This Friday, I will be moving from San Francisco to New York City. I've been making an active attempt to compress all the nostalgia, jitters, and stress into the five minutes before the plane takes off, à la Jack Donnaghy mind-vice. Pretending that everything is status quo until the very last minute is a perfectly mature thing to do, right? This approach means that I did not spend my last weekend in this lovely foggy city packing or working through my San Francisco bucket list as a normal person would. Instead, I bought four pounds of pork leg (skin on, bone in!!) and braised it in the traditional Chinese style that my dad taught me: 卤 or lu red-cooking. Four pounds to finish within a few days?! Smart move. Good thing I love this dish so much that many servings later, I'm still eager for every luscious velvety bite.
Despite being cursed with a complete lack of patience, I prefer low-and-slow braising to any other kind of cooking. It lends itself easily to improvisation, mid-process adjustments, and substitutions, as long as you know your aromatics! And the process couldn't be simpler, the key being to choose the right cut of meat and to allow enough simmer time. Tough muscular slabs punctuated by creamy seams of fat are best suited here. The upper hind leg of the pig, or the ham, is my favorite; after a few hours submerged in the braising liquid, it collapses into a tender heap. Shoulder works well too, but is a leaner cut - more servings per pound, but not quite as rich and juicy.
Note: most grocery stores won't carry skin-on pork leg, but the skin plus the fat cap underneath add a ton of flavor, so I think it's worth it to go to a specialty butcher as needed. I walked into a butcher shop this weekend and was overwhelmed with excitement by ten enormous whole pig legs on display! Raw meat is a little freaky looking to some, but I love browsing butchers' selections in the same way others window shop.
For the base of the braise, every family will have their own unique assortment of spices, aromatics, and sauces. The list is long, but some ingredients are optional (see recipe). I stay pretty traditional: star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, cloves, ginger, garlic, scallions, shiitake mushrooms, dried bay leaf, coriander, and dried chili peppers for the spices and aromatics, plus light/dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, black vinegar, and brown sugar. Some interesting but less conventional recipes I've heard of also include Coca Cola or coffee. Regarding the former, the exact same effect is achieved with sugar (or cane) for sweetness and vinegar for acidity, but by all means tinker with the recipe to your preference! After all, half the fun in home-cooking is creating your own blend of "secret ingredients".
I served this dish two ways. The decadence of the fatty pieces teams well with sharp pickled mustard greens, bok choy, sauced hard-boiled eggs, and rice. The leaner portions are delicious cold, complemented by the bite of raw thinly sliced scallion and a black vinegar dipping sauce.
Both styles are exactly how my family would eat this dish back when I was growing up in New Jersey. They say home is where the heart is, but more precisely, isn't home wherever you bring the flavors and aromas of your childhood? After all, smell is the sense most intimately linked to memories. In the human brain, the olfactory bulb is connected closely to the hippocampus and the amygdala, our centers for emotion and motivation and conditioning. As cheesy as it sounds, San Francisco became home to me when I began to learn the techniques around the dishes I had grown up eating. Now, I feel fortunate to have this easily portable way to create familiarity and stability to wherever I may move in the future. So in the end, this braise, as evocative and resonant to me as the sight of my sunny yellow bedroom in suburban New Jersey, may not have been such a silly way to conclude my two years in the Bay Area after all.
Chinese Slow-Braised Pork Leg Recipe (serves 6)
- 4 pounds of pork leg with the skin on and bone in. A sizable, intact fat cap really will make this particularly rich. I used fresh ham; the shoulder and hocks work well too. Ask the butcher to cut into 2 or 3 large chunks so it will fit in your pot easily.
- 1/4 cup of light soy sauce
- 3 tbsp of dark soy sauce
- 1/4 cup of Shaoxing wine
- 3 tbsp of black Chinese vinegar
- 2 inches of fresh ginger, sliced
- 5 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 star anise
- 10-12 Szechuan peppercorns
- 2 cloves (optional)
- 1 bay leaf (optional)
- 2 dried red chili peppers (optional)
- 4 scallions, tough green parts removed, chopped roughly
- 2-3 coriander roots and leaves (optional)
- 3 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated, plus soaking liquid (optional)
- 2 tbsp of brown sugar
- 4.5 cups of water
- To serve: 4-5 eggs, 3 heads of bok choy, 1 pack of rinsed and chopped pickled mustard greens, rice
- AND/OR: black vinegar and thinly sliced scallions
In a large pot over high heat, sear the pork on all sides, working in batches. Avoid over-crowding the pan as this will bring down the heat, and use oil with a high smoke point, such as corn oil. Move the pork minimally, and brown for a few minutes on each side - depending on the size of the cuts. Set the pork aside. This step is optional, but browning really adds depth of flavor.
There will be caramelized brown bits on the bottom of the pan; deglaze with some of the water. Add the soy sauces, wine, and vinegar along with the rest of the water and put the pork back into the pot. The pork will shrink as it cooks and keeping the lid on will allow for even heating, so the meat doesn't need to be 100% submerged, but pour in extra water and soy sauce as needed to at least 75% coverage. Add all the remaining ingredients and bring the mixture to a boil; at this point, lower the heat to medium low and cover tightly. Maintain a gentle simmer, skimming fat off the surface for the first two hours. Continue adding water if necessary and flip the pork after ~1 hour (if needed) so that all portions are flavored.
After around two and a half hours, or when pork is approaching fork tender stage but not yet falling off the bone, begin prepping eggs and vegetables, and steam the rice. Soft boil the eggs for 6 minutes. Peel them and cut shallow vertical slits around the egg, but don't pierce through to the yolk. Drop the eggs into the pot to finish cooking*.
Continue braising the meat for about another hour, or until meat begins to fall apart. Around 10 minutes before the meat is done, stir fry the bok choy with garlic and some of the braising liquid, and set aside with the rinsed and chopped mustard greens.
Serve the pork with mustard greens, bok choy, eggs sliced in half, rice, and braising liquid to dip. The shiitake mushrooms can also (and should!) be eaten.
*Alternatively, to allow the eggs to soak up more flavor, you can turn off the heat at this point and leave overnight, then finish the braise the next day.