Fabio & Pork Fat

After failing so miserably tonight to reproduce Fabio’s Beef Carpaccio(http://recipes.mt.bravotv.com/top_chef/season_5_1/episode_2_2/beef_tenderloin_carpaccio.php), I spent some time ruminating on my home cooking in China. As I sliced the beautiful ribeye I’d chosen to attempt the carpaccio, the wide ribbons of creamy fat reminded me starkly of one of my favourite dishes in China, a sweet and savoury stirfry of pork belly and lotus root.

While some may remember my harrowing tales of learning to skin pork during my first year in China, others hearken to my myriad attempts to find fresh, whole lotus root in the Midwest. Last week, at a Chinese shop in Peoria, I found not only kong xin cai – a lovely aldante-spinach-like vegetable I ate almost daily stirfried with a glove of garlic crushed under the flat of my cleaver, but also fresh lotus root, which in our dialect was pronounced “Oh!”

To the great sorrow of my bottom heart, every last piece of Ou was rotted and knarled, nothing crisp and cream-coloured and geometrically-sound like I could find on any given day back home. Even in the dead of winter, when nothing green could be found in any market outside the city, Ou florished. The lotus root is one tough son-of-a-bitch, barely breakable, connecting the lotus flowers which float atop the still water to the nutrients below by a long, and surprisingly strong, stem. I’ve seen people tip their boats trying to unearth those stems.

So that which I cannot find in the most authentic of markets here, served there any time I wanted to add a crunch to a hot dish.

There are many many favourite dishes made by others I enjoyed in China, but here is one of my own favourite recipes.

Pork Belly & Candied Lotus Root

Remove the tough skin from one long slice of pork belly (if not already done). Cut into rough cubes, taking care to preserve the fat. (Fat is such a facinating thing, disgusting and rigid when cold, juicy and flavourful when warm.) Drop the cubes into a wok with very hot peanut oil swirling around the bottom. You can tell how hot the oil is in a wok by how fast it moves when you shift the wok. Listen to the lovely “pah” that is distinguishable from every other sound – that of some substance containing water hitting a hot pan of oil. Add a dash of salt. Stir until the pork belly is showing some white, then begin adding brown sugar, a little at a time, stirring it in until the peanut oil and pork oil and sugar have created a thin caramel. Add the Ou. Turn down the heat to medium high or so and stir often until the pork can be easily halved with the metal flat of the spatula blade and the Ou is satisfactorally coated with caramel. (Add more brown sugar is necessary.)

Then it’s ready. You don’t even have to serve it over rice. In fact, I liked to have it with a semi-sweet pound cake (the American version is probably that “sweet” French bread you see in groceries) to sop up the savoury sweet juices. The crunchy, sugary lotus root was the perfect counterpoint to the thick juicy cubes of pork, and especially lovely with a cold Snow beer on a 115F degree day, and a good book held open with a knife on the table beside you.

Somethings never change, no matter where you are.

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