Monday, December 6, 2010

Paelo (Thai braised pork shank)

I blogged about this dish back in 2007, when I had a whopping 3 readers. Now that I have a few more, I figure it's time to update this recipe. It most definitely deserves more attention than it got back then.

As a child, paelo was one of my favorite foods, and I would beg mom to make it about as often as most kids beg for mac and cheese or pizza. Of course, it took significantly more time than mac and cheese. Mom would start this stew on Saturday or Sunday morning, and although it didn't take more than 3 or 4 hours, she'd let it chill on the stovetop until dinner. The house would smell like star anise and sweet soy sauce all day. Heavenly.

As it turns out, just about every Asian culture has its own version of paelo. They may use a different cut of fatty pork, different seasonings or omit the eggs, but the result is still the same, a sweet-savory soy-based broth and fall-off-the-bone tender pork that screams comfort food! This is a wonderfully easy, if not quick, dish. It's definitely worth trying if you're looking for something you won't find at your local Thai restaurant, and I promise that adults and kids alike will love it.

Note that the distinctive flavor of this dish comes from thick soy sauce. At least the Thai version is thick. I believe the Chinese version is called black soy sauce and is thin, but both versions have the same sweet, subtle molasses flavor. If you don't have thick soy sauce, take a trip to your local SE Asian market because regular soy sauce alone will not give you the proper flavor.

Palm sugar, garlic, ginger, star anise and cinnamon. I think star anise is one of the most beautiful spices to photograph.

Paelo (Thai braised pork shank) with chili vinegar sauce
serves 4

For the pork shanks:
  • 2 pork meaty shanks with skin
  • 3 or 4 coriander roots, crushed (if available)
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 knob ginger, cut into thick slices
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 3-inch stick cinnamon
  • 2 to 3 tbs thick soy sauce
  • 2 to 3 tbs thin soy (regular soy sauce is fine)
  • palm sugar (brown sugar works), to taste ( I used about 1-2 tbs)
  • fish sauce, to season before serving (optional, but highly recommended)
  • 1 quart chicken stock + 1 cup water (all water is also fine)
  • 4 to 6 hard-boiled eggs, shelled

For the sauce:
  • fresh chilies, chopped
  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp sugar
  • splash of fish sauce

In a Dutch oven or heavy bottom pot, heat 2 tbs oil and brown the shanks well. Remove and set aside. (Alternatively, you can brown the shanks in the oven at 400F for about 30 minutes, or until the shanks looked seared.) In the same pot saute the coriander roots, garlic and ginger. After about a minute, add the anise and cinnamon. Saute for another minute, then add the stock, water, soy sauces. Return the shanks to the pot and bring to a boil. Once it boils, cover and turn the heat down to low. Simmer until the meat is tender, about 2-3 hours depending on how big they are. (Alternatively, you can braise in a 325F oven until tender. Or, if you're impatient or feeling eco-friendly, use a pressure cooker. It will cut the time in half or even by 2/3). At this point, you can add the hard-boiled eggs and simmer for an additional 10-15 minutes before serving. However, you may want to separate out the fat, of which a significant amount will accumulate. (We are talking pork shank, after all.) Do this part after the stew has had time to cool. You'll significantly cut down on the fat without sacrificing any flavor. Once I remove some of the fat, I like to boil down the liquid a bit to further concentrate the flavor. This is optional. As with any stew or braised dish, I recommend letting this sit for a day or more to allow the flavors to marry, but this is also optional.

The dipping sauce is a must here. It adds spiciness, but, more importantly, cuts the sweetness of the broth. To make the chili sauce, combine all the ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Adjust by adding more sugar or fish sauce according to taste.

Serve with steamed jasmine rice and dipping sauce. In case you're wondering whether to eat the skin...yes! At least a little bit. Just take a big hunk of meat with some skin and chop it with a cleaver. Lay the meat atop the rice and ladle a little broth on top. A side of sour pickled mustard greens is also nice or maybe a easy stir-fry of Chinese mustard greens. In a pinch, kale would also work. The slight bitterness compliments the sweetness of the broth beautifully!


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