Alert blog follower Hannah sent this note from southwestern Oregon – ‘I read about you guys changing up stuff you made earlier, for subsequent meals – The last one was an Instagram of tacos where you did “a complete 180° on the seasoning” but you didn’t explain how or what you did. The same thing happened with the Chinese barbecued pork you converted to Italian, but you didn’t tell how to do that either. We’re not all wizards, so you need to explain this better!’
Hannah, with my sincere apologies, you are absolutely correct. Allow me to rectify that – And if it seems like Hannah’s reading me the riot act, she’s got a right to – I didn’t explain any of that stuff. Now, in my defense, these were both follow up images and short descriptives, secondary to a post, that as she mentioned, were on other social media sites – FB, Instagram, Twitter and the like. I though of them as throw away stuff, home food porn, but no longer – Hannah is 100% right – If I’m gonna crow about our mad skills, I gotta share the goods.
Before we talk about conversion, we gotta back up a few steps. If you’re making a French dish, what should the core seasonings be? What if it’s Italian, Spanish, Indian, North African, Mexican, South American, Caribbean, and so on? There are so many regional variations in all those examples that this kind of thing can be a bit hard to pin down – In northern France, you might find thyme, sage, and coriander, while in the south, it’s likely to be something more Provençal – marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender, maybe. Same thing in every place I mentioned, frankly. With the very welcome spread of cookbooks and recipes focusing more on regional cuisines than some perceived national pastiche, us home cooks are blessed with many more options than even a decade ago. All that can make things a bit tougher to convert to something wholly different, but frankly, we don’t need to do that to succeed at the game.
So what is the trick to turning those ribs into tacos? Not as much as you’d think – Hell, you could probably do not a damn thing, call it fusion, and be on your merry way… But seriously, the trick, such as it is, is simply knowing what the major and minor seasoning notes are for the thing you’re working with, and building up or down from there – I say up or down purposefully, because if you want something Chinese to taste reasonable Italian, the task at hand may be to add, but it could also involve subtraction. Let’s use those two examples Hannah cited to dig into this thing.
In both instances we’re talking about proteins. This comes up as a thing we tweak fairly often because of how we cook and plan meals – A big ol’ batch of poultry, pork, or beef is oft what we cook early in the week, and then make a buncha meals thereafter, (and we covered this pretty well in our Meal Planning post btw). First step in swinging the seasoning profile of a protein in another direction is having a pretty good grasp of what’s powering it currently. If you made it, that’s easy enough, but what about a leftover from somewhere else, or taking a step farther out – tasting something and thinking, ‘I could do this at home, and I’d like to’ – How do you parse that? Far and away, the easiest way to suss it out is to ask the Chef – Chances are good they’ll tell you, and then you’re off to the races.
But what about sleuthing things out for yourself, how does that work? There’s no cut and dried formula for doing this that I can think of offhand, other than to state the obvious – The more herbs, spices and other seasoning constituents you own and use with some frequency, the better you’ll be at identifying them in the wild – Consider it a delicious form of behavioral conditioning. Again, not everybody has the same palate, but nonetheless, practice makes perfect, so build a great pantry and familiarize yourself with as much as you can – Getting curious about world cuisine is the way to discover new tastes and combinations.
OK, so Hannah’s Bane – starting with the ribs to tacos. The ribs were a first run experiment by M from something she’d found and tweaked to her liking – Ribs done in the slow cooker, with a nontraditional twist on the marinade and sauce. She did, for two racks of ribs,
For the Rib Marinade
1/2 Cup Water
1/3 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, minced
6 Cloves fresh Garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons Yellow Mustard
2 Tablespoons coarse Sea Salt
2 teaspoons Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper
For the Glaze
1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 Cup Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Arrowroot
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake
Pinch of Sea Salt
They were killer by the way – Try this on nice fresh baby backs and then thank M later. We had a slew of these things, and after 3 days of ribs, ribs, and ribs, we were kinda tired of that, so I decided to strip all the meat off the remainder and turn it into taco fodder. Now, looking at that ingredients list, you can see right off that I took poetic license with the line Hannah quoted, “a complete 180° on the seasoning,” ‘cause yeah – in a word, Eben? Bullshit. That’s already pretty damn close to a bunch of Mexican regional seasoning blends you’ve got on there. What I did was to throw diced chiles and more onion in a sauté pan, sweat them, then added chicken stock, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes to the mix, and let that simmer until everything was heated through and married – Boom, taco ribs. Get the picture? No, they won’t taste at all like they did as whole ribs, and yeah, now they are reasonably more Mexican in taste profile.
Now, how about that Chinese barbecued Pork to Italian thing, then? This one admittedly took a bit more work to pull off effectively, but nothing earthshaking, and again – I made the original dish, so I knew exactly what was in there, right? The pork was my latest swing at Char Siu, derived from a Grace Young recipe in Breath of a Wok. I’ve not posted this previously, so here’s first look for y’all, (and John Joyce? This one’s for you, Buddy!)
For each Pound of Pork Shoulder
2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce (I recommend Pearl River)
2 Tablespoons Tamari
2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce
2 Tablespoons Pixian Doubanjiang Chile Bean Sauce
2 Tablespoons Shao Hsing Rice Wine
2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
2 teaspoons Sesame Oil
1/2 teaspoon Ground Grains of Paradise
The Pork marinates in this mix for 48 hours, then is seared over an initially hot grill, basted with the remaining sauce and finished on a medium grill until internal temp runs 145°, then rested. If you use charcoal, a two zone grill set up will do this to perfection.
This stuff was fork tender and incredibly tasty, but again, after so many meals, I just needed to switch things up, and so I decided to make tomato based pasta sauce with the remainder. Granted, there are some potent Chinese regional tastes involved in that pork, but again, it’s not as discordant as it may seem at first glance. Central and northern Italian tomato pasta sauces can and do have some of those warm, earthy, and spicy notes, albeit not the same ones.
I gave the pork a quick rinse and ground it with the attachment on my Kitchenaid mixer, (you don’t need to do that, a simple rinse and mince would do just fine). As you can see from the plated image, the marinade, even after 48 hours, doesn’t get all that deep into the pork, so doing what you can to expose a bunch of the unseasoned meat gives solid ground for new flavors – The old stuff becomes interesting background that you can’t quite put your finger on, rather than a very forward Chinese.
Next comes the Italian rebranding – A big stew pot over medium heat, with a generous slug of olive oil gets soffritto – the classic Italian aromatic base mix of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic. Add stock, tomatoes, the pork, bay leaf, oregano, rosemary, lemon thyme, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper, and basil to finish, and wham, you’ve got a complex, earthy pasta sauce that tastes like you put far more work into it than you did – Never a bad thing.
Now, who caught the trick I used in these examples? Somebody, anybody, Bueller? There was one ya know – A small but potent anchor to all such conversions – It’s the aromatic bases. For the switch to tacos, it was onion and chile. For the Italian, soffritto – See that? Fortunately for you, we wrote a very nice piece on aromatic bases that you can use as a launching pad for further exploration. It really is a key – When you take those deep, fundamental roots of a flavor profile and set them as your new solid base, switching gears becomes a simple matter of preference thereafter.
Now, resources – A thing I’ve mentioned here several times and online a lot – Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s magnum opus, The Flavor Bible. This is a reference work with some serious horsepower – Whole menus can be worked up from the stuff therein, and should be – For my mind, with that book, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you’ve got a very solid basic research library to design a world cuisine of your own from.
Now – One final note – This concept is not mine, and it’s not new. In fact, it’s very old, and it stems from common sense, first and foremost. In French, it’s called Garde Manger, and it loosely translates as ‘Keeper of the Food.’ This is way cooler than you can imagine if you really dig cooking. The first fine dining restaurant I worked in, back in the mid ‘70’s, was French, (and that cuisine is where the term comes from and from where, arguably, the art reached its pinnacle). The second was in Sun Valley, Idaho – Another kitchen run by French Chefs. In those places, the Chef de Garde Manger was the best there was – Old guys with a wealth of experience, tremendous patience, and endless inventiveness. Garde manger is still around, albeit not as prominent, or as likely to display that level of experience. It’s always the cold dish station – Salads, hors d’œuvres (horse doovers as my Sis and I like to quip…), appetizers, canapés, pâtés, terrines, and such. Although it’s less prevalent now, the key role of that Chef was transforming leftovers into something new, something appealing, something that would sell – And it was magical, indeed – That spirit is sparked within me every time I do something like we discussed today. If any of this strikes your fancy, then I’ll recommend another great resource – Frederick Sonnenschmidt and John Nicolas’, The Art of Garde Manger – It’s the real deal, and a delightful read. Dig in.