Ants climbing a tree

Ants climbing a tree
Ants climbing a tree

The name of this Szechuan dish is one that’s always confused me. There are, most emphatically, no ants in it; no woody bits either, unless you’ve failed to soak your dried mushrooms properly. I’ve heard suggestions that the bits of minced pork resemble ants and the glass noodles a tree. Whoever came up with that one had either been at the opium pipe, or had spent his life locked up somewhere where there are neither ants nor trees. There are other, even more unappetisingly named Szechuan dishes out there: husband and wife offal, strange-taste pork, pock-marked old woman’s bean curd. Struggle past the names – they all taste great. Szechuan cuisine lays all its emphasis on intense chilli spicing, and salty, savoury flavours.

Peculiar name aside, this makes for a terrific main dish, which you should serve with some rice to soak up the sauce. It’s important that you get your hands on glass noodles (sometimes called bean-thread or pea-thread noodles) rather than rice noodles when you cook ants climbing a tree. Their texture, slippery and glassy, and not particularly absorbent, is an important part of this dish. As always with a stir fry, make sure all your ingredients are chopped and ready to hit the wok as soon as you start to cook; things move quickly here.

To serve 6 (this also freezes well, so it’s worth making plenty even if you’re not serving that many people) you’ll need:

450g minced pork (I like a mince that’s not too lean here)
200g dry weight glass noodles
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornflour
75ml Chinese rice wine
12 spring onions
1 piece ginger about the size of your thumb
4 fat cloves garlic
200ml chicken stock (you can use half stock, half soaking liquid from your mushrooms if you prefer)
6 large, dried shitake mushrooms
6 dried cloud-ear mushrooms (sometimes sold as Chinese black mushrooms)
1 tablespoons chilli bean sauce
2 tablespoons shredded bamboo shoots preserved in sesame oil (optional – don’t worry if you can’t find these)
1 teaspoon Chinese chilli oil (look for a jar at your local oriental supermarket, and use more if you like things extra-spicy – I used about 3 heaped teaspoons in mine, but I have an asbestos tongue)
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
6 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon ground nut oil

Combine the pork with the sugar, salt, rice wine, cornflour and one tablespoon of light soy sauce in a bowl, and set aside for half an hour while you prepare the other ingredients.

Soak the mushrooms for at least 20 minutes in freshly boiled water (I like to soak shitakes for an hour or more for the sake of texture; the cloud ears won’t need so long). Chop the spring onions, keeping the white and green parts separate. Dice the garlic and ginger finely. Pour boiling water over the noodles, soak for 10 minutes and then drain. Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid and slice them into fine strips, discarding the woody stalks of the shitakes.

Heat the oil until it starts to smoke in a wok, and throw in the garlic, ginger and the white parts of the spring onions. Stir fry for a few seconds until the aromatic ingredients start to give up their fragrance, and tip the contents of the pork bowl into the wok. Stir fry until the pork is browning evenly, and add the mushrooms to the wok with the bamboo shoots, stock, chilli bean sauce, chilli oil and soy sauces. Stir well to combine everything and add the noodles, stir again until the noodles are dispersed evenly through the wok, and turn the heat to medium. Allow the dish to bubble away until the sauce has reduced by about a third (a mixture of absorption and evaporation in this dish means this won’t take long). Remove from the heat and stir through the sesame oil and the green parts of the spring onions. Serve immediately with rice.

Pork with chilli and cashews

Pork with chilli and cashews
Pork with chilli and cashews

While recovering from flu, I’ve found myself turning to the wok even more than usual. It’s the perfect cooking implement when I’m feeling under the weather; there’s not too much washing up, you can get dinner on the table very quickly (you should be able to prepare this stir fry in under half an hour). Stir frying invites the use of powerful aromatics and savoury, fiery ingredients like soy and the chilli bean sauce I’ve used below – just what you need if you’re feeling a bit bunged up.

If you’re in a Chinese restaurant in the UK, you’re most likely to see cashew nuts paired with chicken. I prefer them with pork, which gives you a denser and more interesting flavour, and to my mind works much better with the sweet cashews. You’ll need raw, unsalted nuts. Most supermarkets seem to sell them these days, but if you can’t find any there, your local health food shop should stock them.

To serve three, you’ll need:

500g pork fillet
75g raw, unsalted cashew nuts
10 spring onions
3 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon chilli bean sauce (I like Lee Kum Kee’s sauce, which you’ll be able to find in any oriental grocer)
2 fresh red chillies
1 tablespoon caster sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon cornflour
2 tablespoons ground nut oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the cylindrical pork fillet into bite-sized slices measuring about 4 cm by ½ cm. Put the slices in a bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of the rice wine, 1 tablespoon of the light soy sauce, the sesame oil, the cornflour, a large pinch of salt and several grinds of the peppermill until everything is well mixed. Leave to sit on the working surface to marinade quickly 15 minutes while you put together the rest of the ingredients and have a cup of tea.

Cut the white parts of the spring onion into thin coins, and put in a bowl. Chop the green parts finely and set aside. Chop the chillies finely, and make sure that the other ingredients are all within easy reach of the stove top.

Heat the oil to a high temperature in your wok, and stir fry the pork for three minutes. Remove the pork to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Add the cashew nuts to the wok and stir fry until they are turning gold (about one minute). Now add all of the other ingredients except the green parts of the spring onions. Return the pork to the pan and stir fry everything for another two minutes. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the green parts of the spring onions.

Banh xeo – Vietnamese savoury crepe

Banh xeoPancake day is coming up on March 8. I’m all for a lovely dessert crepe, but this year, I feel like ringing the changes a bit and making pancakes a savoury course.

I’ve been obsessing a bit about Vietnamese food ever since tasting the best pho I’ve ever had in California last month. Conversations have been had on Twitter (which revealed that your best bet for a Vietnamese meal in London is probably Viet Grill in Shoreditch – I’ve not had a chance to go yet, but I’m assured by a huge number of London diners that it’s as good as you’ll find in the UK), and while mulling over just how well the Vietnamese work soup, sandwiches and other staples, it struck me that they also make a pretty damn fine savoury crepe, just right for Shrove Tuesday.

Banh xeo are a spectacularly tasty plateful, with a scattering of sweet prawns, tender onions and savoury pork – this is another use for any leftover roast belly pork you might not have got through in Monday’s stir fry – and a shatteringly crisp batter flavoured with coconut and turmeric. Rice flour is what glues the whole thing together and gives it its light crispness; despite the visual similarity to an omelette, there are no eggs in this particular pancake, which makes it a good choice if you’ve got someone who can’t eat them visiting at this time of year.

Chunks of banh xeo are traditionally eaten wrapped up in a lettuce leaf with some herbs, then dipped in a bowl of nuoc cham – a spicy, piquant, salty sauce made from fish sauce, limes, garlic and chillies. I’ve included a recipe for the sauce below. This is one of the few occasions on which an iceberg lettuce is a variety I’ll actually recommend – its texture is great here. Take the stem out with the tip of a knife and chop the lettuce in half . You can now separate the large leaves of the lettuce into cups just the right size and shape for wrapping things up in. I’ve suggested you use mint and coriander because they’re easily available in the UK, but if you can get your hands on any other Vietnamese culinary herbs, they’re wonderful here. Try Vietnamese Herbs for pictures and more information on herbs for growing and eating.

I used a 20cm non-stick frying pan to make these, and served two to each person. You’ll be working a bit of a production line, so you’re best off eating in the kitchen – serve each pancake as it comes ready, and be prepared to jump up and down a bit from the table to get the next one ready as you eat. To make eight pancakes, you’ll need:

Banh xeo
375g rice flour
1 heaped teaspoon turmeric powder
400ml coconut milk (1 can)
400ml cold water
1 teaspoon salt
350g roast pork belly
350g raw peeled prawns
300g beansprouts
2 medium onions
Flavourless oil or (preferably) lard, especially if you can save some from roasting the pork, to fry.

To serve
1 iceberg lettuce
1 large handful fresh coriander
1 large handful fresh mint

Nuoc cham
75ml water
2 heaped tablespoons soft brown sugar or palm sugar
75ml fish sauce
Juice of 4 limes
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 fresh birds eye chillies
4 cloves garlic

Lettuce and herbs
Lettuce and herbs for wrapping the banh xeo

The pancake batter needs half an hour to rest, which gives you plenty of time to get all the pancake ingredients ready to go. Everything should be chopped and positioned to cook immediately; things move quite fast once your ingredients are in the pan.

Sieve the rice flour and turmeric into a large mixing bowl with the salt. Combine the coconut milk and water in a jug and beat it into the rice flour mixture bit by bit with a hand whisk until you have a smooth batter about the texture of double cream. Set aside at room temperature to rest.

While the batter is resting, slice the pork belly into about 32 thin slices, and halve and slice the onions. To make the nuoc cham dipping sauce, pour the water, straight from the kettle, over the sugar and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Leave to one side to cook a bit while you chop the chillies and garlic, then pound them in a mortar and pestle. Add the chillies and garlic to the sugar and water with all the other liquid ingredients and put to one side until you are ready to eat. Put the lettuce leaves and herbs in a serving dish in the middle of the table.

When the batter has rested for half an hour (you can leave it for up to four hours if you want), get your frying pan as hot as you can on top of the stove, and melt a tablespoon of lard in it. Throw in four slices of pork, four prawns and a small handful of onion pieces (about a quarter of an onion), and stir-fry for a minute or two until the prawns are pink and the onion is starting to soften off. Use a ladle to pour a thin layer of the batter over the ingredients in the bottom of the pan, and scatter a small handful of beansprouts over the surface of the pancake.

Allow the pancake to sizzle away for 5-7 minutes, until the bottom is golden-brown and very crisp, and the softer top cooked through. Fold in half around the beansprouts and slide onto a plate to serve immediately, to be wrapped in pieces in the lettuce with some herbs, and dipped in the nuoc cham.

Stir-fried pork belly

Pork belly stir fry
Pork belly stir fry

Chinese crispy belly pork, or siew yoke, is fabulous stuff, but it only stays crispy for a day or so. The day-two-wangy-crackling is, of course, also a problem with belly pork you’ve cooked in a western style, and this stir fry works really well with any leftover roast belly. You don’t need to strip the crackling off, but sadly, it will not be resurrected by any cooking method; it still tastes good, but if you’ve plenty of leftovers you might choose to remove it as I did here. Save any fat that renders out of the pork as you roast it to push the flavour of the pork in the stir fry up a notch.

Don’t keep your pot of tom yum paste (my favourite brand is Mae Ploy, which comes in a 400g tub you can keep for months in the fridge) just for tom yum soup. It makes a fantastic quick marinade for seafood, and works really well as a sauce ingredient. In this dish, it provides the spice and piquancy to make a great base for a sweet/sour style sauce, rather nicer than the mouth-puckering sort you’ll get at the local takeout because the sourness in the paste comes from lime and tamarind rather than white vinegar.

Rich pork and sweet peas work really well together. I’ve cooked this pork with sugary mange touts and sweet sugarsnap peas. If you can only get one kind of pea, substitute the other with frozen petits pois.

To serve 2-3 people, you’ll need:

500g leftover roast pork belly
200g mange tout peas
200g sugar snap peas
3 cloves garlic
10 spring onions, chopped
1 or 2 red chillies, to taste
1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons tom yum paste
100ml Chinese rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
Juice of a lime
1 tablespoon rendered fat from the pork or flavourless oil to fry

Chop the pork into bite-sized pieces, and set aside. Chop the garlic finely and slice the spring onions and chillies.

Bring the pork fat or oil up to a high temperature in your wok, and throw in the garlic, chillies and spring onion with the sugar. Stir fry for about ten seconds, then add the pork to the pan with the tom yum paste, rice wine and soy sauce. Continue to stir fry for two minutes, then add the peas, pop a lid on the wok and leave to steam in the sauce for a couple of minutes while you put some rice out, until the peas are bright green and barely cooked.

Remove the stir fry to a warm serving dish, and add lime juice to taste. Serve immediately.

Crackling pork belly with celeriac and tomato

Pork belly on celeriacWhere other children were visited by fairy godmothers bearing gifts of grace and beauty; the art of detecting peas beneath mattresses; the ability to walk in high heels for more than five yards without getting one stuck in the space between two pieces of pavement; and all that glamorous jazz, mine found that her bag was empty but for the gift of making really terrific crackling. (Seriously. It wins competitions and everything.)

I’m not complaining. It’s better than it could have been; I’ve one friend who swears her only skill is the tidy folding of a broadsheet newspaper once read.

This recipe is reliant on your getting your hands on a really good piece of pork belly, properly reared, and striped thickly with fat. It doesn’t matter whether your piece has attached bones or not, but do try not to use a supermarket slab of meat; the flavour will be much better with a butcher’s belly from a pig raised responsibly, and you’ll probably find the joint will be drier, crackling more effectively. Cooked slowly for several hours, the pork bastes itself from within, leaving you with a gorgeously dense, flavoursome and moist finish.

I’ve used the tomato sauce than I made in a few enormous batches and froze at the end of the summer here, with some additional cream and herbs. If you don’t have any sauce you’ve made and frozen yourself, substitute with a good sun-dried tomato sauce in a jar.

To serve four, you’ll need:

1.5kg pork belly
1 small handful thyme stalks (about 20g, if you’re counting)
1 small handful fresh rosemary
4 bayleaves
100g stupendous tomato sauce, or sun-dried tomato sauce in a jar
3 tablespoons double cream
1 medium celeriac (larger celeriacs can be woody)
1 large handful parsley
2 banana shallots
1 tablespoon butter
Plenty of salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 140ºC (290ºF). Make sure the skin of the pork is scored properly in regular lines penetrating into the fat but not into the meat, and that it is absolutely bone-dry. Rub the pork all over with a couple of teaspoons of salt, making sure that plenty gets into the scored lines on the skin. Season with pepper, and sit the belly in a roasting pan on top of the thyme, bay and rosemary, reserving a bayleaf and a stalk of the thyme and rosemary to use in the sauce later.

Put the roasting pan in the middle of the oven, close the door and ignore the pork for four hours. Towards the end of the cooking time, cut your celeriac in quarters, peel them with a knife (this is far easier than trying to peel a whole celeriac), and grate them on the coarse side of your box grater. Slice the shallots finely and mix them with the grated celeriac in a bowl.

When the pork has had four hours in the oven, the top will have softened but not crackled. Still in the roasting dish, put the pork about four inches beneath a hot grill. The skin will start to bubble and crackle. Keep an eye on things; once crackled, the skin can burn easily. If you find that one side of your joint is crackling and ready before the other, put a piece of tin foil over the area that has crackled to prevent it from burning. Once the crackling is even, remove the dish from the grill and leave it to rest in a warm place while you prepare the sauce and celeriac.

Sauté the celeriac and shallots in the butter for about eight minutes until soft and sweet. Stir through the parsley and season with salt and pepper. While the celeriac is cooking, bring the tomato sauce up to a gentle simmer with the herbs you reserved earlier, then stir through the cream with any juices from the pork.

Pop a pastry cutter onto each plate, and use it as a template for a serving of celeriac. Top off with some of the herby, velvety pork meat, and a generous slab of crackling. Spoon over some of the sauce and serve.

Vietnamese caramel pork

Vietnamese caramel porkI’ll be frank here: my fear of caramel can’t really be described as healthy. I’m scared silly of the stuff and won’t cook it without gauntlet oven gloves, my biggest pair of glasses, an apron and long sleeves. So I like to think of this recipe as a sort of delicious therapy – and it tastes so good that I’m finding myself forced to cook it regularly. (Mostly by Dr W, who likes it so much that he’s insisted we have it again tonight.)

This way with caramel is a traditional Vietnamese saucing. You’ll end up with a surprisingly low-fat dish which, just to scotch any diet ambitions you had, contains five tablespoons of sugar. The caramel itself is available as a ready-made sauce in bottles in Vietnam, but if you’re cooking this dish at home you’ll have to make your own. The ready-made caramel will only save about ten minutes of your time, so this isn’t really much of a hardship.

The sauce is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so; with a bowl of white rice, you’ll find the balance between salt from the fish sauce, sweetness from the caramel and sour from the lime juice works beautifully to create a very aromatic, rich sauce. If you’re not a chilli-head, you can reduce the amount in the recipe below – but if you are, you’re in for a treat. This recipe comes together quickly, so make sure all your ingredients are chopped and prepared before you start to cook.

To serve two, you’ll need:

450g pork fillet
5 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Juice of 1 lime
10 spring onions, white parts only
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bird’s eye chillies, chopped finely
25ml chicken stock
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 handful fresh coriander (about 25g) and some of the green parts of the onions to sprinkle

Chop the pork into bite-sized pieces, and set aside in a bowl. Chop the spring onions and separate the white and green parts. Crush the garlic (I use a Microplane grater for garlic; it’s quicker, easier and much easier to clean than one of those garlic-squashing devices), chop the chillies, and combine the fish sauce, lime juice and chicken stock in a mug.

Put five tablespoons of sugar in the bottom of a dry saucepan, and place over a medium heat. Keep an eye on the sugar as it turns into caramel without stirring. When all the sugar has melted and is the colour of strong tea, throw the pork into the pan. Stir well to coat the pork as much as you can (the caramel will start to solidify, so you may not be able to coat all the pork), and pour in the wet ingredients. Continue to cook, stirring, for two minutes. The caramel should be dissolving in the sauce; if some solid bits are left at this stage, don’t worry about it. They’ll dissolve into the sauce as the dish continues to cook.

Throw in the spring onions, garlic and chillies with a teaspoon of salt, the sesame oil and a few turns of the peppermill. Stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer and continue cooking and reducing the sauce until most of the liquid has gone, and the pork has a sticky coating of sauce.

Serve the pork over rice with a generous sprinkling of fresh coriander leaves and some of the green parts of the spring onions. This dish works very well with a cooling vegetable stir-fry – look out for a recipe later this week.

Crispy pork belly with bak kut teh spicing

With what, you say? Bak kut teh. It’s a Hokkien Chinese term which translates roughly as “meaty bone tea”, and it denotes a particular herbal, scenty soup spicing which is traditionally meant to warm you from within. It’s got yang, this stuff. So much so that my mother and brother won’t eat it, because it makes them turn bright red and start sweating.

In a period when my village is only accessible over a hump-backed bridge coated with half a foot of sheet ice (it’s been like this since before Christmas), red and sweating is exactly what I’m after. Hurrah for yang.

You’ll find bak kut teh served regularly in Malaysia and southern China. Bak kut teh mixtures are available in the UK in oriental supermarkets, in sealed packs containing a couple of tea-bag style sachets. These sachets are preferable to the whole spices, which you also see sometimes in neat plastic packs – the whole spices can make your recipe a bit gritty. If you’re making the traditional stew, just pop a bag in a crockpot with some rib bones, simmer for a few hours, and serve with rice or as a noodle soup with a generous slosh of soya sauce. It’s hearty stuff – the traditional mixture includes star anise, angelica, cinnamon and cloves. This mixture is, somewhat eccentrically, close to what you’ll find in a British Christmas cake.

The recipe below is not a traditional use of a bak kut teh sachet, but it’s none the worse for that. Here, you’ll be combining those spices with rice wine, several gloppy Chinese sauces, honey, spring onions and garlic, and using this stock to perfume a slab of pork belly. The belly meat is pressed under weights overnight in the fridge, then chopped and fried in a wok until it’s crispy. I know, I know: but the long simmering will render a lot of the grease out of the meat, and sometimes the weather just calls out for fatsome, sticky pork.

I served mine with some sticky hoi sin sauce to dip, alongside a little of the stock, thickened with cornflour, to moisten the rice we ate with it. Hang onto the stock – you can freeze it and treat it as a master stock. I poached a couple of hams in mine, leaving them spiced and savoury but not overtly Chinese-tasting; it’s back in the freezer now, and I have plans to poach a chicken in it next. This procedure may sound overly parsimonious to those used to stock cubes, but it’s a method that produces a stock with an incredible depth of flavour, and you can keep using it indefinitely as a poaching liquid, adding a bit more water or wine and some more aromatics every time you cook, and making sure that every time it comes out of the freezer the stock gets boiled very thoroughly. There are restaurants in Hong Kong which claim that their master stock has been on the go for more than a hundred years.

To poach one boneless pork belly (enough for four, but be warned, this is very moreish) you’ll need:

1 boneless pork belly, with rind
1 bak kut teh sachet
Water to cover the belly (about a litre)
150ml Chinese rice wine
5 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons hoi sin sauce
3 tablespoons honey
2 anise stars
1 bulb garlic
6 spring onions, tied in a knot
Groundnut oil to fry

Stir the liquid ingredients together in a saucepan that fits the pork reasonably closely, and slide the pork in with the star anise, garlic and spring onions. Bring to a gentle simmer, skim off any froth that rises to the surface with a slotted spoon, cover and continue to simmer gently for two hours.

Remove the pork from the cooking liquid carefully and place it on a large flat dish with high enough sides to catch any liquid that comes out of the meat as you press it. Strain the poaching liquid if you plan on using it as a master stock. Place a plate or pan lid large enough to cover the whole belly on top of the meat (the skin side) and weigh it down. I used a heavy cast-iron pan lid and all the weights from my kitchen scales. Cover the whole assembly with a teatowel and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.

When you are ready to eat, remove the pressed meat to a chopping board and use a sharp knife to cut it into bite-sized pieces, about 2cm square. Bring about 5cm depth of groundnut oil to a high temperature in a wok, and fry the pieces of pork in batches of five or six pieces until golden (this should only take a couple of minutes per batch). Serve with shredded spring onion and some hoi sin sauce with steamed rice and a vegetable.

Pork rillettes

Dr W pitched up with two kilos of pork belly a few weeks ago, having spotted it on offer at the butcher’s. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know that there are plenty of options here for cooking this particular cut – it’s one of my favourites. Mind you, who wants to roast or casserole in this weather? Time to experiment with some charcuterie.

Rillettes (pronounced ree-etts) are a kind of coarse pate, made from gently cured meat poached in stock and its own fat (and, in this case, some fat from a duck) for hours until it becomes soft, falling into shreds. The fat is there to carry the flavour to the tastebuds, to provide some really world-beating texture, and as a preservative; once you’ve sealed your rillettes into sterilised jars, covered with a layer of the creamy fat, nothing will be able to get in there, so you’ll be able to store them in the fridge for months. I’d recommend, in fact, that you don’t eat your rillettes as soon as you’ve made them if you can possibly help it; a week or so in a jar will allow the flavours to develop fully.

Traditionalists will tell you to cure your meat with nothing but salt and pepper before cooking, and to avoid adding extra flavourings to the meat as you poach it. Traditionalists are, in my experience, a bloody miserable lot. My brother (currently right off pork, as he recovers slowly from swine flu) makes spectacular rillettes at Christmas, which he packs with lots of crushed juniper berries. I like mine garlicky and boozy, with plenty of aroma from a generous scattering of herbes de Provence, and some bay, lavender and thyme from the garden. To make your own (reduce the amounts if you want, but this keeps very well and makes an excellent gift – given that it’s mildly fiddly, you’ll be rewarded for making a large batch), you’ll need:

2kg pork belly
1kg pork shoulder
2 bulbs garlic
2 heaped tablespoons herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons salt
6 fresh bay leaves
1 small handful (20g) thyme
1 small handful (20g) lavender leaves
750g rendered pork fat (I used duck fat from the confit I made earlier this year – you can also substitute goose fat here)
2 glasses white wine
Pork stock or water

Cut the pork (leaving the skin on the belly) into long strips about 1 inch square, and put it in a large mixing bowl. In a mortar and pestle, grind the salt, bay, thyme, lavender and herbes de Provence together. Rub the resulting mixture all over the strips of meat, cover and refrigerate for 48 hours. Curing the meat like this before cooking (you’ll notice that the confit the duck fat came from was cured in a similar way) gives it what the French call a goût de confit – a very specific and delicious flavour you only really find in confited meats.

When the meat has cured, chop the strips, retaining the belly skin, into smaller pieces, about the size of your thumb. Put the meat and any salt and herbs from the bowl in a large casserole dish with the unpeeled garlic bulbs, chopped in half across their equators, and pour over the wine. Carefully pour over stock (I happened to have some pork stock in the freezer, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it – water will be fine) until it barely covers the meat, then spoon the rendered fat into the casserole dish. Heat the oven to 150°C and bring the casserole dish to a very gentle simmer on top of the stove. Pop it into the oven with the lid on and ignore it for five hours.

Remove the casserole from the oven and remove the meat and garlic from the liquid ingredients with a slotted spoon, putting them in a large mixing bowl. Leave the liquid in the casserole to stand and separate while you work on the meat.

When the meat is cool enough to handle, use your fingers to remove the skin from the belly pieces and discard it – it’s done its work now and will have given up its gelatin to the cooking liquid, which you’ll be using in a bit. Shred the meat (now lovely and soft, with all the fat rendered out) into another bowl, and squeeze the garlic from its skin into the bowl of shredded meat, discarding the skin. When all the meat is shredded evenly, use a ladle to skim all the fat from the liquid in the casserole, and put it in a jug. You’ll be left with a glossy stock in the pan. Stir two or three ladles-worth of the stock into the shredded meat to moisten it, and pop the rest of the stock in the freezer for another day. Now ladle the liquid fat into the shredded meat bowl and mix everything in the bowl thoroughly and evenly, reserving a couple of ladles of fat to cover the rillettes in their jars. (Exactly how much you’ll need depends on the size of jar you’re using.) Taste the contents of the bowl for seasoning – this recipe benefits from some robust salting.

Pack the rillettes into sterilised jars, leaving half an inch of room at the top of each one for the fat you’ll seal them with. (I also popped some in a terrine dish for serving to friends later in the week.) Pour fat into each jar/dish to cover, seal, and refrigerate until you come to eat them. I like to let the rillettes come to room temperature before spreading them on chunks of baguette, with some caper berries and cornichons on the side to cut through the velvety fat.


No photos of this one, since cassoulet à la Liz, once dished up, turns out to look totally unlovely; and I really don’t want to scare you off, because it tastes divine. I hope you made the duck confit (I have cunningly recycled the picture here from that recipe) from a few weeks back, which, along with its fat, forms an important part of this dish. If you didn’t, though, you can usually find tins of excellent Castelnaudry confit in good delis in the UK (I’ve also seen it in Waitrose).

Cassoulet is one of those social-climbing dishes, which began life as a French peasant dish full of preserved meats and dried beans, and now gets sold for vast amounts of money in swish restaurants. You can buy tins of cassoulet, but a cassoulet you have made at home is even better, especially in mouth-feel. It’s a wonderfully warming dish, and it’s fantastic to serve to friends; somehow it’s an especially cheering and convivial thing to eat. You can serve it up as is, or with crusty bread and a salad. I’ve used Japanese panko breadcrumbs here, which are not at all French. I’m developing a slight addiction to them – wonderfully crisp, with a slightly malty flavour and a perfect balance between absorbency and crustiness, they’re terrific for topping baked dishes or making breaded coatings for baked or fried meats. If you can’t find any, normal white breadcrumbs, whizzed in your food processor, will be absolutely fine. If you’re in France, try to pick up some of the wonderful long, white haricot beans (haricots blancs lingots) which are traditionally used in cassoulet and have an amazingly creamy texture. They’re hard to find in the UK, so I have fallen back on standard haricots, which are a shorter bean. They are still excellent in this dish.

Thanks not least to Iris Murdoch (whose A Fairly Honourable Defeat, which contains a very stressful cassoulet incident, managed singlehandedly to put me off making cassoulet myself for about fifteen years), cassoulet has a bit of a reputation as a complicated, work-intensive dish. It’s really not all that bad; most of the work is done by your oven, with you stirring occasionally to help the slow-cooked beans become tender and creamy, and while there are short bursts of frying, skimming and stirring, you can easily fit all the other things you have to do in a day at around the long cooking time. Packed with moist pork belly, fat duck legs and garlicky sausage, this isn’t for days when you’re worrying about your blood pressure – as always, my philosophy on these things is that the rush of endorphins you get when eating something that tastes this good more than cancels out any health negatives, and hey – I understand beans are good for you.

To serve six, you’ll need:

500g haricot beans
2 large onions
2 sticks celery
1 carrot
5 cloves
1 bouquet garni
1 large sprig rosemary
1 large sprig thyme
3 bay leaves
6 fat cloves garlic
1 tablespoon herbes de provence
¼ bottle white wine
4 tomatoes, chopped roughly
400g slab pork belly
3 confit duck leg and thigh joints
6 garlicky sausages (if you can find saussice de Toulouse, they’re traditional here, but any very dense, meaty sausage will be good)
Japanese panko breadcrumbs OR bog-standard white breadcrumbs to sprinkle

The night before you want to eat, soak the beans in plenty of cold water. In the morning, drain the beans, discarding the soaking liquid, and put them in your largest casserole dish (you’ll need plenty of spare room in there for the cooking liquid, the other ingredients and the eventual swelling of the beans) with the bouquet garni, the rosemary and thyme, one of the onions, halved and studded with the cloves, the carrot, halved lengthways, one stick of the celery, two of the bay leaves and two of the garlic cloves, peeled and left whole. Chop the pork belly, complete with its rind, into 1 inch chunks, and add it to the saucepan. Pour over cold water to cover the contents of the pan by a couple of inches, and bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface.

When the pot is boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and put the lid on. Ignore it for an hour and a half while you brown the sausages in a tablespoon of the fat from the confit in a frying pan. Remove them to a plate, and use the sausage pan to fry the remaining onion, garlic and celery stick, chopped finely, until soft, in another large tablespoon of duck fat. Preheat the oven to 180° C.

Remove and discard the herbs and vegetables (except the garlic and the bouquet garni) from the beans mixture and drain and reserve the liquid (now stock) from the casserole dish. Return the beans and pork to the casserole, adding the onion, garlic and celery mixture, the chopped tomatoes, the remaining bay leaves, the sausages and the confit duck legs. (Don’t worry about scraping off any fat clinging to the legs – it’ll just add to the wonderful texture.) Pour over the wine and add the reserved stock from the pork and beans to just cover the mixture. Add a tablespoon of salt. Bring the contents of the casserole to a simmer on the hob and put it in the oven for two hours with the lid on, stirring every half an hour.

When the two hours are up, there should be no visible liquid; the whole cassoulet should have an even, creamy texture. Taste for seasoning – you will probably need to add extra salt. Sprinkle the top of the cassoulet with the panko crumbs or breadcrumbs, and cook for another 20-30 minutes with the lid off, until the crumbs are brown and the cassoulet is bubbling through it in places. Serve up, making sure everyone gets a bit of duck, a bit of sausage, and a bit of pork with their creamy beans and crusty top.

Korean hotpot with pork, scallops and black beans

I hadn’t come across chunjang, a Korean black bean sauce, until January’s meal at the excellent Tanuki in Portland. In Korea, it’s actually considered a Chinese sauce, but it’s rather different from the saltier, stronger black bean sauces you’ll find in the Chinese supermarket – very dark in colour, mild and sweet alongside the soy saltiness, and altogether delicious.

Once chunjang is cooked, it’s called jajang (or fried sauce). It’s usually served over noodles with stir-fried pork. I found some at Wai Yee Hong, my favourite online oriental supermarket. When it arrived, I realised I had some scallops and a big chunk of belly pork in the freezer, a sack of sticky rice, a nice block of tofu in the cupboard and a jar of kimchee in the fridge – and a recipe for a hotpot suddenly sprung into in my head, fully formed. Cooking the pork for this takes a long time, but it’s actually very little work and is more than worth the extra effort for the incredible texture you finish up with.

To serve three, you’ll need:

500g pork belly with rind
¼ bottle Chinese rice wine
12 queen scallops
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon grated ginger
450g firm tofu
5 dried shitake mushrooms
4 tablespoons kimchee
½ cucumber
8 spring onions (scallions)
2 green birds eye chillies
2 cups Chinese sticky rice (or Thai jasmine rice)
3 cups water
1 tablespoon cornflour
Flavourless oil

Begin the day (or two days) before you want to eat by heating two or three tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan or wok over a high flame. Brown the slab of pork belly until it crackles on the skin side and changes colour on the bottom.

Move the pork to a saucepan that fits it closely, and pour over the quarter-bottle of Chinese rice wine. Add water until liquid covers the pork by about an inch. Bring to a gentle simmer on the hob, then put in an oven at 120°C (240°F) for six hours or overnight. Remove from the cooking liquid (you can freeze this stock to use later, because you won’t be using it in this recipe) and place the pork on a large plate. Put another plate on top and put the weights from your kitchen scale on the top plate to press the pork down, and chill for at least six hours. You can put the scallops in the fridge to defrost at this point too.

When the pork has been pressed and the scallops are defrosted, mix the scallops well in a bowl with the light soy sauce, a tablespoon of Chinese rice wine and the grated ginger, and set aside in the fridge. Pour boiling water over the dried shitake mushrooms to rehydrate them. Dice the tofu, chop the spring onions, and cut the cucumber into thin julienne strips.

Cut the pork into slices. Cook four tablespoons of chunjang in four tablespoons of oil (preferably groundnut, although a flavourless vegetable oil will be fine too) for five minutes over a medium flame. Much of the oil will be absorbed into the sauce. Add the chopped spring onions to the pan, reserving one of them for a garnish later, and stir-fry until they are soft. Add the pork to the pan with the chopped chillies and stir-fry until everything is mixed. Stir the cornflour into a quarter of a mug of cold water, and stir the cold mixture into the pork and black beans (now jajang, not chunjang, because you have cooked it) over the heat until the dish thickens. Remove from the heat and put to one side.

In a claypot or heavy saucepan, bring the rice and water to a brisk boil with the lid on, then turn the heat down very low. After 12 minutes, remove the lid and quickly spread out the black pork mixture over one half of the exposed surface of the rice. Spoon the raw, marinaded scallops and their marinade into the dish along with the sliced shitake mushrooms and the diced tofu, leaving a bit of space for the kimchee when the dish is finished. Sprinkle over five tablespoons of the soaking liquid from the mushrooms. Put the lid back on, and cook over the low heat for another 15 minutes until everything is piping hot.

The ingredients at the top of the dish will have steamed, and their savoury juices will have soaked deliciously into the rice. Add a few tablespoons of kimchee (I really like Hwa Nan Foods’ version, which comes in a jar to keep in the fridge), arrange the cucumber on top of the dish as in the picture, and scatter the reserved spring onion over the pork. Dig in.