Deep Fried Sous Vide Bacon Dinner

My friend Nat prepares the most fantastic dinners. A few weeks ago he bounced an idea off me: sous vide unsliced bacon and then deep fry it. Before I knew it, a date was set and a dozen guests invited.

The Preparation

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Nat was at the market and they had a whole, uncut bacon – smoked pork belly. He bought it, certain that it would make an interesting sous vide main course. Sous vide cooking is a technique where the food is vacuum sealed in plastic bags which are then cooked in a water bath for long periods at a relatively low temperature.

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Not certain how long would be ideal, he ran a test batch with three bags, pulling a bag out every 24 hours to check the texture. Seventy-two hours was perfect.

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After pulling the bags from the water bath, they were plunged into an ice bath to halt the cooking. Once cooled, the slabs of bacon were removed from the bags and patted dry with towels.

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The final step, to ensure a nice, crisp exterior, was to deep fry the pieces of bacon for a few minutes.

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The end result, a soft, silk chunk of bacon with a crispy exterior. The day before dinner, Nat asked my suggestions for a sauce. I suggested a lychee sauce since it was lychee season and the astringency of lychee would cut through the richness of the bacon. What I received for my suggestion was the assignment to cook the sauce! 

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Once I arrived, I started turning fresh, seeded lychees through a food mill in order to extract all the juice. This was cooked in a pot with chicken stock and chopped onions and allowed to cook for an hour before I seasoned and thickened the sauce.

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A nice rocket and tomato salad was prepared to garnish the dish. Bitter greens in a vinaigrette would contrast with the rich bacon and sweet/tart lychee sauce.

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One item was sitting on the counter, waiting to be turned into amuse bouche – appetizers. Do you recognize these?

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Poaching on the stove is a dish of tiger prawn quenelles, made by taking a choux paste (same one you use for cream puffs) and mixing it with finely ground, raw prawn meat and seasonings.

The Dinner

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As usual at Nat’s house, dinner brought together a wide variety of guests, people with different backgrounds, occupations, and interests – all of whom share an appreciation for good food.

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Charming salt and pepper shakers.

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Amuse bouche: escargot in garlic crust. Very tasty!

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Soup course: chilled leek and lemongrass soup. The lemongrass was very subtle, just sneaking up into your nose when each sip of soup was already swallowed.

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The tiger prawn quenelles served with a prawn roe sauce and steamed asparagus. Very light texture with rich flavor.

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Palate cleanser: mojito sherbet.

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Main course: Deep fried sous vide bacon with lychee sauce served with a rocket salad with soy vinaigrette. Alas, the plate was a little cool and my sauce thickened a bit too much by the time I took this picture. Nonetheless, the meat was very tender and the sauce’s flavors worked nicely with it. Of course, the serving could have been a third this size and we would have been fine!

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Linda and I pose for a picture mid-dinner, only to discover a moment later that Cha had inserted himself into the shot!

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For dessert, sticky toffee pudding with a toffee sauce and homemade yamazaki ice cream. Decadent!

 

Lard-o-Licious Bangkok

Lard O Licious

On March 16 and 17, an event space in Bangkok called Opposite hosted a pop-up restaurant called Lard-o-Licious. A friend of mine served as sous chef and invited me to the event. While some of my non-pork eating readers may be turned off, I was really excited to attend this dinner.

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Opposite (second floor of the building on the right) is located off Sukhumvit Soi 51, a small alley just a short walk from the Thong Lo BTS station. It is also just one soi over from our condo. The pavement in front is uneven and badly in need of replacement. An international school is down the street and a few restaurants and massage parlors fill out the rest of the neighborhood.

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Opposite is thus named because it is located directly across the soi from a bar/restaurant called WTF, owned by Somrak Sila and Christopher Wise, the same people who own Opposite. The space is about 60 square meters (600 square feet) and has a kitchen and bar area. It is perfect for gallery exhibitions, dinners, parties, performances, and other such events.

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When I arrived I found my friend Brian Bartusch, on the left, helping chef Jess Barnes prepare dishes. The well-inked Jess hails from Melbourne, Australia and has worked in a wide variety of restaurants both there and in Bangkok including at Grossi Trattoria and Bed Supperclub. He will be the chef of Quince, a new Modern Australian restaurant set to open in May on Sukhumvit Soi 45.

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Sneaking a peak in the kitchen, I saw some watermelon salad with toasted pistachios and some homemade pickled vegetables.

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Plates and plates of freshly made bread, with which to slather up all of the good flavors that would follow.

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As we arrived, there were plates on the tables with liver and Thai brandy pate with house made mustard fruits on crostini. I really enjoy pate (perhaps thanks to my paternal grandfather who fed me lots of liverwurst when I visited as a child) and this met expectations.

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The space was arranged with three long tables running the length of the space, a small temporary bar mixing white sangria as guests arrived, a screen showing a loop of food-related videos, and lamps made from used plastic rice bags. The lamps echoed traditional northern Thai paper lamps and were a colorful touch.

Before dinner started, the organizers of the event said a few words then local illustrator Kathy Macleod showed us a 7-minute animated video providing a brief history of pork. I filmed it and have embedded it above for your viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, I didn’t seek out her permission to share the video but hopefully this counts as fair use. Please see her facebook page for more information about her comics. (Link to video on YouTube for high definition version.)

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The first course was composed of four dishes. Shown here are steamed buns (similar to Chinese style bao) filled with pulled pork shoulder, red cabbage slaw, and prawn mayonnaise. These were very fun and the pork was flavorful and tender, albeit a little under-seasoned. I ended up eating only about half the bun for fear I would fill myself too quickly. 

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Also on the table were jars of head cheese – confit pork terrine served with olives and pickled vegetables. The name “head cheese” makes some people squeamish. Really, there is no need. It is basically made with the various scraps of meat from the animal’s head, much in the same way that sausage is made from various scraps of meat from elsewhere in the body. The head cheese was very flavorful and tender.

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The next dish was roasted bone marrow with Italian parsley salad and shallot jam. Bone marrow is another one of those dishes that some folks have a problem with. Anthony Bourdain called it the “butter of the gods” and, in my opinion, he isn’t far off. It is rich and fatty and flavorful. While you might think that your cholesterol shoots through the roof just as soon as the platter is set down in front of you, the good news is that bone marrow is rich in monounsaturated fat as well as protein.

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The final dish of the first course was a watermelon and mint salad served with rosewater, pistachio, and feta cheese. I was pleasantly surprised to see this dish, considering that I’ve made variations of it twice in the past month and a half.

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The pacing was leisurely – the entire meal took over three hours – so we had time to visit with other people at the table and to get up and wander around. One of the interesting things about family style seating is that, of course, you end up meeting people sitting next to you whom you’ve never previously met. The drawback in this situation was that there were a lot of people who already knew each other and Tawn and I were outsiders, but folks were very friendly. I spent a good portion of the evening chatting with the owner of Bed Supperclub, who was seated directly across from me. I will say that in my advancing age, it is increasingly hard for me to carry on conversations in moderately loud environments.

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The second course also featured four dishes. The first was smoked pork loin served with cabbage and sticky juices. The menu said it was served with puffed grains but I didn’t see those. There was wild rice served on the side to absorb the yummy juices. This dish was fantastic – very tender and flavorful.

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Another interesting dish was the pork cooked in milk, served with white beans and lovage. Lovage is an herbacious perennial plant – a fact I had to look up. Braising the pork in milk worked very well to make it exceedingly tender. The dish was very enjoyable although it was lacking a little bit of salt. Tawn pointed out that, despite not being a Thai dish, a bit of fish sauce and a few Thai chilies would have complemented it perfectly.

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A third dish was eggplant, labne and soy bean salad, with romesco sauce. This may have been the highlight of the evening. It had tremendous flavor, hearty but not heavy. Labne is yoghurt which has been strained to remove the whey.

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The final dish in the second course was fennel, citrus, spring onions, celery, and holy basil. This was a combination of flavors I really liked but the fennel was tremendously tough which made it unpleasant to eat.

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Our meal was accompanied by a trio of wines from a Thai vineyard called Monsoon Valley – a 2011 Colombard, 2010 Shiraz, and a 2010 fortified Muscat. All three were pleasant. Thai wines have been slowly improving and while they still have some way to go, I’ve been having more of them in the past year or two that impress me. There were also two home-brewed beers made by Brian, one a pale ale and the other a toasted coconut malt.

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For dessert we had a bittersweet chocolate and blood cake (more of a mousse, really) with hazelnut pastry and tangerine ice cream. The big question at the table was, “Is it real blood!?” I went to ask the chef and, sure enough, it was real pig’s blood. A mixture of equal parts of chocolate and pig’s blood are blended and cooked. I think cream is added, if I recall correctly, along with some gelatin. It is then chilled overnight and foamed to lighten the texture. How did it taste? Fantastic. You would never had known there was blood in there – it just tasted like a very rich chocolate mousse.

All in all, the meal – which was about $65 per person inclusive of everything – was quite a reasonable price for a special occasion dinner. There was plenty of food and wine and the menu was both tasty and creative. I enjoy when food can engage me intellectually as well as in the more traditional ways such as through flavor, smell, and texture. I’m looking forward to the next pop-up restaurant event at Opposite as well as the opening in two months of Quince, Jess Barnes’ new restaurant here in Bangkok.

 

Uncle’s Egg Noodles on Ekamai

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How good would a bowl of bamee, the ubiquitous and simple Chinese-style egg noodles, have to be in order to justify a wait of ten, twenty, or even thirty minutes?  For many residents of Bangkok, they would have to be as good as Uncle’s.

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While practically everybody knows about this noodle shop, I only learned about it by reading Chawadee Nualkhair’s “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls,” a handy and well-written English language guide for anyone who is serious about eating good Thai street food.

You can find Uncle’s noodles (the stand also goes by the name “slow noodles” because of the wait) at the corner of Ekamai and Ekamai Soi 19. His cart is built on the back of a small pickup truck, a nifty arrangement that reminds me of the food trucks of Los Angeles, except with no Korean tacos. You have to place your order by writing on a pad – in Thai, of course. Best to have a friend come with you, write out your order in advance, or as Khun Chawadee suggests, if you are brave you can just copy the previous customer’s order!

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The menu is quite simple: bamee (egg noodles) served either in soup or dry, with barbecue pork (“red pork”) and pork wontons. The ingredients are on display: your guarantee of freshness. Say, what are those black things in the display case? Nothing like a few phallic good luck charms to ensure good business. It seems that they’ve worked!

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All of the seating is on the sidewalk, either on the Ekamai side or heading down the side soi. Orders to go are welcome, too. I’ll say that the location is a bit of a curse from an enjoyment perspective. There are a lot of big trucks traveling on Ekamai at night and the smoke and fumes take away from the experience. The stand doesn’t open up until after 8:00 each night, so at least the gridlock of cars isn’t there anymore. That might be worse.

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Every noodle shop in Thailand – and I do mean every – offers customers condiments to dress their own noodles. Dried chili flakes, sugar, vinegar with chilies, and fish sauce (sometimes with chopped chilies). This allows each customer to perfect the seasoning.

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Here’s my bowl of bamee with barbecued pork, chopped pork, fried pork fat, and a special ingredient: soft boiled egg. Pork-a-palooza! If you order the red pork at a rice and red pork stand, boiled egg is a standard condiment. However, at a noodle stand, the soft boiled egg is an unusual addition.

The question is, what makes this particular bamee so special? As I mentioned, people will wait up to thirty minutes to eat it and, honestly, at a certain level I think that bamee is bamee is bamee. But, there are a few things that separate good from mediocre bamee: Noodles are fresh, tender, and flavorful. Broth has a rich flavor. Ingredients are of high quality and are fresh. Uncle’s noodles has all of these qualities. The addition of crispy fried pork fat adds a little extra texture that is very flavorful, and the boiled egg is a nice addition, too.

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We also ordered a bowl of wonton soup, which featured beautiful fresh wontons with a tasty interior along with some more of the red pork and chopped pork. Something that set the wontons apart is that the wrappers were especially delicate and thin, not chewy at all.

All in all, Uncle’s noodles are well worth searching out, although the location makes for a less than ideal dining experience.

 

 

Food in Kauai: Koloa Fish Market

Looking back, I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in my life my “what to see” list when traveling started to tip in favor of places to eat rather than sights and attractions to see.  While Kaua’i is a beautiful island with stunning beaches, mountains, canyons, and jungles, as I made my list of what I wanted to do, it pretty much read like a list of local types of food I wanted to try.  Along the way, I discovered Lonely Planet’s Kaua’i guide, a book that uses 296 pages to detail the island and does a lot of work to present it through a environmental/sustainable/locavore lens.  Excellent resource.

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Our first afternoon in Poipu Beach we decided to start with the nearby town of Koloa, a five-minute drive from Poipu.  With its little town feel that would be right at home in an “old west” movie, our first stop was the highly recommended Koloa Fish Market.  Known for good local “grinds”, I was anticipating a chance to sit down and enjoy some great food.  We got the great food alright, but since there was no place to sit down we had to take the food back to the condo.

Everything’s on the chalk board inside this tiny market.  The friendly staff readily explained things that we later realized were written right in front of our face.  (Hey, it happens to the best of us!)  With four of us, two of whom are not large eaters, we decided the following would be enough:

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This mixed seafood plate has seared ahi tuna encrusted in sesame, boiled shrimp served with dipping sauce, seaweed salad, and poke.  Poke (pronounced “poe-kay”, which means “to cut or slice” in Hawaiian) is a common side dish in the islands made from raw fish marinated in soy sauce and other ingredients.  We ate a lot of poke and every bit of it was fantastic.  Most often, it is made from ahi tuna, the quality of which is amazing.  We also had it made with octopus, crab meat, and salmon.

Now, I will say this about seafood in Hawai’i.  It is really wonderful and all, but I get really fresh, really inexpensive seafood in Thailand so there was a point where I was thinking that it was all fine and dandy, but not really that exciting.  This echoes a problem that Michael shared with us.  When he has guests from the mainland, there are a lot of very interesting types of food for them to experience because Hawai’i has a hodgepodge of Asian cultures that make up its heritage and a lot of the Asian food here is better than what the visitors may experience back at home.  When he has guests from Asia, though, they are more likely to think something like, “yeah, we’ve got this back at home.”

Of course, that didn’t stop us from trying as many different things as we could!

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Another thing we tried is the plate lunch.  Well, the styrofoam box lunch.  Today’s offering was a mix of laulau (pork steamed in taro leaves and ti leaves), kalua pork (slow roasted, traditionally cooked in a fire pit), rice, lomilomi salmon (minced salted salmon with chopped tomatoes and green onions), and a little serving of poke.  Both types of pork were wonderfully tasty.  The lomilomi salmon was fine but it was hard to identify that there was any salmon in there.  We tried some a bit later in the week that had more noticeable amounts of salmon. 

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For dessert we shared a piece of the fish market’s homemade sweet potato and haupia pie, a market specialty.  Haupia is a coconut milk dessert thickened with arrowroot or corn starch.  It is very similar to a Thai dessert and is lightly sweet and salty with a thick, gelatine-like consistency.  This version is served with a sweet potato base made from purple sweet potatoes, again something familiar to people in Thailand.  It is served on a cracker-crumb crust.  It was very nice, not overly sweet but pretty filling.

All in all, our first meal in Kaua’i was a thumbs up.  Relatively inexpensive, good food, simply prepared.

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Unrelated to the lunch at the Koloa Fish Market was our search for malasadas, the fried dough that came here with Portuguese contract workers, thousands of whom came to Hawai’i in the late 1800s.  We were looking for for the one-woman stand known as Kaua’i Malasadas, located in from of the K-Mart at Kukui Grove Shopping Center in Lihue.  Unfortunately, she was nowhere to be seen, so we stopped at Kaua’i Bakery & Cinnamons in the same shopping center to try some of the different malasadas.

The options included plain, chocolate cream filled, vanilla cream filled, and filled with both chocolate and vanilla cream.  Lightly sprinkled with sugar and not too oily, I was nonetheless underwhelmed with these fried treats.  They are donuts without holes, something that I can’t get incredibly worked up about.

 

A Little Pre-Hawai’i Cooking

The day I filmed the Almost No-Knead Bread video, I got some extra cooking done.  It made sense to have just a little more home cooking before we head off to Kauai for my cousin’s wedding.  The meal: Indian spice rub pork chops with raita (a yogurt sauce with cukes and tomatos) and Indian spice roasted potatoes.  Dessert was Swedish brownies.  And while I was at it, I whipped up a batch of meusli.

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While the recipe was originally for chicken, I used pork chops in this Indian spice rub and raita combination from Joanne Choi’s Week of Menus blog.  Being a mother with young children and still a foodie, she manages to balance creative, complex flavors with ease of preparation and wholesome ingredients.  The only change I would make to the recipe is to add a little bit of brown sugar and a bit of salt.  The rub could have used a touch of sweetness.

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Tawn and I enjoy meusli for breakfast – although in truth I eat oatmeal most days – and I find it isn’t too difficult to roast a batch of meusli when I already have the oven heated for some other baking.  Each batch is just a little different.  Based on Alton Brown’s granola recipe from the Food Network, I cut back on the sugar and substitute a little orange juice instead.  I sometimes substitute different types of nuts or seeds (flax, pumpkin, or sunflower) for the cashews and almonds in his recipe.  And I add a bit of cinnamon or sometimes freshly-ground nutmeg while the meusli is still warm.  After it has cooled, I add dried fruits.  This one is a combination of cherries, dates, apricots, and raisins.  Tasty and pretty healthy, too.

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Now, you see why I had to bake some healthy meusli: to offset the caloric karma that came from these wonderfully sticky and chewy brownies.  The recipe came my from friend Per’s mother.  Since he’s from Sweden, I think I’m going to call these my Swedish brownies.  Some brownies are too cake-like.  These have an almost mochi-like chewiness (causing me to wonder what would happen if I added just a bit of rice flour to the recipe). 

The big challenge was that the recipe was in metrics – and I don’t have any dry ingredient measuring cups marked in deciliters.  Thankfully, the internet helped provide conversions and then I made note of the weight of the ingredients so I can measure by weight in the future.

Okay, enough food porn for one entry!

 

Katsu Set Lunch

Okay, since I did a long, thoughtful, political analysis as yesterday’s post, I just need to write about something fun and easy: lunch.  Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy Japanese food?  It’s healthy, balanced, attentively prepared, and artfully presented.

Japanese make up our largest group of foreigners living here in Thailand, which isn’t so surprising when you trace history back to Japan’s invasion (note: they didn’t colonize, it was just an invasion!*) of Siam in World War II.  They have had a close relationship ever since.

Because of the large presence of Japanese, we enjoy an abundance of good and affordable Japanese restaurants.  The other day I stopped at one for this set lunch:

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Working clockwise from the upper left: Katsu – pork loin breaded in Japanese-style breadcrumbs served with a salad of shredded cabbage and sesame dressing; a boiled egg custard (savory); stewed vegetables and chicken; another small salad; miso soup; pickled radish; steamed rice; and katsu dipping sauce in the center.

All this for 230 baht, about US$7.00.  For Bangkok, that’s a relatively pricey lunch but it was still a very good value in my eyes.

*As for the asterisk, the Thais are very proud that their country has never been colonized by a foreign power and this is drilled into young Thais’ heads from the earliest age.  Is it true?  Well, you have to add some caveats: Significant portions of the Kingdom of Siam (as Thailand was formerly known) were ceded to foreign powers to avoid a war or potential colonization.  Also, Japan occupied Siam during World War II, ostensibly at the “invitation” of its government.  An invitation at the point of a sword, if you will.  So if you set aside those exceptions, then Siam/Thailand has indeed never been colonized.

 

Dinner with the Mac Cream Pie

Before leaving for Hong Kong, I wrote about my second attempt baking a macadamia nut cream pie.  I didn’t, however, share the rest of the meal.

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Preceding the pie we had a nice mixed green salad along with homemade focaccia bread based on a recent Cook’s Illustrated recipe.

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Served with a main course of braised pork with star anise, ginger, and bok choy, the same recipe I made a few weeks ago, served over rice.  This dish is getting better each time as I’m figuring out how to build a more complex flavor out of the stew.  Finishing with some soy sauce and some chopped garlic in chili oil definitely moves it forward a few steps.