Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front as it has been a busy old time, chez Lemur. Mr Lemur has been finishing a major project and I have been organising a series of events that have eaten up a good deal of my usual cooking time. But we’re finally into Spring break and I thought I should come back with a bit of a culinary experiment. And what’s better to get the juices flowing than pigs’ ears? No, really, you have to trust me on this: pigs’ ears are totally delicious.
I’ve always enjoyed cold pressed pigs’ ears in Sichuan restaurants; the softness of the outside skin followed by a just yielding crunch of cartilage is a pleasing texture sensation and the long slow braising imbues the slices with deep umami flavours. When I was in my lovely local butcher the other day buying some pork shoulder, I noticed his assistant breaking down some pig legs at the back of the store. I remarked how nice it was to see the butchering being done right there and my butcher said, yes, we got three pigs in this morning. Maybe those amazing Sichuan restaurant ears popped into my head, because I asked him, without thinking, ‘do you have ears then?’ ‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘how many do you want?’ Then, he went off to the back of the store and came back a few moments later with a some ears wrapped up in paper. He didn’t even charge me for them! So off I went with my little bag of ears: what an adventure!
I did a bit of research on how to cook the ears, and the first thing I learned was the hilarious disparity between how westerners view the task and how Chinese people do it. Since I don’t speak Chinese, most of the recipes I found were by British or American bloggers. All recommended simmering the ears in water or stock for upwards of two hours, and some suggested 5-6 hours. Then I found a translation of a Chinese recipe that told me twenty minutes would be plenty of cooking time! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a range of cooking times for the same ingredient. How do you cook pigs’ ears? Oh, you know, just boil them for somewhere between twenty minutes and six hours…
So who is right? I think the answer lies in different expectations about what the ears should turn out like. I suspect that the Anglo bloggers want soft meat and are put off by the central layer of cartilage that runs through the ear. Thus, they are attempting to cook the little buggers for as long as humanly possible in an attempt to soften the entire ear. The Chinese blogger, by contrast, valued the crunch and wanted to retain it. Granted, twenty minutes seemed a bit light, but for my purposes, several hours was just crazy talk. I cooked the ears for an hour and they came out perfectly: soft with that addictive little bite in the middle.
I followed Kake‘s suggestion to cook the ears in lo sui, or Chinese master sauce, and played around with her recipe for a traditional Sichuan dish of pigs’ ears with cucumber. I wanted to make a substantial main dish salad rather than an appetiser, so I added more julienned vegetables and altered the dressing. However, the core of the dish is still that Sichuan favourite of shredded pigs’ ear in chili oil.
Soy-braised pigs’ ear salad with chili oil
- 2 pig’s ears
- 1/2 cucumber
- 1 carrot
- 4 radishes
- a handful of radish leaves
- 1 tbsp white sugar
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
For the chili oil:
- 1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 12 dried red chilies
- 1 cup sunflower oil (don’t worry, you won’t use it all)
For the master sauce:
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- a glug of Shaoxing wine
- 1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 dried red chilies
- 1 few sticks of cassia bark
- 4 thick slices of fresh ginger
- 2 star anise
- 2 cloves
- 2 scallions / spring onions, sliced
- a piece of dried mandarin peel
- 1 – 1 and 1/2 litres water
Your first order of business is to make the master sauce. This is a deeply spiced braising stock that you can strain, freeze, and use again once you’re done. It starts off with making a caramel, which can go wrong if you’re not careful. Full disclosure: I am terrible with sugar cooking and I had to make this caramel three times. The first time, it just went horribly wrong and produced weird snow crystals. The second time, I took my eye off it and the stupid thing burnt black. Now I recommend following Delia’s instructions To. The. Letter. So, it’s 1/3 cup of sugar in a small pot, don’t touch it till it starts to dissolve around the edges, then shake the pan. Again, leave it alone till it’s a quarter liquid, then you can stir with a wooden spoon. Cook till it is an orangey shade, no darker, then take off the heat and carefully (it’ll spatter) add about a cup of water. It will now be thinner than if you were making creme caramel with it, but that’s ok. Now add the syrup to a large pot with all of the other ingredients and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 1/2 hour, strain out the solids, and voila, you have master sauce. (Sunflower has a good guide to making and looking after your master sauce.)
While the master sauce is cooking, prep the ears. Wash them thoroughly and shave off any hairs with a razor. This bit is kind of abject, I must admit, but courage. Now bring a pot of plain water to the boil and boil the ears in it for a good 5 minutes. That way, you can remove any scum that floats to the surface, and be sure of boiling off any remaining dirt or bacteria. Hopefully, you’ve bought your ears from a good butcher and don’t have to worry, but I think it pays to be careful.
Next, braise the ears in the master sauce – drop them in, raise the heat till the stock is boiling, and then turn it down as low as possible to a gentle simmer for an hour. The ears will turn a luscious dark brown colour and all those flavours will seep right in. When cooked, remove the ears and cool before slicing thinly.
While the ears are cooling, julienne a carrot and half a cucumber. Put them in a sieve and sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar over them. Leave for 5-10 minutes, until the carrot softens. Meanwhile, make the chili oil by gently heating the sunflower oil with the dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns until the oil is fragrant and the chilies just beginning to change colour. You don’t want to overheat here, as the oil will turn bitter. Strain out the solids and let the oil cool. It won’t be terribly spicy, just nice and roasty with a kick of heat at the end.
To make the dressing, crush garlic in a mortar and pestle. Add vinegar and soy sauce, then two tbsp of the chili oil and emulsify. Taste for balance – you might well want to add more soy or vinegar.
Thinly slice the radishes with a mandoline and wash some radish leaves.
When the carrots are softened, rinse and dry them off, then assemble sliced ears and vegetables in a bowl. Toss with the chili dressing and serve with rice.
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as an appetiser.