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i don't know who was more excited when the boy received a copy of Daniel Boulud's Braise for his birthday - he who received it, or me, who selfishly gave it to him knowing that it was one of those gifts that benefits both of us.

and now that the weather has turned a bit, and we have the windows open and a nice breeze is flowing through the house, i don't feel so badly about having the oven on for 4 or 5 hours at a time. its blaring heat doesn't indecently warm up the house, like that one time not so long ago when we decided to make braised short ribs in 100 degree weather.

when i first glanced through the book, i read aloud to the boy the titles of the most intriguing recipes, and it seemed that all the ones i hollered about involved pig in some way. one of my master plans to follow through with during this recently, uh, acquired unplanned vacation time is to cook a hell of a lot. i have other master plans, and those involve making bread (i've got baguette proofing as i type this) and kickboxing a lot. so far i've not done so badly. i'm going to deserve an award for Best Suburban Housewife when this is all over with, what with all the vacuuming and laundry and cooking and stuff. actually, in reality, i have much respect for housewives. growing up, my mom worked now and then, but since my dad was away a lot (he worked for a major airline), she did all the housewifey things. this shit is hard work, and i believe that housewives (or househusbands, which seem to be more common these days) are rather unappreciated. my hat goes off to you.

so i digress. one of the first recipes i turned to in the book not only involved pig but involved a rather super cheap piece of pig. that is the best thing about braising, that one can take a tough piece of back end of animal that nobody else wants (e.g. people with money); and the art of braising makes it develop, kind of like the ugly duckling into a swan. so i ran across this recipe and it seemed so intriguing, and involved a lot of the flavors that have pleased me of late.

You'll need to make a trip to your local asian or specialty market for some of the ingredients, and while there see if you can find ham hocks (not the smoked kind). i bought the ham hocks, frozen, from the Super H, for a total of 5 bucks. if you can get fresh, well by all means buy them. and do buy them as meaty as you can get them, as DB suggests in the opening paragraph. i cannot get over how succulent the braising liquid becomes once the dish is complete. the level of flavors and the wonderful kick from the hot pepper flakes and sambal oelek, oh. i am at a loss for words. don't be put off by the use of lychee fruit; after all, people in the US eat ham with pineapple, don't they?

Ham Hocks with Lychees and Bok Choy
From Daniel Boulud's "Braise: A Journey Through International Cuisine"

Serves 4

"In the United States, ham hocks are normally smoked, along with the rest of the ham, and are used to flavor a big pot of greens or soup, especially in the South. But I also like to cook with fresh , uncured hocks, because they have a lot of flavor and are inexpensive. They're also unusual, since you don't see them on their own very often. As much as I love them, you do need to seek out nice, thick, relatively meaty ones. Hocks that are just skin and bones are no fun to eat. But with good ham hocks, this intensely flavored, pan-Asian inspired recipe won't disappoint anyone. Serve it with regular or sticky rice."

4 pounds fresh ham hocks, trimmed of excess fat (I found these frozen at the Super H for 5 bucks total, although you have to trim off the fat yourself)
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 (2 inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and smashed
1 (20 oz) can of lychees in syrup
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flake
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon red chili paste (i use the kind with the rooster on it, Sambal Oelek)
4 baby bok choy (about 1 pound), tough stem ends trimmed
1 pound bitter melon (available at the Super H) (1 large or 2 medium), quartered lengthwise, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 bunches scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the ham hocks and cook for 10 minutes. Drain.

2. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

3. In a large cast iron pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ham hocks, lychees and syrup, soy sauce, brown sugar, cilantro, red pepper flakes, fish sauce, and chili paste. Bring to a simmer.

4. Cover the pot, transfer it to the oven, and braise for 3 hours, turning the hocks two or three times during cooking.

5. Add the bok choy and bitter melon, and continue to braise, covered, for 1 hour 15 minutes. Add the scallions, cover, and braise for an additional 15 minutes. Serve over rice.

the above picture doesn't do the dish justice. i took it last night and the lighting was bad. if there happens to be any left later on, i'll try to remember to take pictures of it.


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