there is plenty of salt to be had otherwise. Bring the pork and liquid mixture to a simmer, place the lid, and tuck it away in your preheated oven. Cook until the meat is fork tender and the fat and connective tissue is dissolved, about 2-3 hours.

Remove the pork from the pan to a plate. Try really hard not to eat it right away. You will need to exercise extreme discipline at this point or perhaps try physical restraint. I am not ashamed to admit I failed (and earned a blister on the roof of my mouth to prove it!).  Remove your star anise from the pan liquid and boil the sauce until it is glossy and reduced to about a cup.

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Look. At. That.

Serve meat, drizzled with sauce, over rice or with your favorite steamed or sauteed vegetable. My preference is sticky, salty, sweet pork nuggets tucked into airy Bao Buns, nestled alongside spicy and sour Kimchi, and paired with lightly wilted bok choy.  None better. Broccoli, broccoli rabe, bok choy, kale, or spinach pair well too. Enjoy!

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Kimchi is the perfect partner.

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Eat it up. Shanghai pork and kimchi ride along perfectly in little puffy bao buns.

 

 

Chinese Red Cooked Beef

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Home-cooked Chinese food is typically not ‘my thing’.  I’ve just never really taken the time to learn the techniques or accumulate the tools. It might also have to do with a few of my Mom’s failed attempts at Chinese cooking back in the 70’s (Public Service announcement: By no means should Betty Crocker or Redbook recipes be your guide to Chinese cooking!). And then I read a recipe for Chinese Red-cooked Beef. Truth be told, I practically slobbered all over the cookbook. For those that don’t know (I didn’t), Chinese Red Cooking is a soy sauce-based braising method, more properly called hongshao and popular in Shaghai, which imparts a dark red-brown color to beef and the sauce.  Soy sauce, bean paste, rice wine or sherry, and/or caramelized sugar work to impart the red coloring and provide a deep savory flavor. Warm spices like star anise, cinnamon, and ginger give incredible flavor. Think of it as another version of your favorite slow-cooked stew sans veggies. Jack. Pot.

Due to the ‘low and slow’ cooking method, fatty cuts with a lot of connective tissue work best. Your mind should skip to rib meat (commonly called ‘beef fingers’) or short ribs. Don’t forget about your friend pork belly either. All you need is a bit of patience and some time and you’re good to go. There are no crazy techniques or super specialized equipment. Simple gets the job done here.

Instead of blanching the beef in boiling water like most recipes, I opted to sear the beef to add more meaty goodness and depth of flavor.  Call me crazy, but the browned beef bits make a difference in the end result. Also, don’t skip the caramelized sugar part–it adds depth too!

Chinese Red Cooked Beef

  • 2 pounds of beef fingers
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 and 1/2 cups dry sherry
  • 1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce or liquid aminos
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel (you can substitute fresh zest if necessary)
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 red chiles, diced (or 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes)
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1.5 cups water or beef broth (low or no sodium); as much as needed for appropriate liquid level

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir to dissolve. Continue to cook on medium heat, watching carefully, until golden brown. If the sugar crystallizes at the edge, push it back into the liquid with a wet pastry brush. Once sugar is caramelized, remove the pan from the heat, wait about 1 minute, and add the Sherry. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Shanghai Beef

Just starting in the carmelized sugar process. Don’t skip this step! It adds depth of flavor.

Chinese Red Beef

The water has been added and the sugar is a handful of minutes into cooking. Notice the faint golden color. Watch very closely as the sugar can go from caramelized to burned in seconds.

Red braised beef

The color is a bit darker, but we’re not done just yet!

Shanghai beef

There we go! Nice dark color but not burnt. Burning the sugar will give you bitterness instead of deep flavor.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Completely dry beef with paper towels or bar towel.

braised red beef

Just like any other time you sear meat, dry thoroughly. Too much juice on the surface leads to the meat steaming at the surface instead of undergoing the Maillard reaction which gives the nicely browned surface. You want that browned crust to build layers of flavor.

Heat high-heat oil (beef tallow works best) in a pan until almost smoking. Place beef with a bit of room between each piece (crowding the pan begets steaming the beef, not searing), and sear the beef until well browned on all sides.  Remove the beef from the pan to a plate.

braised beef

Sear your beef. Be patient. When the beef forms a good crust, you’ll be able to turn it without it sticking to the pan. The key is to dry the meat and have a well-heated oil. Don’t crowd the pan and allow the pan to return to temp between batches.

Drain fat from pan.  I know I usually hold high disdain for those ‘fat-drainers’ out there, but trust me on this one, you’ll make more fat during cooking. Reduce heat to medium low. Add dry spices to the pan and heat for about 1 minute. Add your red pepper flakes here if you’re not using fresh chilies. Add the soy sauce or liquid aminos. Add the ginger, garlic, and peppers. Deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom with the edge of a wooden spoon. Once all the good bits are worked free from the bottom of the pan add the sugar-Sherry mixture. Return the beef to the pan, placing it evenly in one layer.

Chinese beef

Add the beef to the super flavorful sauce. Practice patience. Or maybe tie yourself up Houdini-style. It’s going to be hard to resist the aromas emanating from the kitchen!

The liquid level should come up to about 1/2 the level of the top of the meat. Add water or low sodium beef broth if needed to achieve the appropriate liquid level.  Bring the beef and liquid mixture to a simmer, place the lid, and tuck it away in your preheated oven. Cook until the meat is fork tender and the fat and connective tissue is dissolved, about 3 hours.

Chinese Red Briased Beef

If I didn’t learn from past mistakes (i.e. blistered and/or skinless mouth), I’d dig right in straight from the pan. This stuff smells righteous!

Remove the meat from the pan to a plate.Remove star anise from the pan liquid. Boil the sauce until it is glossy and reduced to about a cup. Chop or break meat into chunks.

Chinese Beef

You. Have. No. Idea.

Serve meat, drizzled with sauce, over rice or with your favorite steamed or sauteed vegetable. We love to pair it with Bao Buns picked up from a local Asian market, Kimchi, and wilted bok choy. Other veggies such as broccoli, broccoli rabe, bok choy, kale, or spinach pair well too. I’m not ashamed to admit this deliciousness never makes it to the table..strictly a stand around the kitchen table, getting jiggy with the beef-bao bun combo, and rolling eyes in delight. Enjoy!

Chinese red-cooked beef

Dig in! Kimchi, bokchoy, and bao buns make delightful additions!