New Orleans. How can a chef or home cook not draw inspiration from the Crescent City? It’s a very unique culinary city and I really don’t think there’s any place on earth which compares to it for the vibrant and diverse food combinations you discover there. As well as all of the other outrageous stuff of course. There’s so much good food and in such varieties, oysters, beignets, creole, seafood, Cajun, French, Spanish, you can eat and eat and eat. If you’re in a bit of a creativity rut like I’ve been lately, New Orleans is just the ticket to get back on track.
This was our second trip to NOLA (‘New Orleans, LA,’ postal abbreviation for LouisianA for my foreign readers), just a quick weekend getaway and we pretty much spent Saturday wandering around the French Quarter. Yes, I know there’s so much more to NOLA than just the Quarter, but you need to leave yourself a reason to go back right? After getting some beignets and coffee late Saturday morning we took a stroll around looking for places to have lunch. Having been there before we knew the lay of the land so to speak but there were still some nooks and crannies we hadn’t fallen into. We stumbled upon Emeril’s restaurant, NOLA (confused yet with the NOLA thing?), but it was very early in the wandering so we kept moving (we did have dinner there later). The place we ended up at for lunch is a small restaurant about half a block from St Louis Cathedral on Chartres St. called Sylvain. Pretty sure I pointed it out from across the street and when we went to look at the menu Cheryl remarked “it looks good, looks like the kind of food you make.” How could we not love it then?
What a great choice. Everything was really outstanding, I had an order of shrimp with risotto-like kale-mushrooms-crispy pork belly-popcorn rice and a delicious Finger Lakes Riesling, but one of the things which stuck out, more like punched you in the face with full frontal flavor, was their Dark and Stormy. It’s got such a great smooth and sweet ginger flavor. After lunch we ended up hanging out in their back patio area soaking up some sunshine while enjoying a few Dark and Stormy cocktails. One of the great things about NOLA is you can always take your drink to go. Armed with a couple of to-go Dark and Stormys we walked back out on the street and turned left. Suddenly I realized we needed to turn right because that was the direction of the used bookstore.
We found the Kitchen Witch on our way to Sylvain, it’s right around the corner on Toulouse St., and I made Cheryl promise we could return after lunch. As far as book stores go, The Kitchen Witch is unlike any bookstore I’ve ever been in. It’s all used cookbooks. Once again, the city shows its uniqueness and love of food. You can find early editions of Julia Child’s famous cookbook as well as Wine for Dummies. There was a whole section of French cookbooks written in French. I could have spent the rest of the day, no, the rest of the weekend in there browsing. One of the books I bought was The Flavor Bible. It caught my eye, mostly because it is one huge encyclopedia of ingredient entries and mini-lists of what pairs well with subject. It gives you a lot of other characteristics like seasonality, taste, etc., but I think the pairing feature is what gives the most value. At first look there are obviously parings you know of where you’ll say ‘duh, I know that’ which may be off-putting. However, I’ve had many more ‘oh yeah, of course that would work’ because, well let’s face it, everyone has their cooking favs and habits and it’s hard to move outside that zone. And this is where I think The Flavor Bible will be so valuable; reminding me and giving confidence to try new or forgotten combinations. Upon returning home it was quickly put to use.
I’ve been wanting to do something with a package of pork cheeks in my freezer before we get into full-on grilling season, but like I said earlier, I’ve been in a creativity funk lately and couldn’t come up with any good ideas. Still thinking about the explosive flavors in the Sylvain lunch (which now that I think about it looked very similar to the photo above, some subliminal inspiration from Sylvain I suppose!) and their super-gingery Dark and Stormy I looked up pork and saw ginger, and then saw ginger goes with basil and apricots, then checked thyme, all the while cross-referencing back of course to make sure they all paired. An idea was hatched. Braise the pork cheeks in ginger beer and make a sauce with apricots, ginger, and basil. For the accompanying yellow lentils I looked up watercress and found vinegar and bacon as pairings (see what I mean by the ‘duh, of course they’ll work’) so I decided to incorporate some pickled ginger and guanciale to the lentils and watercress.
So does the Flavor Bible really work? It does. This was an ‘A-HA!’ dish for me where all the components really paired well together and I dare say I got things almost perfect. The basil apricot ginger sauce is quite possibly one of the best and most flavorful sauces (maybe a tad on the sweet side but it works!) I think I’ve ever made. It went sooooo well with the pork. And it’s really fricking awesome when paired with the lentils which have a great layers of tangy, peppery, and bacony flavor. You’ll have to tune in next week to see how to make those!
Oh NOLA, how you inspired me this week. Can’t wait to see you again!
Ginger Beer Braised Pork Cheeks with Basil Apricot Ginger Sauce (4 servings)
- 1 lb pork cheeks trimmed
- salt and pepper
- 2 Tbs butter
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 celery rib, diced
- 2 garlic cloves crushed and chopped
- 2 tsp minced ginger
- 4 sprigs of thyme tied together
- ½ C white wine
- 12 oz ginger beer
- ¼ C apricot preserves
- ¼ C demiglace
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp fresh basil, shredded.
In a heavy bottomed pan heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. In batches, season the pork cheeks with salt and pepper and brown. When browned, remove from pan, set aside and brown the next batch.
When all of the cheeks have been browned, drain off the excess oil leaving a Tbs in the pan.
Add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, ginger, and thyme; cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with a splash of wine.
Pour in the wine and ginger beer. Bring to a boil.
Add the pork cheeks and any accumulated juices back into the pan, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for 60-75 mins., until the pork cheeks are fall apart tender.
Remove pork cheeks from pan, set aside and cover with aluminum foil.
Strain the braising liquid to remove all of the solids. Pour strained liquid into a saucepan, add demiglace (or stock), apricot preserves, ground ginger and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat to simmer and reduce to a thickened consistency, the sauce should cover the back of a spoon. Stir in the basil at the finish.
You can ‘pull’ the pork cheeks apart and either add back into the sauce or pour sauce over top. Best served with Yellow Lentils, Pickled Ginger and Watercress recipe you’ll see next week!