Monday, November 30, 2009

Slow Weekend Cooking

Pay for newly graduated employees in Japanese companies is shit. The starting salary is pretty much the same no matter where you go and, quite frankly, it is awful. That is not an opinion, it's just the way it is. Case in point: one of my best friends is a public school teacher back in the States; he makes nearly twice as much as I do. WTF...

But that's not to say there is no justice in the world. To offset our offensively low salaries, companies own dorms which employees can live in for next to nothing. I pay ~$90 a month for my own one bedroom with its own mini kitchen and bathroom. But one of the most crucial parts is that I don't have to pay utilities...

No utilities bill means I have no reservations about running my stove for a loooong time. This past weekend, I was stuck at my place pretty much all day studying for the upcoming Japanese Language Proficiency Test which I'm taking next weekend. Since I wasn't going anywhere, I thought I'd put the stove to work and whip up some slow cooked dinners. Pork loin was on sale, so I picked up a 1.5 lb roast and started scheming.

I had a bunch of vegetables that were in need of eating soon, so the Saturday night I decided to make a ragu.

I have to be honest here. I don't have any Italian in me, I've never been to Italy, I haven't eaten at that many Italian restaurants, and I haven't even ever really tried to cook that much Italian food before. To me, ragu is a brand of tomato sauce that comes in a jar. So I make no claims to be an expert in these things, or even really know what I'm doing. Fortunately I based my recipe off of Mario Batali, a guy who does know a thing or two about Italian food.

I didn't have sage leaves (and am not even sure where I'd find fresh ones in Japan), so those got skipped. Hand crushing a whole tomato sounded messy and unnecessary, so a can of diced tomatoes filled in. Two cloves of garlic seemed boring, so I made it six. And because I'm going through a phase where something bright red and spicy needs to go in just about anything I cook, I through in a red chili for good measure. The rest was more or less the same.

After a lot of chopping, I had all my veggies ready to roll (good practice for your knife skills btw). The recipe called for the meat to be in "chunks", though didn't mention how big those chunks should be, so I just kind of guesstimated. These look like chunks, right?


I set the heat as high as I could (did I mention I don't pay utilities?) and gave the meat a good browning. The hardest thing about browning meat is fighting the urge to move it around, flip it, stir it, do anything but just let it sit. My solution? Walk away. If you aren't looking directly at it, everything gets much easier. Look how well that worked! Next I took the meat out for a bit, dropped the heat a little, and let all those chopped up veggies soften up. Back in went the pork, plus wine and tomatoes, and I left the whole thing to simmer for a little over 2 hours while I studied (again, no utilities bill for me).


The result: a sauce that really could have been a meal on its own. I actually considered skipping the pasta all together at one point and just eating the sauce straight. In the end, it got paired up with some spaghetti and loaded up my belly. The taste was great and the chili left a pleasant little tingle in my mouth afterward.


Sunday night came around I had still had 3/4 lb of pork that needed cooking, so I decided to braise it. I didn't really use a recipe for this one, it was mostly just a combination of common ingredients in Chinese braised dishes assembled in what seemed like reasonable ratios. For liquids, it was largely chicken broth, soy sauce, shao xiang rice wine, and mirin. I tossed in a couple cloves of coarsely chopped garlic, a few quarter-sized slices of ginger, 2 star anise pods, and 3 dried red chilies (I can't help myself, I swear) to give it some character. Whenever the liquid started getting low I added more broth, soy sauce, and mirin top it off again.


The pork braised by itself for a little over an hour before being joined by some large chunks of carrot and potato, half an onion, and a pair of hard boiled eggs for almost an hour more. Once everything was pretty much falling apart, I removed the solids and reduced the braising liquid down to a thick gravy. Eaten with a bowl of white rice, it was such winter comfort food that I almost wished it were colder outside so that I could enjoy its heart-warming goodness that much more.


I'm hoping to get a small le creuset cast iron pot in the near future which will open up a whole world of slow cooked foods to make the most of my situation. Even if my company refuses to pay me real money, I'll get what I've earned one way or another.

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