I am a scientist that loves cooking, and I enjoy putting both parts into one pot. To me, cooking is also a series of chemical/physical reactions that take place under various heating conditions, yet the final products are more delicious and exciting. We have pipette, lab bench and heat plate in lab, meanwhile in kitchen we also have knife, chop board and cook stoves. We need to have things well planned and organized in the lab, so is in the kitchen.
I live in a small apartment with a small kitchen, so I don’t have too many places for storage. But since there are only me and my wife in the house, we don’t need too many things either. Me and my wife share the duty of cooking because we both busy, but I would love to cook whenever I have time. Since I often get excited about cooking new dishes, I usually taking care of the grocery, while my wife in charge of making sure I buy enough vegetable and fruit for the week’s menu. Yes I am a big meat guy, I could come up with seven different ways of cooking meat and proteins, but obvious that’s not healthy.
When it comes to meat, fish of seafood, some people always have the impression that they are either unhealthy (steak) or not tasty (chicken breast, one of my friends said it tastes like wood…), either expensive (shrimp) or difficult to cook (fish). But I believe there is a huge sweet spot of meat dishes in terms of nutrition, taste and cost. And if we cook them right, they are not difficult to cook at all, actually the process is pretty fun. Moreover, of course, it is always a good idea to mix the meat dish with vegetable dish, and thereby we have a perfect dinner for two.
As a result, for this week’s home assignment, I scavenged my fridge and decided to do one meat dish and one veggie dish.
Meal Planning: Braised pork belly, shredded vegetables
I briefly checked my fridge, and I found I don’t have too much meat, but I have a lot of vegetables. The only meat I have is 2 lb of pork belly. Therefore the meat dish I was going to do is braised pork belly. It is a Chinese dish and in China we call it “red-cooked pork”, because of the dark brownish color that the meat obtained during the braising process. So basically it is red meat, and we made it even redder! There are a lot of ways to redden the meat, and people in difference parts of China have different ways. For example, people in eastern China prefer using dark soy sauce and rice wine, while people in northern China prefer using red yeast rice. In my recipe, I go for the Hunan style, in which the meat were colored by brown sugar. There is a specific reason that I opted for this style, which I will elaborate further.
Pork belly is actually one of my favorite part of meat. It’s cheap (usually less than $5/lb) and full of flavors. Unfortunately in many cases the pork fat is a deal-breaker for many people. The fat tastes horrible if lightly cooked, thus in order to bring out the beautiful smell of fat, people usually grill or bake it. This will lead to pyrolysis, or thermal degradation, of fat, and consequently release a lot of carbohydrates that smell good. But at this temperature, a lot of carcinogens are also formed, so it is basically a trade-off between taste and health. Also, pork belly can be further processed into sausages or bacon, which taste even better but much more unhealthy.
Does it always have to be like that in cooking? Is it always a zero-sum game between tasty, cheap and healthy? Maybe not. There is a sweet spot for pork belly that, although not addressing this dilemma completely, we could have a little bit of three of them. And I believe braised pork belly is within the spot.
Basically, if we look at the chemical reactions that take place during cooking meat, there are 3 types of reactions involved, and they are:
- Mailard reaction, which is the reaction between amino acid and reducing sugar, both presents in meat, at 320F. This will give away a very unique and delightful scent;
- Caramelization reaction, which only involves sugar and take place at the similar temperature;
- Pyrolysis reaction, which is thermal degradation of fat above 400F
That is to say, if we can control the cooking temperature below 400F, we will have Mailard and caramelization reaction dominate the cooking, and therefore the dish will have very rich taste and smell, meanwhile contains minimum carcinogen. This is basically the idea of braised pork belly. Moreover, to control the temperature, I used brown sugar and employed its caramelization process as the indicator of cooking temperature (of course it will also give some richer flavor to the dish). That is reason I opted coloring the pork belly with brown sugar.
When the meat dish is determined, I decided to accompany it with pan fried shredded carrot, radish and potato. Because I believe the textures of the two dishes fit each other well. The pork will have intense umami taste, with a hint of salty and sweet, so I decided to give the vegetable a little sour and spicy taste to go with the meat.
I. Braised Pork Belly
- Basic ingredients: pork belly (2~3 lb), brown sugar, scallion, garlic and ginger, people do add more ingredients (such as mushroom or dried tofu) now and then, but in the picture shows the minimum requirement;
You may also need some Chinese rice wine during cooking, but I am running low on it, so I had to use some of my Vodka, which is a huge waste T_T
2. Immerse the ENTIRE piece of pork belly into COLD water, add some scallions and gingers to help removing the smell of pork belly, you could also add a star anise and a piece of cinnamon if you like ( I did), bring the water to boil, and keep it boiled for 25 min;
3. Chop the boiled meat into 1 inch cubes;
4. Heat the pan at medium, add some vegetable oil, wait until the oil is heated, then add ginger and garlic, stir, and finally add meat;
5. Saute the meat at medium heat, you will see the fat coming out from the pork. When they start to pick up some yellowish color, add 2 tablespoon of brown sugar, stir until the meat are evenly coated with caramelized sugar;
*One can also reverse step 4-5, that is add sugar before everything, heat them until caramelized, and quickly add meat and garlic. In this way one would have more thorough caramelization, but more likely to get burned as the syrup is hot.
6. Add 1-2 table spoon of wine, stir until it boil, then add HOT water to immerse everything in the pan (I transferred them to a sauce pan so that I could use the wok to cook vegetable), braise for 20 min at medium heat (I added some mushroom while braising), then turn to high heat to reduce the broth;
That’s it. Braised pork belly with amazing taste and smell. Since a large amount of fat had been released during sauteing and braising, the pork belly tastes pretty smooth and creamy, anything but fat.
II. Shredded Vegetable: Radish, Carrot and Potato
- Major ingredient: similar amount of radish, potato and carrot. skinned and shredded
2. Heat the pan at high with vegetable oil, add radish and carrot first, season, stir fry until the radishes are transparent (10 min);
3. Add potato slices, also add some soy sauce and a half lime juice(I also added some wood-ear fungus but just to make it looks more colorful), stir fry until potato is soft;
4. Turn off heat, add a half teaspoon of rice vinegar, keep stirring;
5. Finally put all the vegetable slices in a plate, garnish with lime juice and cilantro.
Saturday dinner for two, done! Used everything available in the kitchen, cost less than 10 bucks for ingredient, and takes us 2 meals to finish them.
Thoughts on Meal Planning
After cooking the pork belly, we have completely running out of meats, so we have to go grocery again, although we went grocery last week and we barely cooked during the week days. We still have half fridge of vegetable untouched since the previous grocery, and they are not going to be fresh when we cook them. The reason for such unbalanced purchase was when we did our latest grocery at an Asian supermarket in St Paul, they happened to have a lot of fresh vegetables, but their meats look miserable. So we bought a lot of good looking vegetable and only little amount meat.
I guess it is always a good idea to think about the week’s menu before we go grocery. So that we can always have fresh food, while not doing too many grocery.