I’ve expounded before, early on in the writing of this blog, about the propensity for Applachian country folk to love the pairing of pork with greens.
I have also made note of the Chinese folk’s love of greens and pork in a past posting, and have always wondered internally that perhaps pig meat and greens are a commonality that should be exploited in bringing folks from these disparate backgrounds together.
Because, in truth, it is possible that we are not so different after all.
Pigs were an important protein source for early settlers in the Applachian mountain region, because frankly, pigs can take care of themselves. Settlers would let their pigs forage in the woods, and pen them up only at night, or in some cases, only in cold weather. The pigs, big, wily omnivores that they are, took right good care of themselves–the only natural enemies they had were men and bear–and essentially provided a worry-free domestic meat source for the hardy folk who carved homes out of the densely wooded hills and valleys.
By the time that the Southern Applachian states were “tamed and civilized” to the point that there were roads, schools, and motor cars everywhere, pork was still revered and eaten as as staple meat because of the force of tradition, and its economic strength–even if you didn’t raise your own hogs, pork was cheap, and thus often on the table, and was considered an integral part of Appalachian foodways.
Strange as it may seem to those of us who grew up eating bacon in our green beans and ham hocks in our greens, the country folk in China feel the same way we do about our pigs.
Pork was and is still the traditional meat source in Chinese culture, in large part, again, because pigs are effecient in terms of feed ratio to meat output and because pigs were easy to raise. Their ability to thrive off of table and kitchen scraps made them a valuable part of the farm, and as a result, among all of the regional cuisines of China, there are seemingly endless ways to cook every part of the pig, including its snout, trotters and ears.
Not to mention its chitlin’s. (Small intestines, for those who don’t speak hick.)
I was reminded of this love affair with all things porcine, when I was leafing through Irene Kuo’s excellent book, Key to Chinese Cooking. A recipe for braised pork spareribs with fermented black beans and wine caught my eye. Fermented black beans are a favorite country Cantonese ingredient and are used to add a delicious savory tang to many dishes featuring pork.
As I read it, my mouth watered, and I remembered a favorite dish from childhood–my mother’s braised country ribs with turnips or potatoes.
It was a fantastic comfort food supper: thick, meaty country-style pork ribs were browned along with lots of onion slices, and then water, salt and pepper was added, and the mixture was cooked on low heat for a long time, until the meat was falling from the bones it was so tender. At that point, Mom would peel turnips and potatoes and add them to the cooking liquid. By the time they were soft, the gravy had begun to reduce, leaving Mom to have to add only a bit of artificial thickener like a flour slurry.
Considering the triumph of my careful fusion between French and Sichuan foods, I resolved to try out Irene Kuo’s recipe, only I was going to add some of those completely sweet and delish Japanese turnips when I was nearly finished cooking.
Country style pork ribs are meatier and fattier than spare ribs; they are also huge–about six to seven inches long, two inches thick and two and a half inches wide. In order to have them sized for serving with chopsticks, I decided it would be prudent to chop them in half lengthwise–which I managed by employing my heaviest Chinese cleaver.
I set the ribs upright, so I was cutting down into the bone from the top, not across their longitudinal axis, and with a good, swift stroke, cut them clean in half. Hacking bones with a cleaver requires some strenth, care and willpower–there can be no hesitation. One simply gets on with it and does it, while keeping the free hand well away from the cutting surface.
After that, it was a simple matter of dusting the meat with flour, heating oil in my pressure cooker, and browning them thoroughly on every side, then taking them out and setting them on a plate while I browned the onions, chiles, and ginger, then added the garlic and chopped black beans and let them all cook until they were fragrant. I deglazed the p0t with Shaoxing wine, and put the ribs back in, added a bit of dark soy sauce and chicken broth to barely cover the meat and brought it to a boil.
I think locked the lid in place, turned the heat down and cooked until they were fork tender–about thirty minutes. After releasing the pressure, I opened the lid and added the peeled Japanese turnips that I had cut into bite-sized chunks, and let them cook in the rich sauce while it reduced. Just before serving, I thickened the sauce a bit with a cornstarch slurry.
Choy sum, pictured to the right, looks bloody well like gai lan. It has the same leave structure, a similar stem structure and the same small yellow flower clusters. It looks so much like gai lan that if you are buying it packaged in plastic bags, and cannot really feel the stalks up or smell them, you may well not be able to tell the difference.
I know I didn’t–when I bought this bunch of choy sum, I thought for certain I was buying gai lan. In fact, was so certain of it, I was ready to cook it as gai lan last night, and it was only after I had prepped the seasoning and water chestnuts, and had opened the bag to wash the greens.
So, I grabbed some garlic and sliced it up and added it to the ginger, and put the oyster sauce back in the fridge. Its distinctly oceany tang would completely overwhelm the choy sum, even as it perfectly complements the more robust gai lan. For choy sum, I use just a whisper of soy sauce, a pinch of sugar and some chicken broth, along with the aromatics. Any other seasonings would probably overpower the flavor of the greens themselves.
In stir frying choy sum, one must be aware that it cooks down very quickly–the high water content of the green causes the structure of the green to collapse rapidly as the water escapes in hisses of steam as soon as the greens are put over high heat. This means that one must work quickly, and be prepared to remove the wok from the fire as soon as the greens look -almost- done. Not done–because it will continue to cook under its own residual heat–but nearly done.
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly, then shredded
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly then shredded
1 pound choy sum, washed and dried thoroughly, bottom of stalks trimmed and discarded, with remainder of stems and leaves cut into 4″ lengths
fresh water chestnuts, peeled and shredded (optional)
1/2 teaspoon raw sugar
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/4-scant 1/2 cup chicken broth
Heat wok until it smokes. Add oil and heat until it shimmers and is about to start smoking. Add ginger and garlic, stir fry until very fragrant, about forty seconds.
Add choy sum all at once, and stir fry very vigorously–water will escape from the greens immediately. Add remaining ingredients, including water chestnuts if you are using them, and stir and fry until the leaves are wilted and the stems are just starting to wilt.
Immediately remove from heat and scrape into a heated serving platter and serve right away.
4 meaty thick country style pork ribs, cut in half crosswise
flour for dredging
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 onion, sliced thinly
2 ripe jalapenos, thinly sliced
1″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 1/2 tablespoons fermented black beans, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Shaoxing wine
1/2 quart chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
4-5 medium sized Japanese turnips, peeled and cut into chunks
1 scallion top sliced thinly on the bias
1/4 cup fresh cilantro roughly chopped
Dredge ribs in flour, coating it thinly. Shake off excess.
Heat oil in the bottom of pressure cooker or stovetop casserole or dutch oven. When it is nearly smoking, add ribs in a single layer, and allow them to brown deeply on that side, then turn them, repeating until all sides are golden brown. Do this in several batches as needed–if you crowd the pot it will lower the temperature too much and will make it harder to get that nice golden crust.
Remove the ribs and set them aside on a plate. Add onions to the pot, and stir, cooking until they turn a deep golden brown color. Add the ginger and chiles and continue cooking until onions are reddish brown. Add garlic and black beans and stir until fragrant.
Deglaze the pot with the wine, scraping up any browned bits left on the bottom. Add ribs back to the pot and add the chicken broth and soy sauce.
Bring to a boil. If using a pressure cooker, close lid, lock down and bring to full pressure. Turn down heat and cook at high pressure for about thirty minutes. If you are just using a regular pan, turn down the heat and cover the pot, and cook covered until the ribs are fork tender–it will probably take a couple of hours.
When the ribs are done, uncover the pot or pressure cooker and add turnips. Cook, uncovered, until turnips are fully tender, and the sauce has reduced slightly.
Thicken sauce with cornstarch slurry, and remove meat and turnips to a heated serving bowl, with plenty of sauce. (As you pull the meat out of the pot, many of the bones will fall free–this is fine and to be expected. You can purposefully remove the bones before serving–this makes it a little easier to pick up chunks of pork with chopsticks, though in truth most of the Chinese folks I know like to nibble on the bones of ribs and spareribs, so you can leave them, too.)
Just before serving, sprinkle with scallion tops and cilantro.
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