MAKE IT TONIGHT!

With only a few side dishes, this Asian din­ner will come to­gether in a flash

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO -

Steamed pork buns are pop­ping up on menus ev­ery­where, and it’s no won­der.

With their pil­lowy soft­ness, rich fill­ings and salty-sweet sauces, they rep­re­sent ev­ery­thing that makes Asian cuisines so crave­able.

Chi­nese-style steamed buns, known com­monly as bao, are our most fa­mil­iar rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the dish, though you can find ver­sions across Korean, Ja­panese and South­east Asian cuisines. Some­times the fill­ings, which can be sweet or savoury, are fully en­cased in the bun. But we like this ver­sion, where the dough is folded around the fill­ing like a sand­wich.

When it comes to fill­ings, there are no lim­its. Sticky braised pork is a crowd-pleaser, and variations on the theme can be found on menus around the world. But chefs are push­ing the lim­its now, fill­ing their bao buns with any­thing from fried chicken to braised beef tongue to bold, mouth-numb­ing cur­ries.

The best part of this recipe is eat­ing it, but as a din­ner host, you will most ap­pre­ci­ate the makea­head qual­ity of each com­po­nent. With only a few side dishes — like sim­ple veg­eta­bles or a cold noo­dle salad — this din­ner will come to­gether in a flash. Be­cause the pork is so rich, a lit­tle bit goes a long way.

While pork belly may not be a part of your typ­i­cal din­ner ro­ta­tion, don’t be in­tim­i­dated. It’s the cut we use to make ba­con, and is char­ac­ter­ized by lay­ers of meat and unc­tu­ous fat. When cooked prop­erly, the meat is soft and ten­der, al­most melt­ing in your mouth.

You may choose to pur­chase the belly with or with­out skin. Even af­ter a long braise, the skin will re­tain some chew, so if that sounds un­pleas­ant, skin-off might be for you.

Braised items are the ul­ti­mate make-ahead item, since they just get bet­ter over time. The key to pre­par­ing this pork belly the day ahead is in the brais­ing liq­uid. You’ll sub­merge the fin­ished pork in some of the liq­uid to help keep it moist in the re­frig­er­a­tor. You’ll re­duce the rest to make a glossy sauce.

Though you may be tempted to pre­pare your own steamed buns, there are ex­cel­lent store-bought va­ri­eties avail­able at your lo­cal Asian mar­ket. Since you’ll prob­a­bly have to stop there any­way for some other in­gre­di­ents, do your­self a favour and buy the buns (you’ll find them in the frozen sec­tion).

You’ll need to steam the buns just be­fore serv­ing, but they only take a few min­utes. They can be a bit sticky, so cut strips of parch­ment pa­per to wrap around the out­side of the buns, to keep them from stick­ing to­gether in your serv­ing dish. Then sit back and watch them dis­ap­pear.

Pork Belly Steamed Buns

MAKES 12 SERV­INGS ½ cup light soy sauce ½ cup dark soy sauce (see note) ¼ cup Korean soy bean paste (doen­jang) One 1-inch piece fresh gin­ger, peeled and sliced 1 scal­lion, cut into 1-inch pieces 1 whole star anise 1 tea­spoon ground black pep­per ¼ cup brown sugar, di­vided use 2 pounds pork belly, with or with­out skin 12 frozen steamed buns, steamed un­til soft Cu­cum­ber Salad (recipe be­low)

Start to fin­ish: 4 hours (one hour ac­tive)

In a large Dutch oven, com­bine the light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, bean paste, gin­ger, scal­lion, star anise, pep­per and 2 ta­ble­spoons of the brown sugar. Stir to com­bine. Add the pork belly and enough wa­ter to cover about half­way up the side of the meat (about 1½ cups).

Bring to a boil over medi­umhigh heat. Re­duce to a gen­tle sim­mer and cover with a tight-fit­ting lid. Sim­mer for one hour.

Pre­heat the oven to 350 F. Re­move from the heat and set aside to cool slightly. Trans­fer the pork to a cut­ting pork and slice into 12 even slices, about ¼ inch by 3 inches. Re­turn the slices to the Dutch oven and trans­fer, cov­ered, to the oven and roast un­til the meat is ten­der, but not fall­ing apart, about one hour.

Trans­fer the pork belly to a shal­low bak­ing dish or con­tainer. Add enough of the brais­ing liq­uid to cover the meat and set aside or cover and re­frig­er­ate un­til use. Bring the re­main­ing brais­ing liq­uid to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the re­main­ing 2 ta­ble­spoons brown sugar and sim­mer un­til the mix­ture has re­duced enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 40 min­utes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, then cool slightly if us­ing right away, or trans­fer to a cov­ered con­tainer and re­frig­er­ate un­til needed.

Just be­fore serv­ing, pre­heat the broiler to high. Re­move the pork belly from the brais­ing liq­uid and dis­card the liq­uid. Dip each slice of pork belly into the re­duced sauce and ar­range in one layer on a foillined bak­ing pan. Trans­fer to the oven and broil un­til the sauce be­gins to caramelize around the edges of the pork, about four min­utes.

Fill each steamed bun with a slice of pork and a spoon­ful of cu­cum­ber salad. Serve with the sauce on the side.

Chef’s note: There are many va­ri­eties of soy sauce, most of which can be eas­ily pur­chased at your lo­cal Asian mar­ket. Light soy sauce should not be mis­taken for “low sodium,” but will in­stead be spe­cially la­belled as “light.” Dark soy sauce might also be la­belled as “thick.”

Cu­cum­ber Salad

MAKES 12 SERV­INGS 1 English cu­cum­ber, halved and thinly sliced 1 car­rot, juli­enned or shred­ded ¼ red onion, thinly sliced 2 cloves gar­lic, minced 2 ta­ble­spoons rice vine­gar 1 tea­spoon sugar 1 tsp kosher salt ½ tsp ground black pep­per ½ tsp sesame seeds

In a medium bowl, com­bine the cu­cum­ber, car­rot, onion and gar­lic. Stir to com­bine.

Add the vine­gar, sugar, salt, pep­per and sesame seeds, and toss to coat the veg­eta­bles. Re­frig­er­ate at least one hour.

Per serv­ing of pork buns: 556 calo­ries (378 from fat); 42 grams fat (15 g sat­u­rated; 0 g trans fats); 54 mil­ligrams choles­terol; 1486 mg sodium; 29 g car­bo­hy­drate; 1 g fi­bre; 9 g sugar; 14 g pro­tein.

Per serv­ing of cu­cum­ber salad: 9 calo­ries (1 from fat); 0 g fat (0 g sat­u­rated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg choles­terol; 164 mg sodium; 2 g car­bo­hy­drate; 1 g fi­bre; 1 g sugar; 0 g pro­tein.

PHIL MANS­FIELD, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

With their pil­lowy soft­ness, rich fill­ings and salty-sweet sauces, steamed pork buns rep­re­sent ev­ery­thing that makes Asian cuisines so crave­able.

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