Chef, What's your favorite food?

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I can’t tell you how many times a day I get asked this. My standard answer is always a bit of a disappointment, I think. I think people expect me to say : Foie gras (which I love but I can live without), caviar (neither here nor there) or raw, delicious oysters (again, I like them but not a necessity), uni (sea urchin), prime aged beef, #1 grade tuna, lamb, or any other number of assumed cheffy fancy foods.

What do I like to cook for myself? Honestly I don’t think about this much. I am always cooking something, tasting, adjusting, coming up with, or tinkering with food, so I don’t really stop to cook “for myself”. Typically it’s whatever is left that I feel I can stomach. After dealing with it all day, I just simply don’t think about it. I know that’s weird, but that’s a chef for you - ask any of us!!

I love to eat, period. I love food. I love cooking.

I have had a love affair with food for as long as I can remember. When I was a young kid, my choices were HIGHLY limited due to allergies and eating was not much fun. As I grew older, and left said allergies behind, I discovered a myriad of flavors and things I loved to eat. Everything was new and exciting….honestly, as I sit here and write this, it occurs to me that just as my mother, grandmothers, and family influenced my cooking, perhaps it was also my sudden new found allergy free freedom that steered me into food…I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist.

Last meal on earth for me would have to be my mother’s meatballs with either pasta or her coconut rice. PERIOD. That’s what I would want to have in my belly, to take with me to that next life!

And then I made this dish…….

And suddenly, I’m in love. Everything I personally love about food, as a diner, not as a chef, is there. I remember writing the idea down, the recipes for it, talking to my Chef de Cuisine about it, and arguing the merits of this dish going on the menu. I WON. It’s on the menu. I knew what the outcome of the prepared dish would be, but then I ate it. I AM NOT BRAGGING!! It simply sung to me and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy, and gooey and happy, and now THIS IS MY FAVORITE FOOD!!

The dish in question is my Braised Pork Shank, with braised collard greens, slow cooked cannellini beans, and braising jus. This is not a complicated dish, hell it’s not even avant garde. It’s simply, in my mind, everything I LOVE about food. I’m going to break this down for you:

Braised Pork Shank

Pork shank is essentially the bottom portion of a ham. It tends to be lean but tough, and often takes a lot of time to prepare. Slow roasting, braising and simmering are some of the most popular ways to cook this type of meat”, says Wikipedia.

Braising anything is my favorite way of cooking, “It is a combination-cooking method that uses both moist and dry heats: typically, the food is first seared at a high temperature, then finished in a covered pot at a lower temperature while sitting in some (variable) amount of liquid (which may also add flavor).” Basically, you take something that is tough and show it some love and time, and it becomes the most delicious, tender, beautiful thing you’ve ever eaten. SO, in this case, I take a pork shank and rub it with a combination of spices and give it a hard sear, then we add mire poix, tomato paste, deglaze with some red wine, add aromatics and herbs, fill with veal stock and slowly cook it for hours. Once done we remove the shanks, strain and reserve the liquid, reduce it and this becomes the sauce. When you reduce a liquid, you intensify the flavor, so all those hours of slow cooked delicious porkness are now intensified for a killer sauce….. WHAT IS NOT TO LIKE ABOUT THIS?!!

Braised Collard Greens

Anybody that knows us, or spends any time in our kitchen, knows “Pops”, or to you, Mr. Issac. He is our lead prep man, he is older than anyone in my kitchen and can outwork us all. TOTAL BEAST! He also makes the best collard greens in the business. Sorry he does, they are better than yours, that’s the truth and that’s life! After some convincing, I talked Pops into teaching me his recipe, and well, I have not made them any other way since. You could make a meal out of just collards and cornbread. Trust me, they are amazing! Smokey, and slightly bitter, and sweet and bacon-y….perfect!

Slow Cooked Cannellini Beans

When I was growing up in Panama, once I was able to, I would eat my mom’s and my grandmother’s beans - red beans, black beans, lentils, pigeon peas, black eyed peas, split peas (yellow and green). I would watch my mom and grandmother make soups, beans and rice dishes, and beans with meats. I learned their techniques, but to be honest, I have always been so in awe of their styles. That replication never turned the same in my hands. They just didn’t taste the same, and while I enjoy cooking them, I know I can’t make them like the matriarchs.

Then I had the opportunity to work with a chef whose focus is Italian food. He taught me some great dishes. Having grown up in an Italian family, well, it was awesome, but not life altering. THEN he taught me how to make a cannellini bean soup that simply tasted like heaven. It WAS life altering - I wasn’t hesitant to cook these and didn’t have the reverence I had always had to my momma’s or grandmother’s, so I could simply own them. I took this recipe and it has evolved into what is now my recipe. I soak cannellini beans overnight or up to 24 hours. You must discard the water - kitchen folklore says that this is what makes people gassy when eating beans. I don’t know about that, but we discard anyway because we cook our beans in stock! In a stock pot I caramelize mirepoix and house made guanciale - the original chef’s recipe called for prosciutto, but I like my guanciale! After these are nice and caramelized, I add three bay leaves, the beans, and fill to cover with our chicken stock. I then add three whole sprigs of rosemary and a small bunch of thyme, crushed pepper, salt and white pepper. Bring them up to a boil, then turn down and simmer, for hours, until nice and soft.

The Finished Product

I place a hearty amount of the cannellini beans into a bowl. Some collards come next with a tiny bit of potlikker, then we place the Fred Flintstone-sized pork shank on top and cover with the reduced braising liquid. This is my favorite food - this speaks to me on a deeper level. It showcases all of my favorite techniques and flavors, and while simple, it’s complex. There are layers of flavors in there….I’ll love this dish well into the winter and early spring. Then as it always happens, come late spring and summer, we part ways and a new something will become my favorite……..and that’s how it works for me.