Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Cooking again, home sweet home
I had all this stuff I planned to write about, even video footage of bulgogi bubbling away on a copper grill at Sariwon, but nothing made me want to write until I tasted the pasilla chile-honey sauce on the seared pork I made last night. Rick Bayless calls it “Borrego (o Puerco) al Pasilla Enmielado.” The Spanish syllables just roll off your tongue as smooth as the sauce, no? Be sure to roll the double “r” in “borrego.”
I’d been easing my way back into cooking. One of the first things I did when I got back was to sign up for a new shift at the Park Slope Food Coop so I could get back into the store—I am now “food prep,” which I am told secretly means “cheese taster.” I made a trip to Koreatown to stock up on Korean groceries, including a daikon radish the size of my calf that I plan to turn into kimchi. But I started with cooking just one-plate meals, feeling sort of overwhelmed by how busy life is when you actually have to work.
Soon, though, I felt sort of itchy but also scared. I needed other people to eat what I cooked, but I needed them to be people I could treat as guinea pigs without fearing the loss of their friendship. My original supper club of Brooklyn friends was perfect, appreciative yet forgiving.
They raved about the tomatillo-avocado guacamole, which was really excellent, with a subtle but lingering kick from the roasted serrano chiles. They didn’t say anything about the jicama sticks with chile powder, lime juice and salt, but they ate almost all of them. Magda said the Mexican white rice was cooked perfectly, and truly it was, baked according to Bayless’s precise directions. The black beans were not so exciting, despite the epazote I went all the way to Sunset Park to find, but it wasn’t a total waste of trip since I got to practice speaking Spanish. I’ll have to keep trying and find out. The homemade tortillas were similarly, at best, an inspiration to keep trying, they were so sad and small. But the chocolate pound cake was a hit with the birthday girl, whose husband had tipped me off to her favorite flavor.
The star of the table, though, was the seared pork and sweet potatoes in pasilla-honey sauce. It was worth every little thing I had to do to get in on the table:
1) Scrub my cast iron griddle with steel wool and reseason it after my sublettor left it rusty.
2) Take the R train to Sunset Park on a Sunday morning to find flexible, fresh pasilla chiles.
3) Slice open the chiles to remove the seeds and stems.
4) Lay them flat and toast them on the griddle one at a time, pressing on each side for a few seconds.
5) Rehydrate them in warm water for 30 minutes.
6) Put them through the food processor with roasted garlic, a bit of cumin, freshly ground pepper, and Mexican oregano.
7) Sear chunks of pork in batches.
8) Add the chile sauce, fry, and then simmer with beef broth for 30 minutes.
9) Add the sweet potatoes and simmer for another 30 minutes.
10) Add just enough honey for an “edge” of sweetness (Bayless’s very precise wording) and salt to round it out.
Seriously, it was worth it. (For the full recipe, buy his book, “Mexican Kitchen,” as the man deserves every cent of his royalties.) The pasilla chiles had a bitter flavor that tasted almost like ash when I first ground it up into a paste. It had me considering a last-minute pizza delivery order. But it magically took on an amazingly smoky, rich flavor as it cooked and absorbed the flavors of the meat and the broth. Even before I added the honey, it tasted insane—I had been crazy to consider pizza. When I added the honey, my head exploded. It was like Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry, except it was pork.
Decorated with slices of white onion and cilantro, it looked quite pretty, too.
Along the way, this blog became a travel food log, with little amateur assessments of empanadas on the streets of Oaxaca, tripe stew in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, and the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul, but I'm so happy to be reminded that what I love best, what really makes me glad I’ve come home, is cooking for people I love.