Turnips – regular white or purple-skinned turnips – are not something we associate with Chinese cooking, but years ago a Chinese friend of ours used to stir fry them, sometimes with pork, sometimes not. As someone who has never really internalized this cuisine except in the sense of ingesting it, I rarely achieve the delicious simplicity that was her default mode; almost always, I add one ingredient too many or get the balance of seasonings wrong. (Yes, I know: I could follow a recipe, but that wouldn’t be very off the cuff, would it?)
Still, I couldn’t help thinking Asian when faced with a promising bunch of turnips and a small piece of skin-on pork belly. Pork belly is marvelous when simmered in flavorful liquid until tender, then glazed, either in a slab or sliced. In fact, a while ago I went through a phase of keeping cooked pork belly (or sometimes beef short ribs) in the fridge, ready to be browned and basted with some sort of sauce until glistening. And some of the best of these glazes are Chinese-inspired. That was where I started: I’d worry about the turnips later.
I assembled a Chinese-ish cooking liquid: diluted chicken and vegetable stocks (there were small amounts of both in the fridge – either would have been fine by itself, and water would have worked too); roughly crushed spices (star anise, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and one small dried chili); orange zest (and a little juice); sliced ginger; a clove of garlic; soy sauce; and sesame oil. In this, I simmered the pork belly until tender but not falling apart, about 90 minutes in this case. I left it to cool in the strained cooking liquid, then put it in the refrigerator to chill. When it was cold, I removed the solidified fat from the surface of the broth. I poured off a cup of the liquid and stirred in about 2 tablespoons brown sugar – this would be the glaze. The rest of the liquid will be used some day to simmer more pork or other meat.
The plan was to cut the pork into quarter-inch slices, brown it lightly, then glaze it in that sweetened broth. This is where the turnip connection dawned on me: Turnips, too, are delicious glazed, most typically with butter, salt and a little sugar. (Jackie and I once had a turnip tarte tatin at some restaurant near Toulouse whose name I wish I could remember – this took turnip-glazing to a new level.)
I put the rice on to cook, then started on the aromatics for the turnips: spring onion, garlic and lots of ginger sautéed in peanut oil until limp but not brown. I added the turnips, cut into French-fry shapes, tossed everything together and added maybe a half cup of the sweetened cooking broth, stirring over medium heat until the turnips were crunchy-tender and the liquid was reduced. It is amazing how juicy turnips are, and this way of cooking them adds flavor without compromising that juiciness.
Meanwhile, I’d arranged the pork-belly slices in a non-stick skillet and set them over medium-low heat to brown on both sides. I then added sweetened broth, a couple of tablespoons at a time, basting and turning until the slices glistened – but were not sticky and heavily coated as though they’d been spread with jam.
I transferred the pork to the skillet containing the turnips, stirred gently to combine, slid everything into a serving dish and garnished with cilantro. Either of the two main ingredients could have been served as a dish in itself, but they complemented each other very nicely: The unctuous meat was set off by those almost crunchy, juicy turnips, and the cilantro was so good that both Jackie and I added lots more to our bowls. So don’t omit it unless you’re one of those many people who can’t stand the herb.
Jackie thought the dish could have used a little more soy sauce, so when you mix up your cooking liquid taste carefully for that ever-useful condiment.