Pork, Wine, and Harmony


Photo by Christian Seel

PORK BELLY iceberg, cucumber, Thai distillation

When composing a dish I have to decide if I am going to focus on contrast or similarity of flavors. In some cases a ying and yang-like collision can be refreshingly startling and exciting, and opposite textures consumed simultaneously are always pleasant. But what about weight? I think this aspect of food and wine is overlooked.

In this pork belly dish we focus on weight--or body as it is often termed in the wine world--and try fusing the two opposite ends of the spectrum. Pieces of extremely fatty pork belly are flavored with a rich, Thai-inspired, coconut milk-based curry, banana, and avocado. The opulent curry is immediately satiating, so much so that after a couple of straight bites of it, even the most extreme glutton waves the napkin in surrender.

Thinking in the realm of opposites, to find overall balance on the palate, we opted to bounce between the extremes of body. We liked the idea of pairing the curry with very lean components. Iceberg lettuce and cucumbers came immediately to mind. Their watery nature and clean earthy flavors worked well with the banana and coconut elements of the dish and also helped contrast the curry and pork, which coat the mouth in fatty richness.

The dish now in harmony, we put it in front of our wine team.

To fuse the iceberg and cucumbers we turned to a technique becoming popular in modern cooking called compressing. The cucumbers are juiced, and the meatier inside leaves of the iceberg are carefully separated to retain their bowl-like shape. The two are combined in a container that is then placed in a vacuum chamber machine and run through four cycles at the highest level. The intense pressure in the machine forces out the water normally present in the lettuce and replaces it with the cucumber juice. Essentially co-mingling the two ingredients, it is a modern, speedy way to macerate or marinate, and the result is single bite that tastes of both lettuce and cucumber.

The cucumber-infused lettuce cups are then filled with the pork belly curry and garnished with herbs and fried garlic. Balance is restored with components of fat and lean combining in each bite; the dish has added complexity and dimension, as each bite provides extremes in texture.

After tasting the dish the chefs realized the unctuous pork curry still dominated the body. We needed another clean element. We looked to another relatively new technique in modern cooking called rotary evaporation. The goal was to create a chilled, Thai-flavored consommé, bright with the very building blocks of Thai cuisine, which could be used as a palate cleanser while consuming the course.


Photo by Lara Kastner

We identified fish sauce, lime, bird chilies, and lemongrass as the ingredients for the condiment beverage. The evaporator distills the ingredients under a vacuum, therefore altering their atmospheric pressure, so liquids can be boiled, evaporated, and then distilled at temperatures around 102 degrees F--meaning they are not heated to extreme temperatures, thereby dulling their inherent flavors. It's what I imagine cooking on the moon might be like.

Acidic lime and herbaceous lemongrass drive the shooter; the pungent fish sauce helps keep the drink savory, and the chili distillation tricks the mind. The capsicum does not transfer in the distillation process. The result is a liquid that has the intense aroma of fresh, raw chilies with none of the heat. It appears to be a shot glass of water resting on the plate, with the same clarity and consistency.

The dish now in harmony, we put it in front of our wine team. Thai-inspired flavors originally led them to a unique blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Roussanne from a producer named Sequillo located in South Africa's Western Cape region. It is a delicious wine, and we enjoyed presenting it to our guests. But as often happens when new dishes arrive on the menu, they get tweaked slightly in the first weeks. As several elements of the dish subtly changed, Joe realized that the Sequillo was no longer matching up as well as he would have liked.

The team began a new round of tasting with the now-finished dish and realized we were in a range where Riesling would be a good pairing, but failed to find one that made for a really compelling match. Somehow a Kerner--a hybrid cross of Riesling and the red grape Schiava--from Abbazia di Novacella, in Italy's Alto Adige region that Joe had been introduced to over year ago came to mind. He called the distributor to have a sample dropped off, tasted the dish again the next day, and was very pleased to have found the right dish to finally put the wine to work.

Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings will run on Mondays and Wednesdays for the next two weeks. Check back for his recommendations for what to serve with caviar, chocolate, and more.


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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.

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