Lacquered Pork Shoulder (紅燒蹄膀)

My friends John, Andrea, and Jess held a farewell party for our friend Alexis 2 weeks ago. This is not your traditional gather-around, look-at-pictures, and open-some-gifts type of farewell party. No. My gourmand friends turned their lovely apartment into a French bistro, open for one night only, serving 20 guests 6-course dinners. From the opening act asparagus quiche tartlets to the finale custard-filled profiteroles drizzled with chocolate, my friends created such a special evening. What I liked the most, however, was the entree -- a pork shoulder braised in a mustardy and aromatic broth. The meat was tender and flavorful, juicy with bits and pieces of pork fat. It was heavenly.

Pork is a stable item in Taiwan. Pigs can eat many sources of food and grow at a much faster pace than other domesticated animals. They are an economical protein source. The pigs in Taiwan are bred for pork fattiness and sweetness. The "black-hair" pig variety is especially a gourmet grocery item, treasured for its more intense flavor and sweetness.

Many people from Taiwan complain about the American pork, citing a strange odor (described as sour-like -- 酸騷味). Speculations abound -- some say the pigs here aren't castrated; some thought the pigs' blood isn't drained before slaughtering; some others think it's the feed. Whatever the cause is, my recommendation for cooking pork is to laden it with layers of aromatics and flavoring. I almost never cook or order a simply seared pork chop. Or, seek out those local pig farms with reputable names, such as the Flying Pigs Farm, or the Berkshire Meats.

Since having that pork shoulder entree 2 weeks ago, I just couldn't shake that out of my mind. I love the juicy meat that just falls apart after 2-3 hours of low simmering; the melt-in-your-mouth fat between the skin and the meat; and the broth that leached out gobs of gelatin from the pork and turns sticky on the lips. I know what I really crave is the lacquered pork shoulder my mom makes only on New Year's -- and not even every year! The skin holds its shape from an initial browning, and is tenderized by the long simmering. The sauce is based on soy sauce and brown sugar, scented with star anise and Chinese cinnamon. The meat is soaked in the sauce overnight for maximum flavor infusion via diffusion. Finally the sauce is reduced to a syrupy consistency. Constantly glazing the skin, turning it into a glistening piece of delicious jewel.

Recipe: Lacquered Pork Shoulder (紅燒蹄膀)

1 pork shoulder with bone and skin intact
3 star anise
1 3-inch piece of Chinese cinnamon
1 piece of ginger (about 1 inch), cut into slices
3 scallions, cut into 2-inch segments
4 Tbsp dark brown sugar
5 Tbsp naturally brewed soy sauce
2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
4 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup rice wine

1. Clean pork under cold water. Ensure all hair has been removed.
2. Thoroughly dry the pork. Place pork in a bowl and rub pork all over with dark soy sauce. Marinade for 1-2 hours. Let pork expose to air and let the sauce dry on the pork. Re-rub with dark soy sauce every 20 minutes.
3. Dry pork with a paper towel. Heat oil in a deep stock pot over medium heat. Brown pork on all sides until skin is golden brown.
4. Set pork aside. Remove excess oil until only ~ 1 Tbsp is left in the pot. Over medium-high heat, saute scallions and ginger until fragrant.
5. Deglaze the pan with rice wine. Add all remaining ingredients except water and bring to a boil.
6. Place pork in a heat-proof bowl. Pour the sauce over it. Add enough water to just covering the pork. Place this bowl into a steamer over boiling water and steam for 2.5-3 hours. Let cool and store in the fridge overnight.
7. Next day, skim off solidified fat on top of the sauce. Reheat the pork and the sauce on the stove over medium-low heat.
8. Baste the pork every now and then. Cook until sauce is reduced to a syrupy consistency.
9. Place pork on a platter over a bed of cooked baby bok choy or broccoli. Pour sauce over the entire dish and serve.


charles said…
Is that the picture of the actual dish that you had at the party? If yes, wow, the color and luster of the meat as well as the skin look amazingly good. Also love the white bowl in which the dish is served.

I'm surprised that non-Chinese people would even venture to cook something like pork shoulder with the skin and the bone attached. (I'm assuming that your friends are not Chinese since no Chinese people I know would cook quiche tartlets to entertain.) Anyway, 紅燒蹄膀 is a great dish for any winter event -- far tastier than that "big bird" people like eat at Thanksgiving ;)

Oh, to answer your question posted on my blog: Yes, both choices are in NYC, so I'll definitely in the Big Apple next summer! Actually, I think I've already made up my mind, but I haven't officially accepted the offer. I will do it on Monday, leaving this weekend to fully digest my decision to convince myself that I'm making the right choice.
Albertitto said…
My friends cooked the same cut of pork but with a different recipe (French bistro style). The picture is from my own cooking, and is the actual Chinese dish. I bought that dish on sale at Mikasa -- I thought it was a platter, but it is actually a giant pasta plate. It's usually too deep and sloping on the side to present lots of hors d'oeuvres. But in this case it's perfect.

Yay! I can't wait to have you in town! And to tell you some more incentive to come to NYC -- Mike and I have a seasonal indoor tennis court contract to have a court every week from November to May. So you can play tennis with us!
charles said…
Wow, isn't it like super expensive to rent an indoor court in NYC? What a luxury! I'm definitely looking forward to playing with you guys!

The LA offer was hard to turn down, but at the end I decided on NYC because of family, friends, and familiarity with the city. I figure that in case I have some kind of meltdown in my first year of practicing, I'd at least have a shoulder (even if it's just a pork shoulder ;)) to cry on in NYC whereas in LA I'd have no idea where and to whom to turn.

The two final choices in NYC are: Ropes & Gray (for IP) and Davis, Polk & Wardwell (for Corporate). Too bad that neither is in downtown so we can't be lunch buddies :(
Albertitto said…
Yeah it's super expensive. But seeing that neither of us actually exercises on a regular basis, it is actually a wise investment to compel us to get off the couch...

No one in my company takes a lunch break out of the office, so I don't do that either. It's ok, you are not missing much from the lunch scene in the financial district. The fast pace of lunches here is enough to give anyone a stomach ulcer!
erica said…
紅燒蹄膀 is a Shanghainese dish, no? We got lazy and just buy the already cooked ones from Kam Sam's not the same, but like I said, we got lazy...or my mom did...haha...
Albertitto said…
I don't know if this is a Shanghainese dish... I guess the brown sauce (紅燒) part is pretty Shanghainese...

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