Dinner for two.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to dine repeatedly at my table knows that my cooking is wildly unpredictable. It is rarely disastrous (and usually the disasters are confined to occasions when I am alone) but often on the wrong side of adequate. Which is why the last time we had guests, my mother wound up doing most of the cooking. Yet once every so not very often, I produce something so wonderful that it astonishes everyone at the table, including me. Like tonight, when I realized that I still had to cook dinner for my father and myself (my mother having decamped to Mexico City for the next five days for some conference) and had no idea what to do. There were vegetables from the farmer's market and a styrofoam tray of pork belly, which I've never cooked before. I guess there's no time like the present. Frantically, I flipped through Chinese Gastronomy, published in the 1970's, which was no help at all, since the recipe involves blanching and steaming and takes about six hours from start to finish. I didn't have that kind of time. I would have to improvise.
The pork belly (labeled "pork stew meat) was already sliced into chunks, about an inch and a half square, more or less, instead of being all in one piece (most recipes for braised pork belly call for one large piece of meat; you slice it after it's been cooked). I browned the cubes of meat on each side in a deep skillet and then transfered them into my smallest Le Creuset pot, skin (and fat) side up; they just fit. Two spoonfuls each of soy sauce (low-sodium) and rice wine went in, and it all was left to simmer slowly on low heat, tightly covered. Some time later I returned to turn the meat over, sprinkle in a little more soy sauce, making sure the pork was evenly seasoned. When I went back even later to check, the melting fat and wine and soy sauce had begun to thicken. I sprinkled it with a little raw sugar - I don't have any yellow rock sugar on hand, which is what you would normally use - and went back to reading Agatha Christie. At last the sauce had turned into a syrupy glaze; it was ready to eat.
For a vegetable I take out the yellow pattypan squashes and the bright zucchini blossoms from the market. The yellow squashes are like fat little flowers, sliced into eighths, sautéed in olive oil. I toss in the carefully washed and dried zucchini blossoms, just in time for my dad to pop in behind me and tell me I should have taken the squash out first and fried the blossoms separately, but it is too late, and anyway, I've gotten the timing just about right. They are tender and clean-tasting, but the pork belly is the real revelation, soft and rich and intensely flavored. The fat melts with every bite, the sauce is perfectly balanced between sweet and salty. I have not gotten everything right - I should have used ginger, and perhaps a little star anise; blanching the meat first would have mellowed the pork flavor, that faint whiff of the barnyard that can be a little overwhelming. If I had cooked it longer, the fat would have melted a bit more, but the meat itself is just right, not too dry or overdone. I am surprised at myself. And I can't wait to do it again.