Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Art of the Sauce: Pork and Snow Pea Lo Mein

Well, Monday was to be date night but Ann wasn't feeling up to going out and she asked me if I would make lo mein with snow peas, so I grabbed some pork neck bones, snow peas, and lo mein noodles at the market on the way home.

I have never liked the usual casual approach to making Chineses sauces: thickening broth with starch. I don't mind dredging meat in starch, frying it, then adding broth and have it thicken that way, but thickening broth with a starch slurry seems like a cop out to me, a lazy way that says the cook doesn't care enough to make a good sauce. Maybe it's my classical French sauce background coming through that drives me to make my sauces by reduction. Maybe it's the flavor: the results are spectacular.

Pork Neck Bones
Into a screaming hot pot went the meaty neckbones to brown thoroughly on all sides, a process that took about 15 minutes. At various points, I added whole garlic, slabs of ginger, green onion bulbs, a halved shallot with the skin still on, and a bunch of cilantro stems tied in a bouquet, so that each item caramelized along with the pork. In went water to cover and after deglazing the bottom of the pan, I left the pot to simmer while we watched a movie. After the movie was done, I removed the solids, reserving the neck bones, skimmed the fat from the stock, and started reducing it over high heat until I had a cup of liquid.

Meanwhile, I picked the gelatinous neck meat from the bones, Ann pulled the strings from the snow peas, and I slivered garlic and green onions. And I got a jar of young slivered bamboo shoots in spicy chile oil out of the refrigerator.

Pork and Snow Pea Lo Mein
Once the stock reduced to a cup, I added a tablespoon of Chinkiang black rice vinegar, a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sambal oelek chile paste, and enough brown sugar to balance the flavors. I brought this down to about 3/4 of a cup and adjusted the seasonings to end up with a deliciously porky, sweet, sour, spicy, and salty sauce.

While the sauce was finishing, I cooked the noodles and stir-fried the other ingredients. It was then just a matter of mixing the noodles, the garnishes, and the sauce and serving. The results were delicious and a fair amount of work for a weeknight, but really worth it in terms of flavor. You just can't duplicate the depth of flavor of a carefully crafted sauce reduction by thickening some broth with starch.

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