In how many places can you find yourself surrounded by Korean-speaking people one minute, and then 3 minutes later find yourself surrounded by Italian-speaking people. Probably more than I know, but I'm sure as hell glad I live near one.
I was on my way to pick up some Calabria Hot Long Chili Peppers at Piccolo's when I noticed a Korean market called H&Y. There was no reason to not pop my head in, so in I went.
H&Y is apparently a small chain, with locations in Queens, this one in Ridgefield, and one in Bergenfield as well.
My usual Korean market is H-Mart, but I don't always enjoy my time there. Not sure why. Maybe it's the lake that masquerades as a parking lot. Maybe it's that odd flea market that is attached to it. Maybe it's that funky liquor store that you pass on the way in. I was more at ease at H&Y today, rest assured.
"Streaky pork." "Fatty pork." "Streaky bacon." "Bacon." I've seen pork belly described using any number of (often unappetizing) terms on Sichuan menus. It's probably just as well that these ominous depictions are sending up red flags, because the unsuspecting customer who is expecting some dry, boring morsels of pork loin might be surprised when they get a plate full of belly.
That surprised person was me about 12 years ago at Grand Sichuan on 2nd Ave and 50-something in NYC. A friend and I were having one of our standard blow-out lunches, and we ordered a pork dish. When it hit the table, we were beside ourselves. "Good God, it's a plate full of bacon!" was our reaction. We laughed about it, but enjoyed the dish as much as we could, along with the three other dishes that we ordered.
We'd continue to bring up the absurdity of that dish over the next few years, half disgusted as we recalled that plate of "bacon." And then one day it occurred to me that this plate full of fatty, luscious pork belly was actually a beautiful thing. One to be admired, not ridiculed. I'm not sure when I experienced this life-changing epiphany, but since then I've been a huge fan of any of the Sichuan dishes that use pork belly. And there are many.
One of those dishes is a standard restaurant order for us. And now, with the help of Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking , it's a standard at t:e headquarters. In her book, it's called "salt-fried pork." It consists of pork belly and leeks. Lots of leeks, when I cook it. And, as it turns out, black beans and chili bean sauce, and not much else.
As with much of the Chinese food I've been cooking, it's dead simple. The fact of the matter is that you've got some incredibly flavorful ingredients doing all of the work. All you have to do is mix them together and not screw it up. No problem.
The dish is immensely addictive, and packed with intense flavors. It's a bit spicy, a bit sweet, with a somewhat salty backbone. And it's even better as left-overs the next day.
Since I don't strictly follow Ms. Dunlop's recipe, I'll go with the "adapted from" approach here (that's what you do when you want to steal someone's recipe and post it on your blog--you say "adapted from" to make yourself feel better--like I just did):
Most anyone who has been to New Orleans and has even a passing interest in food has gone to Central Grocery (which apparently has the most awesome website ever...seriously, click on that link) or one of the many places that serve the glorious beast of a sandwich known as the Muffuletta.
For the uninitiated (please, hang your head in shame at this point), the Muffuletta is a big, round sandwich of cold cuts (ham, mortadella, salami, provolone, mozzarella, did I miss one?), with an oil-based olive salad as dressing. Served on bread that is too thick and, to my mind, not terribly good. Although it gets better as the oil soaks into it.
That olive salad is really the only truly remarkable component of the sandwich. Without it, you'd have a pretty boring, yet complicated sandwich. The olive salad elevates and unifies the whole mess.
Thankfully you can buy olive salad in jars and elevate your own stuff, right at home. That's what I did earlier today. I elevated my own stuff. Also, I made this sandwich.
Is it called pad graprow? Possibly. Either way, what I was going for was that dish that's on every Thai menu in the US. Generally called "beef/chicken/shrimp with basil and pepper and chili," or something like that.
The description of the dish on these menus pretty much sums it up: "onion, basil, pepper, garlic, hot pepper, chili paste." All self-explanatory, other than that chili paste. Well I'm here to tell you it could very well be nam prik pao.
There are two types of mozzarella cheese I use for pizza: low-moisture mozzarella (the shrink wrapped stuff), and mozzarella di bufula. I very rarely use the very fancy sounding fior di latte (fresh mozzarella from cow's milk), for various reasons. Primarily because I don't like the way it melts. Where mozzarella di bufula turns into rich, luscious blob of cream, mingling with the tomato sauce, fior di latte just sorta almost melts, and can turn a bit rubbery.
Disdain for fior di latte on pizza be damned, I grabbed a hunk of fresh mozzarella from A Family Affair Italian Deli, in Fair Lawn, NJ, just to see what would happen on pizza (and because I wanted to try Eddie's mutz).
This transaction caused an immediate reaction in my head and gut: I needed some damned gourmet sausage with interesting toppings, right then.
Unfortunately, time constraints and laziness conspired to keep me from driving an hour to eat the sausage sandwiches at Destination Dogs, but I did come up with a reasonable Plan B: make something on my own.
This dish is all sorts of wacky, with aggressive saltly and sour flavors, tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, crunchy long beans, spicy dried hot chile, all seasoned with pork for crying out loud.
I had always assumed that this was a dish that could only be created in the kitchen of a Sichuan restaurant, and never gave much thought to cooking it at home. But then my life changed forever while thumbing through the incredible Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, by Fuchsia Dunlop, when I saw a recipe for a dish that looked very familiar.