It’s week 5 on Top Chef Boston, and quite honestly, I’m feeling a little let down. For the episode “It’s War,” the chefs were given a budget, and most of the results were less than impressive. While Tom declared the dishes “some of the best cooking of the season,” the reality is….the Judges only really liked three of the ten dishes. And two of those dishes were on the losing team. Of the stand-out dishes, Gregory made curry broth, which somehow beat out Mei’s New York strip with kimchi vegetables. Adam presented the Judges a bowl of salt and pepper grits with cheese, a poached egg, and bacon and onion jam. Which sounds delicious, but also like something a Southern grandma might whip up for breakfast on any given day. Hugh Acheson praised Adam for his grits, which I think shows how unimpressive the cooking is, because grits don’t require a high degree of skill. Regardless, it was a dish that I found appealing and the Judges seemed to enjoy, so for this week’s personal cooking challenge, I will be making a dish inspired by Adam’s grits and runny egg.
To make Adam’s dish a more complete meal, I wanted to incorporate a protein. There is a gastro pub in the Haight District of San Francisco called Magnolia, that serves a variety of craft ales, homemade sausage and southern comfort food. I used to love coming here for brunch, for the authentic chicken and waffles, and scrambled eggs with oysters. This is also the place where I first had pork belly, which was served with grits; ever since then I have associated pork belly and grits like peanut butter and jelly. Wanting to do a play on my Southern brunch favorite, I stumbled across a recipe from Bon Appetit called The Belly Buster and was immediately sold. If Southern cooking and Korean BBQ had a baby, this would be the result. This recipe combines all that is amazing about southern classics- cheese, fried food, grits, and combines it with the amazingness of Asian flavors- garlic, ginger, and Sriracha. While the name immediately informed me that this is not the most healthy dish I’ll ever consume, I had to try it.
One thing I have been trying to work on when it comes to cooking, is to plan ahead when I have a specific recipe. So far I am only moderately successful. The day before I began cooking, I dutifully made my list of ingredients based on my recipe at hand and took off to the grocery. Unfortunately, I did not take into account that pork belly isn’t a widely sold cut of meat. I tried the more foofy grocery store on the way home, and was told that if I wanted pork belly, it needed to be special ordered. I called the local butcher, and struck out for a third time. Giving up on the white people meat counters, I trekked it over to the Filipino market. If you have never been to an Asian grocery store, just know that they literally have the most impressive butchering operation you will probably ever see (unless you happen to butcher your own animals). You can acquire any kind of animal part you may be in the market for- including pork blood, skin, hooves, whatever. I shouldn’t have wasted my time with those other places. Special order? I think not.
Three hours later, I had my pork belly, but had run out of day time. I had hoped to get the pork belly prepped and chilled in the fridge for the next day, but that wasn’t going to happen.
The next morning, I got my pork braising first thing, so that I could still chill it before dinner. For this recipe, the pork braises in a mixture of sake, rice vinegar, fish sauce, soy sauce, and lime juice. There’s also fresh garlic, ginger, and dried chili mixed in. Those glorious, traditional Asian flavors are going to turn this chunk of meat into something really special.
Four hours later, I popped the meat out of the oven, let it cool for a few minutes, then wrapped it in saran wrap. In the recipe, it called for the meat in stay in the cooking juices. I took mine out because the braising liquid developed an unpleasant layer of fat that I didn’t want my meat sitting in. I placed wrapped pork in a baking pan, and weighed it down with another pan and a few precariously balanced canned vegetables.
Fast forward through a long-day of football, and it was time to finish making dinner. The key to this recipe is that there are a lot of steps and components, but none of them are very hard. Also, keep doing the dishes as you go, or you will have a monster pile at the end of the night.
I started my grits on the stove top, and again, apologies to the South, but I don’t understand why Southern cooks are so impressed when a Yankee can cook grits. High level cooking prowess is not required. The recipe isn’t even really a recipe, as much as it is a general guideline. The guidelines go like this:
Four cups boiling water per one cup grits. Some people like to add salt. Others throw in a little butter. It’s all a matter of taste. Turn the heat down as much as possible once the water is boiling, and whisk often to avoid lumps. If your water is being absorbed too fast, throw in an extra fourth cup here and there, until the grits are cooked and are at a nice, creamy consistency. Cooking times vary from half an hour to 45 minutes. Mix in butter, cheese, pepper, whatever you want when you’re done and keep warm. That’s it. Not that complicated.
While my grits were doing there thing, I started on the rest of my prep. I cut up my bacon, shredded my cheese, and cut up my bok choy.
Once my grits were almost done, I threw my diced bacon into a cold pan, and slowly rendered out the fat. Meanwhile, I pulled the chilled pork belly out of the fridge and cut it up into slices, about an inch in thickness.
Once my bacon was nice and crispy, I slid it out of the pan and onto a plate. I then added the bok choy to the bacon grease, and sauteed it for a few minutes, spritzing the greens with Sriracha at the end. I moved the cooked boy choy onto a plate with the bacon and covered with another plate to stay warm.
With my grits and bok choy ready, it was time to get to the main event. I got a heavy pot going on the stove and dumped about two inches of vegetable oil into it. I have to admit, I am not a frequent home fryer, and in the past, my frying efforts haven’t come out. Part of my problem is the oil itself; intellectually I know that you don’t get the wonder of, oh say fried chicken, without oil. That is how frying works. We all know it isn’t healthy, or good for you, and that the American Heart Association is shaking their head at you for every delectable fried bite you take. I know all of this. But I didn’t grow up frying things at home, and I was lucky enough to bypass having to work at McDonald’s in my youth, so I haven’t actually had to personally witness my food being submerged into oil. This makes it easier to pretend that fried food isn’t “that bad.” But when you fry it yourself, you can’t live in the denial anymore. You see it- it is absolutely that bad. But it is also what is going to take your pork from being cold and braised, to having the most amazingly crunch consistency. You just have to take a deep breath, make your peace with the upcoming meal, and plan to eat steamed fish for the rest of the week.
The other area I struggle with on the rare occasion that I fry food, is I regularly do not get the oil as hot as it needs to be. I don’t know if I have a fear that it will get too hot or if I am just impatient. But the thing is, if the oil isn’t as hot as it needs to be, not only does the food not fry, but it ends up soggy and gross. So this time, I poured in my oil, cranked up the heat, and left it alone. And when I wanted to start frying, I walked away and waited some more. This time I was making sure my oil was hot, hot, hot, because I did not spend all day braising pork to mess it up now.
Finally, I felt confidant that my oil was hot. I tossed my pork pieces in flour and (using tongs) place them gently in the oil. The oil started boiling, and roiling, and generally appeared to be doing what it was supposed to be. The health conscious part of my brain was screaming in protest, but I pushed through it.
After five minutes, I retrieved my pork, and rolled them around in a bowl with equal parts honey and Sriracha. I forgot to take a picture of what it looked like in the moment, but this is what it looked like the day after.
Almost done! All I wanted to do was start eating. It would be so easy to leave out the egg. But I managed to keep in mind one important fact- everything is better with a runny egg! Everything. So I dutifully got out my last pan of the day.
Fried eggs are one of those things that are deceptively simple, but don’t be fooled. Eggs are temperamental little buggers, and there are probably a million ways to ruin your perfect runny egg. After years of struggling to figure out what I was doing wrong, I’ve finely perfected mine. The secret is to heat the pan, but on low heat. You want the pan hot, but not so hot that the whites immediately set before the yolk has a chance to heat through. Throw a pat of butter into your slowly heating pan, and swirl the melted butter around the bottom of the pan. (Buying a good quality egg also helps…super cheap eggs just don’t have the same structural integrity).
Once your pan is ready, crack your egg in as closely to the pan as possible, and partially cover for about 4 minutes. This will slowly set the whites, while helping the top steam. Once your whites are set, gently slide the egg from the pan and season.
And voila! Everything is finished. I put a scoop of cheese grits on the bottom of my bowl, topped it with the bacon bok choy mixture, added a piece of of pork belly, and topped it all with a fried egg.
And it is just as good as it looks, if not better. The spicy sweetness of the pork, mixed with the saltiness of the bacon, and the creaminess of the grits are all perfect compliments. Once you cut into the egg, and break into the runny yoke….so good. My arteries won’t allow me to eat this every day, but it has to be in my top 5 favorite recipes of all time. A must try for sure.