Jan 8, 2012

Mmmm Fat.

There's this dish everyone in my family loves.  I've always known it as "dee pong", because that's the Shanghainese name for it.  It's some part of a pig's leg - that I know because it's got two big bones in it, along with the meat, fat and skin.  It's braised in soy sauce and other spices, until the collagen rich skin is the texture of jello and the meat and fat melt off the bone.  It's as rich as any foie, but meatier tasting.  Unfortunately, there's probably only so much you can eat before keeling over from cardiac arrest.

I tried making it over the holidays.  The first challenge was finding a recipe.  Searching for combinations of "shanghai pork shoulder leg hock" let me to four similar recipes of varying complication (note: "ti pang" seems to be the most common spelling online).  I then decided to screw with the recipes by using my mom's new thermal vacuum pot using some fancy low-temperature cooking technique.  Or so I imagined.

I tried the recipe twice, the results were... not great.  Perfectly edible, but far from perfect.  The great thing about fatty, tough meats is that if you cook them long enough the flavorful fat will make up for all your errors, so even when it's bad, it's reasonably good.  The four recipes had varying cooking times, from 2-12 hours.  Most involved simmering/braising, though Albertitto's recipe called for an interesting immersed steaming technique.  Two of the recipes called for refrigerating overnight.

Instead of using 15lb pork shoulder, I used a 2lb pork hock.  That was probably my first mistake, but the pork hock was far more manageable, and I probably would have had leftovers like crazy with the 15lb piece.  Also, pork hock is inexpensive.  Instead of simmering for hours, I decided to give the vacuum pot a try.  The word vacuum sounds fancy, and evokes images of sous vide.  In reality, it's really just a giant thermos.  The contents of the pot are not under vacuum - the pot has a vacuum insulating wall.  You would cook something normally on the stove, and then stick it in the pot.  The retained heat will continue cooking the food for hours as it cools - very slowly.

On my first attempt, I followed typical thermal vacuum instructions, bring the water inside to a boil, then letting it cook in the vacuum pot for four hours.  At the end the meat was a light tea colour, hardly the rich colour I expected.  I refrigerated overnight.  The meat had gotten darker.  One big difference with vacuum pot cooking is that the fluid doesn't evaporate.  I ended up simmering for a couple of hours until the sauce reduced.  The meat darkened during the simmering process.  Overall the flavour was right, the meat fell off the bone, but was a bit on the dry side.  Although soft, the skin wasn't at the desired jelly-like consistency, but was chewier, though some people might like that.

I thought it might have been that the boiling temperature was too high.  On my second attempt, I tried lower temperatures.  I heated the pork/sauce to about 175F, but let it cool to 160F before I stuck it in the pot.  When I took it out 4 hours later, it had dropped to about 138F.  I heated it back up to 160F and gave it another 4 hours.  When I pulled the pork out, and shoved a meat thermometer in, it was still far stiffer than it should have been.  Again, I had to simmer the sauce down, which did enough to tenderize the meat to an edible state.  The result the second time wasn't much better than the first.

My suspicion is that I'd either need the low temperature going for much longer than 8 hours... perhaps 24 hours or more, which seems like a lot of work since I would need to reheat the pot every few hours, and make sure it doesn't drop in to the bacterial danger zone below 130F.  The simmering process seemed to do far more in tenderizing the meat than the slow cooking.  I'll have to try out the 24 hour version sometime... as well as the simple braise and the steaming method.  After I've worked off this year's calories.

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