Fun with Brining, Part II: The Pork Strikes Back

Last week for Thanksgiving, I brined meat for cooking for the first time, brining a chicken with a strong brine stuffed with Thai spices accompanied with a green curry gravy that had my parents wanting even more, and me wanting to experiment even further with brining meats.

So the very next day, as I took the day “off” (a chef’s brain is never off, hence the quotation marks…just ask any of my friends and bosses), my mom came back from grocery shopping with a whole rack of pork. I had no clue what spurred her to purchase such a large hunk of meat, but I knew immediately who would end up having to cook it.

Yep, that’s right…yours truly.

Ready for the cook...

Ready for the cook…

So that got me thinking. How would one go about seasoning and cooking such a thing to perfection in a short amount of time? The grill was one answer, but I had ran the grill out of propane during my YYC Pizza Week adventure and no one bothered to have it refilled. So a quick direct heat method was out of the running, leaving me with the oven as the only option.

With the cooking method settled (albeit by default), I then thought of ways to season the pork. While a nice olive oil rub of rosemary, garlic and thyme would have been nice, I had some lemongrass left over and more Asian herbs and spices in our cabinet that you could shake a stick at, and plus lemongrass pork is a favourite in our house, I got to work devising a way to season the pork rack with Vietnamese flavours.

No, Mr Pig, I expect you to cook to a perfect tenderness!

No, Mr Pig, I expect you to cook to a perfect tenderness!

Once again pulling up Michael Ruhlman’s quick brine, I once again added to the standard salt and water some fish sauce, soy sauce, lemongrass, shallots, chilis, black peppercorns and Kaffir lime leaves. I sliced up an orange to give it a bit of brigtness, and replaced some salt with sugar to balance out the flavours. Sliced the rack in half (so that I could submerge the rack completely in the biggest pot I could find in the house.)

I also scored the meat a little, and then let it soak for about two and a half hours to let the brine do its magic. Once the rack was dried off, I put it into the oven to let it start cooking.

But if you have ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordered the Vietnamese pork chop on rice, you know it is usually got a nice char on the outside, while still remaining juicy on the inside. And without a direct flame, the char can be difficult to obtain (unless you char the rest of the meat, of course), so what is a cook to do?

Enter the nuoc mau.

Yes, the veritable Vietnamese caramel sauce, made of fish sauce and sugar. I had made a small batch (infused with lemongrass) for a batch of stir fried Brussels sprouts and tomatoes that I didn’t finish using, so I took a bit, added just a little bit of water to thin it out, brushed it onto the pork and let it crisp with a 145°F interior.* The result was a sweet, slightly crunchy contrast to the juicy, soft flesh inside. It was almost like Chinese style char siu (BBQ pork), but in a way it’s even better!

A taste of fall. Oh yes!

A taste of fall. Oh yes!

Thanks to these last two experiments, I’m now totally convinced on the merits of brining. It might take an extra day or maybe a little bit more effort, but it is truly worth it if you are a fan of moist, juicy meat — something I’m sure most of us are!

(* – I understand if some people are a little leery at that number, and when you’ve brined your meat chances are it will survive to the 160°F recommended by the federal government, and still remain perfect. But as long as your meat has been safely handled, it shouldn’t be a problem as long as it is cooked to a satin white on the inside, flecked with a little pink.)

Vietnamese Style Roasted Pork Rack
(Serves 4)

1 8-bone pork rib roast
500ml water
600g ice cubes
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 + 1/3 cup salt
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
1 orange or lime, quartered
10 Kaffir lime leaves
1 chili, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 5mm piece ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon Vietnamese caramel sauce

1. Remove pork rib roast from package, rinse off and score in a diamond pattern on the fat. Set aside for later.
2. In a saucepan, combine all the remaining ingredients except for the ice cubes and the Vietnamese caramel. Bring to a boil.
3. Remove brine from heat, and let steep for 10-20 minutes.
4. Add in ice cubes, and allow it to melt.
5. Put pork rib into a large clear bag, and pour in cooled brine. Seal, and let sit for anywhere between 3 to 8 hours (the brine is too strong to keep overnight.)
6. Preheat oven to 425°F.
7. Remove roast from brine, and pat dry. Cover with salt and pepper, and place on roasting tray.
8. Place roast on a rack that is in the lower third of the oven, and let cook for approximately 20 minutes.
9. After 20 minutes, turn heat down to 390°F. Cook for another 25-30 minutes.
10. Using a meat thermometre, check for pork doneness. If it is sitting at 125°F (or 145°F), brush on the Vietnamese caramel sauce.
11. Turn heat back to 425°F, and continue cooking the roast for another 15-20 minutes, until the internal temperature hits 140°F or 160°F, and the outside is golden brown and delicious (GBD).
12. Let roast rest for up to 20 minutes, covered with tin foil. Don’t carve it immediately! Trust me on this one.
13. After resting, carve and dig in! Drizzle with more Vietnamese caramel sauce, and Serve with seasonal vegetables and a hearty mash, or rice.

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)
(Makes about 1 cup)

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 stalk lemongrass, bashed

1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat, and let reduce to about half in volume. It should be the consistency and the colour of maple syrup.
3. Let cool, and put that shit on anything.