Tuesday 1 July 2014

Vodka and Pear Pork Flambé with Pan-Fried Veggies and Baked Sweet Potato

When I was living in Japan, one thing that was difficult to find in the supermarkets was the great big thick slabs of meat that I was used to sinking my teeth into back in Ireland. These were replaced with wafer thin, incredibly marbled slices. Even the pork was marbled, which, I don’t even… yeah. The quality of the cuts was right up there, but they only lent themselves to certain styles of cooking. The closest thing I could find to a good old fashioned familiar pork chop was less than 1cm thick.

As well as thin cuts at the butcher’s counter, the other thing I had ample access to was alcohol, in the form of a well stocked liquor cabinet which I had inherited along with the apartment. I’m not much of a drinker, so I was always looking for ways to use up the various spirits I had. Not a common problem for an Irishman, I know.

This recipe is a result of those two core elements.

Yeah, real interesting trip down memory lane there. But can we, you know, cook now?

    Heat oil and lay your pork in the pan to fry on one side for a while. Throw garlic, pear, butter and vinegar on top of the meat. Let it melt and get sticky, then flip the pork. Add carrot to the pan and let it get sticky too. The pork shouldn’t have all the fun. Add onion and start stir-frying. Cook until everything is soft and the liquid is thick.

    Grind in some pepper before pouring vodka over the lot. If you’re cooking on a gas hob (or have a match handy)… go on, be a hero. You know you want to. If not, just let it simmer for a minute or two before adding cream and paprika. Stir in a handful of spinach and when it’s wilted, it’s ready. Splendiferous served atop that unrivalled Japanese rice.

    Failing that, potatoes. Sliced up real thin. Fry in butter and oil and when half cooked, add equally thin carrot. Fry until the potatoes are crisped at the edges, then add spinach. Cook for another minute and splash some balsamic vinegar over it before serving.

    To make a real meal out of it, bake a sweet potato and top it off with a generous dollop of sour cream.

Sorry, I started in on the vodka early. Once more, slowly please.

Not to worry. We’ll take it step by step.


For the Vodka Pork
  • 4 thin slices of pork chop
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 pear
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 30g butter
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 onion
  • 1-2 shots of vodka
  • 150ml cream
  • 1tsp paprika
  • a generous handful of baby spinach

For the Pan-Fried Veggies
  • 1 large potato
  • 1 carrot
  • another generous handful of baby spinach
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • balsamic vinegar

For the Sour Cream Sweet Potato
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 2 tbsp sour cream
  • a sprig of unnecessary explanation

Everything that you’ll be cooking in the frying pans needs to be nicely thin. Accurately cutting meat into narrow, even slices can be tricky, so best to ask your butcher to do it. You want boneless pork chops, with some fat left on, sliced only 0.5-1cm thick. Any thinner, and it’ll dry up too fast. Any thicker and it’ll be a bit unmanageable on the plate, but it’ll still work.

    Start by heating up the oven for the sweet potato. About 160ºC should do the trick. Scrub the sweet potato, prick the skin all over so it doesn’t explode and wrap it in foil. Put it in the oven and forget about it.

    Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil into a wide frying pan and heat it up to just below smoking. Evenly lay out the pork slices, trying not to overlap them. While they’re sizzling away, crush the garlic cloves and core the pear. Finely chop up the pear’s flesh and empty the bits along with the juices into a cup with the vinegar. Peel all your carrots and slice them into thin circles.

    Once the pork’s fat has melted a bit and mixed with the oil it’s frying in, pour the pear and vinegar mix on top of the meat, followed by the garlic. Add a slice of butter for each slice of pork and leave everything to melt together. Scrub your potato and cut the onion into thin half-rings while you wait.

    The contents of the frying pan should now be quite sticky, which is perfect. The combination of melted fat and fruit sugar is creating a delicious glaze. Turn the pork over and get the carrots in on that action. Remember not to put them all in, because you need to save some for the side dish. Toss the carrots in the juices a little, just to coat them, then leave them arranged around the pork so that they can get sweet and sticky too as they cook.

    Very thinly slice your potato. You’re going to cook it by frying only, so they need to be thin enough for that to work. Heat up some oil in a pan, throw in a chunk of butter and wait for it to melt and bubble before adding the potato. Get as many slices in contact with the pan as possible, but move them about every now and then so every slice gets a turn, on both sides.

    Back to the pork. If the contents of the pan have gotten a little dry, add a splash of water and maybe some sesame oil. Add in the onion and get things moving. Keep stir-frying until the onions soften. As for the potatoes, once they’ve all gone slightly translucent and are maybe browning at the edges, add the rest of the carrot and keep cooking.

    Now for some fun. Season the pork with pepper and douse it with the vodka. If you’ve ever seen a professional kitchen on a TV show, then you’ve likely seen frying pans engulfed in flames. If this thought frightens you (like a normal person), simply simmer the sauce for a couple of minutes to evaporate off some of the alcohol. But if you’ve ever harboured pyrotechnical (or arsonistic) tendencies, you’ve likely wondered with vague disappointment why your frying pan at home can’t do that. Well you’re in luck! And quite possibly in danger. If you’re using a gas cooker, just tip the pan towards the flames and… voila! Your very own Class 3 misdemeanour! For other cookers, you can just use a long match. Seriously though, be careful. The flame can be surprisingly… substantial.

    Once you’ve put out your eyebrows, add the cream and paprika. Chuck in a handful of spinach leaves and stir them into the sauce. Turn the heat off and leave the spinach to wilt. Check on the potatoes. If they look cooked and are nice and crispy in parts, add some spinach to them too before drizzling with balsamic vinegar. Cooked spinach is awesomely nutritious, and baby leaves have a mild, fresh flavour that goes with so many things. Spinach got a bad rap ‘cause it came tinned and tasted bitter, but now it’s so easy to get fresh that you have no excuse not to eat it.

    While the leaves in both of the pans are wilting (this only takes a minute or two), unwrap the foil covering the sweet potato that you’d totally forgotten about and boost the oven up really hot. By the time you’ve set the table and dished out the pork and potatoes, the sweet potato’s skin will have crisped up beautifully. Score a big X in the middle of it, pinch the sides so it splits open and fill it with the sour cream.

Tuck in.

(The Vodka Pork really is magic with that gorgeous, pearl-like Japanese rice, so if you have access to it, I’d recommend serving it just with that.

You’ll have noticed that the two main dishes here both have carrot and spinach in them. This might seem uninteresting, but I actually think it’s the brilliance of cooking. The two styles taste nothing alike. Cooking is all about finding different ways to dress up the flavours of everyday foods. Just think of how many different dishes are made using the tomatoes and onion combo.

Fun Fact: If you ate this every day, the mix of carrot, spinach and sweet potato would dose you with enough Vitamin A to give you super powers. Or orange palms. Probably orange palms.)

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