Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lemongrass-Sugarcane Roasted Pork w/ Purple Sweet Potatoes

A few weeks back D and I found ourselves in Flushing, Queens. Flushing is the China-Korea-Thai Town of Queens. Larger and more crowded than New York City's, it seems to extend into Elmhurst and almost reach Jackson Heights where the Indian and Pakistani shops begin to mix with Columbian and Irish. We were in Flushing for Shabu Shabu, or hotpot.

In Japan they call it Shabu Shabu because of the sound the cooking food makes when it hits the water. In Korea it's called Shin Sul Ro, and is often a spicier creation, based in kimchi. In China it simply translates as "hotpot." All forms date back thousands of years from Emperors' banquets to Ghengis Khan's soldiers sharing a meager meal.

It's essentially one and the same: a steaming bowl of water or mildly flavored broth (today kept warm with a hot plate, not fire) brought to diners with added accoutrements: crab, tripe, chicken, fish balls, duck, vegetables, for example-- or a taste of all of the above. Various seasonings/ sauces from salty to sweet to spicey are added to your delight.

Originally, the hotpot was a shared dish and in China you can still find hotpot establishments "in the old way" with one pot for all diners (I have only seen it in China). Today it is more common that everyone is provided their own pot, as it was the day we were in Flushing.

Hotpot is the perfect cold weather meal. It warms the soul, fogs the glasses and leaves you full and as satisfied as Buddha.

The last time I took D for hotpot he was mildly terrified. We had just started dating and I took him into the depths of New York City’s Chinatown, under the Manhattan Bridge. His glasses fogged immediately as we entered the steamy dining room and being unable to see, and unable to understand the language around him, he meekly walked to the table pointing unconvincingly as he ordered pork from the waitress. I happily showed him the sauce counter, explained how to mix items, how long to cook them for and suggestions for mixing sauces.

Needless to say, when I suggested it again, he wasn’t too thrilled. I convinced him by offering to buy him some frozen handmade dumplings at the grocery and we were good to go with an explorative gourmand friend, R, in tow.

This time it was D explaining to R what he was in for: Jumping in by ordering extra fish balls, hitting the sauce station first and explaining how to best put creations together. We left, D received his 10 lb bag of dumpling reward, and I became mesmerized by items in the grocery aisles (which is none too difficult for me).

D and I scoured the soy sauces until we found a boutique variety without caramel coloring. We watched eels swim in their containers and crabs being tossed back and forth. In the fruits and vegetables I fought over plump kumquats and Korean pears on sale 4 for $1 (everyone else was doing it so why not join the fray?). I ogled the massive selection of seaweeds, keeping them in mind for a future visit and grabbed up some lemongrass.

I told D to keep a lookout for purple sweet potatoes. We had them at a restaurant once (where they called them Okinawa sweet potatoes. I was so fascinated by their rich color I could not believe there was no dye in them. He found them hiding behind a beige skin and we grabbed two large specimens. As we headed out my eyes landed on sugarcane sticks. My mind wandered to mojitos served with cane “straws” and I grabbed a package. Finally, D cut me off.

The next day we picked up a pork shoulder and remembering all my new treats in the fridge, I suggested we make a tropical glaze for the pig. I used the lemongrass, sugarcane, a lime and a bottle of cheap Brazilian beer to extract the flavors. I think allowing the meat to marinate in the resulting liquid would have been more successful, still, the pork turned out sugary sweet around the edges and perfectly juicy inside. While roasting, we wrapped a purple sweet potato in tin foil and threw it on the pan for baking.

The purple sweet potato is truly unique. It is sweeter than traditional sweet potatoes we are used to here in the U.S. with more of a honey overtone. It makes a beautiful presentation and would be perfect for a special Valentine’s Day meal. A few days later we sliced the second potato thin and fried it in some reserve bacon fat. The result was deliciously light and reminiscent of the Terra vegetable chips one can find in the markets.

Cook time= about 3 hours
* 1 pork shoulder, about 5 lbs
* 3 sticks lemongrass
* 2 sticks sugarcane, about 5 inches long, 1 inch thick
* ½ a lime
* 1 inch cube fresh ginger
* 2 Tablespoons honey
* 1 bottle lager beer

1) Using a sturdy blender, like a Cuisinart, puree lemongrass, sugarcane, lime (rind, juice and pulp), ginger. The result will be a mealy, fibrous consistency.
2) Warm a skillet on medium heat. Add puree and cook about 4 minutes, stirring often, until aroma begins to fill the room. Add beer and bring to a simmer. Cover and turn heat off, allow to sit 10 minutes. Warm again until just a simmer then remove from heat.
3) Line a large bowl with cheesecloth and place lemongrass-sugarcane puree into cheesecloth. Strain liquid, pressing the cheesecloth tight.
4) Warm an oven to 350F.
5) Wash and pat dry pork. Slash 2 inch diamonds along fat. Cover with ample salt and pepper.
6) Pour about half the lemongrass-sugarcane liquid over the pork, making sure some remains on top and inside the fat slices. If you have a syringe, inject some of the liquid into the pork. Reserve ¼-½ the liquid for later basting.
7) Bake on middle rack, basting 1-2 times, until pork’s internal temperature is 165F.

Oh, and Happy Birthday to me!!!
D and I are low-keying it today with a brunch out and lobster dinner at home. Okay, maybe that's not totally low-key.

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