Monday, December 31, 2012

Roasted Pork Belly With Crackling

I have posted on roasted pork belly before but I'm posting on it again because this method gives even better results than the previous recipe. I think I have finally nailed roasted pork belly, right down to the crackling.

What I did differently this time was 1) cranked the oven temperature as high as it can go, upto 270 C with the fan on for one hour. It smoked up the house and the oven (hate cleaning greasy ovens so making roasted pork with crackling will be limited to very special occasions) and I advise you not to do it in a very enclosed house or one which is not well-ventilated. According to my butcher, the best crackling is made the traditional way, in an open coal fire built inside a large oil drum set in the open so that the smoke will dissipate easily. Like baking a pizza in a wood fired oven, the heat from an intense coal fire will puff the skin more than in an oven that can only go up to 270 C. 2) removed the rib bones so that the slab of pork can lay flat, thereby making sure that the heat hits the pork skin evenly. 3) used plenty of Maldon sea salt all over the skin. Plenty means the salt is very visible. 4) 'brined' the pork in cider vinegar for about 7 hours before roasting, to tenderize the meat, as taught by my friend Yoland.

Roasted Pork Belly With Crackling
4 to 4.5 kg medium lean pork belly, washed, skin shaved, bones removed
Maldon sea salt, plenty
3 T fresh chopped mixed hurbs such as tarragon, oregano, rosemary, sage
freshly ground black or white pepper
Cider vinegar (I used Braggs)

1. Place the pork belly, meat side up, on a large cutting board and rub salt and white pepper all over. Carefully turn pork over onto a large ceramic plate (the skin side up), then pour the cider vinegar all around the pork. Lift the pork up to let the vinegar seep under the pork so that the meat gets soaked in the vinegar. Pour enough vinegar to soak the pork upto 1 cm all around. Smear cider vinegar (I used the vinegar in the tray) all over the skin.
2. Put the plate of pork into the fridge, uncovered. The idea is to let the skin dry. Not too dry, or the skin will give crispy but hard crackling. I left my 4.5 kg pork belly on the third rack of my fridge for 5 hours, then poured away the vinegar because I didn't want the meat to be sour and returned the pork to the fridge for another 2 hours to dry. In between, dry the pork skin with paper towels if the skin looks wet.
3. Switch oven on, and fan on too (or off. Fan on will distribute the heat n crisp the skin better but it also fans oil all over the oven walls), to at least 250 C or preferably 270 C, about 15 minutes before putting the pork in.
4. Using a sharp knife, or a metal skewer, stab the pork skin all over, the more piercings the better. When done, use paper towels to dab dry the skin. Turn the pork over, and rub the herbs all over. If doing it Chinese way, rub a mixture of 5 spice powder and fermented red bean curd (nam yue) all over the meat.
5. Place the pork  directly on an oven rack in the middle of the oven, skinside up and sprinkle lots of sea salt all over the skin, making sure every inch of the skin is covered with salt, salt that is visible. Place a tray at the bottom rack position under the rack of pork and add enough water into the tray upto 1 cm to catch drippings (I didn't do this, I think this will help) and prevent smoking.
6. Roast the pork belly, skin side up, for 1 hour 10 to 15 minutes, with oven fan on. Very carefully, and with kitchen mittens, take the belly out of the oven and using a knife, scrape the top layer of crackling over the kitchen sink to remove the salt and any burnt areas.
7. Cut cooled pork to pieces and serve with apple sauce. Saurkraut is good too, to balance the greasiness of the meat.

Linzer Cookies

    Linzer cookies.

Because my kids were away, I didn't get into the Christmas mood this year. It was good to just relax for once. But on Christmas Eve, I was fretting, wondering what to cook for the dinner I planned for family and friends on Boxing Day when all my three kids would be back. So I found myself baking cakes and Linzer cookies on Christmas Eve, and after all was done, I tasted a hot cookie and it didn't make the earth move and I wondered why I bothered to make cookies when I don't even like them myself, let alone my guests.

But my efforts were rewarded when many of my friends told me they loved the Linzer cookies. Sure enough, as I chewed on one of the cookies, they tasted a lot better cooled and with raspberry jam. This recipe, straight from the Culinary Institute Of America's website, is for those who liked the cookies and asked to bring some home.

Linzer Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen cookies
  • 3/4 lb (3 sticks/340 g) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 cups (I used 3/4 cups only) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups cake flour (this made a very soft dough; I added 3/4 cup more)
  • 2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups fine cake crumbs or plain dry bread crumbs (I used bread crumbs)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 1/2 cups ground hazelnuts
  • Confectioners’ sugar, as needed, for garnish
  • Raspberry jam, as needed, for filling
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  2. Gradually add the eggs, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Reduce the speed to low.
  3. Sift the flour, cinnamon, cake crumbs, and baking powder together into a medium bowl. Add to the creamed mixture all at once and mix just until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl as needed.
  4. Add the hazelnuts and mix just until combined. Divide the dough into two equal pieces, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled, about 15 minutes.
  5. While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350°F (175 C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the chilled dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut rounds of dough using a fluted circular cookie cutter. Use a smaller cutter to cut a hole in half of the rounds. Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 1 1/2 inches apart. As you are working, reserve the scraps so that they may be rolled again and cut.
  7. Bake until lightly golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes (I baked for about 20 minutes, so that the cookies are golden and toasted).
  8. Allow the cookies to cool for a minute on the baking sheets then transfer, using a spatula, to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
  9. Sift confectioners’ sugar over the cooled cookies (I only sifted the sugar over the cookies with holes). Pipe or spread a thin layer of jam on the cookies without holes. Top with the remaining cookies and press gently to secure.
  10. Store the cookies in an airtight container.
This recipe is from The Culinary Institute of America's Cookies at Home.

Christmas 2012

Christmas dinner this year was on 26th Dec because my kids came home from Shanghai that day. We invited family and close friends but the number swelled to about 50, making it most stressful because I didn't plan to have such a large party and as usual, worried and worried about whether there would be enough food. I wouldn't have been able to pull it off (dinner was very late, nearly 9 pm, partly because of the queue for the oven and also because my daughter was arriving at 10 pm) without the help of many friends. Thanks, ladies!

I think despite the last minute shopping (I started shopping on 24th Dec and found many things on my list were out of stock), the dinner turned out very well and we all enjoyed ourselves. Love it when friends and family are around!

    The turkey this year was 6.3 kgs only. This was the first time I rested the turkey for 3 hours. It was so much better because all the juice stayed in the bird and it was so much easier to carve a cooled bird.

    As usual, it's chestnuts stuffing and this year, I didn't have stale bread and used bread crumbs instead. As you can see, bread crumbs didn't work. There was too much liquid and not enough bulk but the taste was not affected.  

    This was my best crispy pork. The crackling was very good, I was told (I didn't get a piece). 

    A pork and beef meatloaf with lots of chunky cheese.  

    Duck breasts with orange sauce, made by Sucy.  

    Smoked salmon on crackers.   

    From the top, clockwise: antipasti of roasted bell peppers, anchovies and truffle oil, fresh yummy salami from Bologna, cotto parma from Bologna (awesome, love it even more than regular parma because it had a fruity fragrance) and parma ham from Milan.

    Elaine's awesome bread. I LOVE her bread.

    From left: durian pillows, mixed fruits cheese pound cake, a jelly cake, Linzer cookies and Adele's beautiful pavlova Christmas tree.

                             Apple and pinenuts crumbs cake.

Milan 2012

Don't you love this time of the year? Holidays, food and family, and although it is unbearably hot and humid here, the tail end of the cold north wind from China reaches here, just a bit, and the cool breezes in the early evening make me happy I'm alive and all is well. It has been a great year, I travelled many places, ate a lot, learnt a lot, met many new friends and my family and friends are all well. I'd say it's 9.5/10 year.

Tonight we are eating Japanese at home (wagyu steaks, salmon belly and ume wine), then off to the cinema to watch 'Life Of Pi' after which we'd go to either one of the hotels or Times Square to join the countdown although I think what will happen is, Ming will go off with his friends, Wey too with his, leaving Yi and I wanting to countdown but Hub wanting to sleep. Always been like that.

I must get on with the remainder of my Italian travel posts, just for my record. When I posted last, we were looking at Varenna, Lake Como. Instead of taking the ferry from Bellagio back to Como, we took the hour ride on the bus which I highly recommend. The ride gives a close view of the houses around the lake, and because the road is so narrow, you can peer right into the houses at the random stops.




The road was so narrow, at most points there was less than one feet to the drop of the hills. The bus driver was amazing.



We got into Milan about 7 pm and ate at Rossa Pomodoro, a chain restaurant that I scoffed at when I first arrived, choosing trattorie and osterie but after some disappointing meals, I gave in to Yi's insistence that the food's good at Rossa Pomodoro.

Not bad at all.

The potato gnocchi was yummy!

Passing by the pastry shops, I was sad to leave Milan and all the lovely cakes and pastries.



Candied roses, very very fragrant.



We ate some pretty marzipan covered cakes (yummy) but these choc covered physalis with some liqueur-flavored syrup made us run back for more.

The next day, we were invited for dinner by M, in a nice restaurant in Bierra.

Instead of mozz, the cheese was fresh ricotta. Very refreshing and delicious too.

M had the pappardelle with white truffles. I had a taste of this, the first time I ate truffles with pasta instead of just shaved truffle as a topping. It was simple but delicious.

Yi had the osso buco which she said was good. I was rather full and had a small bite and I think it was okay, not exceptional though.

I know Milan isn't anywhere near the sea and it's a risk ordering seafood but I love pasta vongole. This was a bit disappointing because a couple of the clams had a slight crappy flavor and the pasta didn't have that taste that I wanted. 

M's tiramisu was good.

Yi and I shared a slice of white and dark choc cheesecake which I think wasn't as good as the tiramisu.

And that is my final post on my Milan trip. Hop over to hungerhunger on Facebook for a video I'm going to post on a crazy place called we found in Navigli. It's a huge furniture store that is turned into a Christmas decoration store 3 months of the year. It's like the Disneyland of Christmas decorations. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Milan 2012: Varenna, Lake Como

I'm sorry for the sudden absence. The renovation of my house has come to the point where the electricity has to be cut off for the safety of the workers and I have no idea how to connect my modem to the house next door. My gadget whizz kid, Ming, is in Shanghai, together with his siblings. They are in freezing -2 C Shanghai at the invitation of their sister, who is generously paying for everything, although someone told me she saw a video on FB of Wey begging on a street in Hangzhou. Lucky for them, I can't verify that because I have been having limited access to Facebook, during times when my iPad gets connected through Hub's 3G on his phone. So here I am, in Hub's office, finishing the overdue posts on my trip to Lake Como.

All the photos on our trip to Lake Como were taken by the iPad. I had forgotten to bring the charger for my camera to the Lake. Nothing unusual, I do that all the time. If it's not the charger, it's the memory card. Anyway, although the iPad photos aren't too shabby, I do wish I had a proper camera instead. Lake Como and the towns around it are gorgeous, with some of the best sceneries I've ever seen. We were lucky to be there in October when the tourists have mostly gone away. I hear that Lake Como is the summer can be unbearably crowded, hot and searingly sunny.

We bunked in a small hotel in Bellagio and took the ferry (about 4 euros each) to Varenna, one of the prettiest towns on the lake. The ferry stopped along the way, to smaller towns such as Menaggio. Varenna was the fourth stop. All along the way, there were terra cotta houses by the lake and up the hills. The water was mirror calm and crystal clear. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to live for a couple of weeks in a small house, or just a room, by the lake. I could go for long walks, write that book, read by the balcony, eat at little restaurants or cook my own truffles and pasta. Ah, the ultimate holiday.


This is Varenna, prettiest town I've seen on Lake Como.




The buildings are set on the hills, connected by narrow alleys. Through the gaps, you can see the lake, framed by the yellow, brick and red buildings. Each gap gives a different picture.


Up the hill, the roads are narrow and the buildings are set right on the roads.

We explored Varenna for about 3 hours before taking the ferry back to Bellagio. Although Varenna is very small, without the restaurants and shops of Bellagio, it deserves a whole day of exploring. There's an old church, the village square with a few restaurants around it, the small roads up the hills are lined with beautiful houses and villas, and some movie star just might walk out to throw the thrash. Just sit by the lake or fish for pike and trout, as a man and his son were doing, or strum on a mini guitar or even watch the dogs romancing each other. What a life.

IMG_0310 IMG_3845


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Milan 2012: Day 14, Bellagio

It was early evening when we got to Bellagio. Albergo Hotel couldn't be any more nearer; it was just 5 minutes up the hill from the ferry point. I had booked our room online and chosen it based on its location. I didn't mind that it was old and homey but after 8 pm, the reception office in another house in front was closed and it was eerie to be the only guests in a house.

The hotel reminded me of the old houses behind Spadina--Nassau St, Shannon St--in Toronto. 

The room was cold but there were 5 layers of sheets, blankets and comforters. It really was like staying at grandma's house, including a crocheted blanket. I wouldn't have minded if only the towels were not musty and damp and the hair dryer hopelessly useless.

We headed for the town straightaway and checked out the many shops that were giving a 'sconti'--sale. Bellagio was so lovely it lifted our mood (we were worried about Yi's flight which Eithad hadn't confirmed). The feeling of being away from the big city and in a beautiful strange little town by a lake was great.Cinque Terre was more rustic and villagey while Lake Como/Bellagio was more, well, refined. If you are young and love hiking, Cinque Terre is better than Lake Como but if you are older, love a slow pace, prefer to dine, stroll, shop and have a bit of moolah to throw away, Lake Como and the towns around it are perfect.

This the prettiest store I've seen on the trip. All the glass decors are hand made.



I chose to have apperitivo because I was really tired of a la carte food that offered the same dishes. This apperitivo was only 10 euros, with a wine that made us quite drunk, and the spread was about 3 times what you see in the picture.

The next morning, we were woken by the town's bells right outside our balcony. I didn't mind the bells; it was rather quaint. In Milan too you'd hear church bells ringing all the time. I liked that.

Bellagio's bell tower to the right of our balcony.


Breakfast was bad! The croissant was cold and burnt, the bread dry and hard.

We took a short walk around Bellagio, then took the ferry to Varenna and then went back to Bellagio for lunch.








Up this alley were three restaurants, the first, award-winning Far Out, the second one, Princess, a stylish restaurant in black and white which was expensive looking and the third restaurant, a very Italian-style restaurant. Which one should we have lunch in?

I really wanted to try Princess but Yi didn't want to take any chances and wanted to eat at the third restaurant, Ristorante Pizzaria Antico Pozzo, recommended by the friendly waiter the night before at the apperitivo place. Antico Pozzo had the most diners while the other two restaurants were nearly empty, so it seemed to be a good choice.

This pizza stagioni quattro wasn't crispy enough.

Yi's lake rainbow trout was bland. What a disappointment.
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