Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pork & Noodle Soup with Cinnamon & Star Anise

A Delicious Bowlful

Hello, hello!  These posts have been few and far between lately, I know.  (Hopefully that will all change soon, though!)  But take note: to counterbalance this smallness in quantity, I’m really trying to go big in the quality department!  And so my friends, I offer to you one of my favorite recipes ever, Pork & Noodle Soup with Cinnamon & Star Anise. 

How can I possibly put into words, the deliciousness of this soup, when all I can normally muster up are drawn out ooh’s and an ahh’s?  Well, I think I need to start with the pork – slowly braised, achingly tender shreds of sweetly succulent pork shoulder.  This is a good start, for sure.  And then, the broth – deep in flavor and and dark in color, salty and sweet and absolutely addictive.  It’s an incredible combination of hugely flavorful ingredients – briny soy sauce, sweetly acidic rice wine, and molasses-flavored dark brown sugar.   And spreading throughout this sweet/sour/salty trio are the warm, subtle tones of cinnamon, garlic and star anise.  It sounds like a lot for a tongue to handle, I know.  But please don’t be timid.  This combination of flavors is absolutely miraculous. One bite and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Star Anise & Cinnamon

Chinese Rice Wine, Soy Sauce, Dark Brown Sugar, Cinnamon, Star Anise, Garlic

All this talk about broth, and I nearly forgot about the noodles!  And oh, these bean thread noodles!!  They start our as skinny, brittle threads of spongy weirdness, pale white and wiry, and with no flavor to speak of.  (Check out the picture down below.)  But a quick dip into hot broth, and they absolutely transform, soaking up all the color (and flavor!!) of the soup, becoming shiny, translucent strands of shimmering gold.   Smooth and slippery, they tangle up all the chewy shreds of pork into a giant web of amazing tastiness.  And then atop this rich mess of warm, golden goodness - a bright, fresh sprinkling of sharp green cilantro and scallions.  It’s the last element in the equation, the one that brings everything together, and brightens everything up.

A Good Pinch of Noodles

Bite after bite, slurp after slurp, I promise you just won’t be able to get enough of this soup! We’ve made this time and again, and always end up surprised by how incredibly good it is.  Please, make this for yourselves, and soon!  You won’t be sorry!

Pork & Noodle Soup with Cinnamon & Star Anise
Makes about 6 generous servings

The first step here, of browning the pork shoulder in the hot pan, no doubt lends deep flavor and color to the final result.  That said, you’ll still get great results, even if you skip this step.  And you know that that means?  It means that this is  perfect crock pot recipe!  If crock pot cooking is your kind of thing, just add the pork shoulder through the star anise (forget about the oil) to the pot in the morning, and then later that evening, when the pork is completely  tender, follow through with the rest of the steps. 

Pork & Noodle Soup with Cinnamon & Star Anise
2 Tbl vegetable oil
2 1/2 pounds pork shoulder
9 cups water
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup rice wine (easily found in the Asian aisles of most grocery stores)
6 Tablespoons dark brown sugar, packed
1 large head garlic, sliced in half cross-wise
4 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
about 4 ox bean thread noodles (also called cellophane noodles)
about 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
about 4 scallions, both white and green parts, finely sliced, for garnish
Bean Thread Noodles (i.e. Cellophane Noodles)
Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes.  Add the vegetable oil and heat 30 seconds more.  Carefully add the pork shoulder into the hot oil.   Brown on all sides, turning every couple minutes, about 10 minutes total.  
When the pork is deeply browned on all sides, add the water, soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar, garlic, cinnamon stick and star anise.  Bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and lower the heat to maintain a very gently simmer.
Simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, until the pork is incredibly tender, about three hours.  Occasionally skim the surface with a spoon or ladle, to remove any collecting suds or scum.
Slowly Simmering
When utterly tender, transfer the pork to a bowl and coarsely shred the meat.  Discard the pork bones, garlic, cinnamon sticks and star anise.  Return the shredded pork to the broth and return to a simmer over medium heat.  Add the noodles and simmer, uncovered, and stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. 
Serve hot.  Garnish each bowl with a good pinch of scallions and cilantro. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carrot Orzo with Rosemary & Parmesan

Bowl of Goodness

This post is a long time coming.  Over a month ago, I’d picked out this recipe, cooked it up, snapped tons of photos, down-loaded them, edited them, carefully typed-out the recipe, wrote a few words extolling the loveliness of this dish, and then for some reason, decided to wait overnight to post it.  And then, during that overnight wait, something really bad happened.  My computer crashed.  Just died in its sleep, taking my day’s worth of work, and way too many gigabytes’ worth of other days’ hard work too, with it to the digital underworld.


A few confusing phone calls to an overseas help desk didn’t help much, just left me more hopeless than I’d been before, and pretty thoroughly convinced that the hard drive was totally fried.  To make matters worse, I simultaneously stumbled into some very murky, despairing problems with our on-line back-up service.  It looked like everything was gone for good. 

And then a computer genius named Dan fortuitously came into our lives, took our sick hard drive for a few days, worked some impressive magic, recovered all our pictures, documents and even music, and all-around totally saved the day.  Suffice it to say, we have a new hero.   Thank you, thank you, Computer Dan!

Beautiful Carrots

But, there was still one not so little problem to deal with.  Even though we recovered all our lost files and documents, they were now completely disorganized.   Nothing was named, nothing carefully arranged anymore within those cute folder icons.  No order or sense to it whatsoever.  Just one long (really, really long, like probably at least fifty-thousand or so long, because each file was copied about a dozen times, I think as a safety measure, but I’m not exactly sure why) list of numbered documents, each of which had to be opened, re-named and re-organized.  Luckily I love to organize things, and so I tackled this project with about as much gusto as is humanly possible.  So now, a couple times a day, when I have a spare few minutes, and want to indulge in a bit of mindless organizing, I’ll sort through a small corner of the mess, working my way a little closer to the ultimate neat and orderly end goal.  I’m about a third of the way through now.

Orzo, so cute 
It’s not been all that bad.  Actually a little bit fun, and pleasantly nostalgic, stumbling every now and again across favorite wedding pictures, forgotten recipes or old projects from culinary school.  And to boot, every once and a while, I’ll open a file and up will pop a photo from the night before the big crash.  So, one by one, I’ve collected these pretty pictures of freshly scrubbed carrots and simmering orzo, and tucked them away in a special folder.  And once that folder was sufficiently full, I figured it was time to attempt this post again.  And so, here we go, and you can be sure I’ll click “publish” right as soon as I’ve typed the last word.  No waiting for tomorrow, this time ‘round! 

And now, I’ve all of a sudden realized that I’ve been going on and on about this dang computer for a kind of really long time now.  You’re curiosity about my computer woes is most likely totally satisfied at this point, I’m sure.  Sorry to ramble, but I guess I’m just feeling a little bit guilty for not posting so often lately, and I wanted you all to know why.  Needless to say, the blogging’s been rough-going here for a while  now, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll find my natural stride again sometime soon.  In the meantime, thanks for being so patient! 

Freshly Peeled

So, let’s talk about this Carrot Orzo.  It’s a recipe I’d picked up in culinary school.  It’s funny, but I don’t often prepare dishes learned in my cooking classes.  I learned tons and tons, and got so much out of school – theory, technique, special tricks and classic methods – and it’s all absolutely priceless to me.  But to me, culinary school was never about collecting recipes.  And so, this one dish is a very rare case.  I remember the day I first made it, and all through the preparation I thought it was nothing special.  And then I took one little taste, and I fell hard for it.  Loved it straight away.  I emailed the recipe to my mom that night (who fell in love at first taste too), and made it again for our own dinner within a week. 

Orzo & Carrots

Now I realize that carrots can tend to end up on the boring end of the vegetable spectrum.  But nonetheless, this dish on the whole is pretty exciting, thanks in good part to the adorably nimble specks of orzo, which always add such a dose of fun.  Simmered in rich chicken stock, and with just a touch of freshly minced garlic, the carrots and orzo soak up immense amounts of flavor, absorbing the golden liquid and becoming tender and creamy.   Once cooked, the always amazing ingredients of Parmesan, green onions and rosemary are added.  The parmesan adds an earthy, salty richness, and ups the creamy factor ten-fold.  The minced green onions add a small, spicy bite of fresh greenness.   And the rosemary, ah the rosemary adds ages of complexity and leagues of depth.  It was this floral wave of rosemary that first had me smitten with this dish.  Like a gorgeous ribbon wrapped around a simple present, the rosemary ties all these singular ingredients together into an incredible gift of a dish. 

Creamy Pot of Goodness

And so, my friends, you really should try out this dish.  It’s pretty simple, and totally great alongside any sort of meat you might be having for dinner.  On the night I made this for Ben & myself, we had it alongside grilled pork chops and a simpler version of this kale salad.  But it would be wonderful with roasted chicken or grilled steaks or even lamb chops.  Delicious with anything really.  So, don’t wait to try it out for yourselves, because really, you’ve waited long enough for this recipe already!

Carrot Orzo with Rosemary & Parmesan
Serves 6 to 8 as a side

Orzo looks a lot like a big grain of rice, but don’t be confused - it’s not rice at all.  It’s actually a specially-shaped pasta. It cooks just like any other kind of pasta, and tastes the same too.  But it’s way cuter than spaghetti, and loads more fun to eat, compared to fettuccini.  One happy bite of orzo fills your mouth with dozens of sprightly, springy specks.  This really is a one-of-a kind noodle!

Lovin' Spoonful

1/2 pound carrots, peeled and finely diced (about 1/4-inch thick)
3 Tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cup orzo pasta
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/4 cups water
2 cups chicken stock (I really like Swanson’s Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth.)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 green onions, finely chopped (both white & green parts)
1/2 Tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely minced
To finely dice the carrots, first thinly slice each carrot diagonally into ovals about 1/8-inch thick.  Slice these ovals lengthwise  into 1/8-inch thick strips.  Then slice these strips cross-wise into 1/8-inch thick little cubes.  (Check out the picture below.)  Set aside the diced carrots, to be used a little later.  (If you’re not up for dicing the carrots, you can always add 1-inch chunks of carrots to an electric food processor, and pulse until finely diced to about 1/8-inch.)
How to dice a carrot

Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepot set over medium heat.  Add the diced carrots, orzo and minced garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, for about 1 to 2 minutes. 
On the stovetop

Add the water and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a gently simmer.  Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes or so.  Add the Parmesan, green onions and rosemary and stir to combine.  Serve hot.