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Life’s a beech-smoked pork loin

 

Beech-smoked pork loin

French horn mushrooms have recently become a favourite, not only for their flavour but for their soft and luscious texture, and even for their shape. Also known as king oyster mushrooms (in fact that’s what you’re more likely to find them branded at your supermarket in South Africa), they have a shape that’s perfect for slicing them fairly thinly so that one mushroom will provide three to four long, narrow slices, which is an appealing prospect when presenting on the plate as a side dish with a main course at one of your famous candle-light diners.

Not that this column is about French horn mushrooms or for that matter king oyster mushrooms, actually. They were on the plate of very pleasant nosh that I made the other night, but they were indeed the side dish. The centrepiece was, as you can see in the picture, a not entirely ungenerous slab of beech-smoked pork loin, which is something which Woolies have brought back by popular demand, unlike any former white staffers on their payroll. [Yes, I did say in a recent column that I felt we should not boycott Woolies. But I did not say I would not have a gentle dig now and then.]

The thing about beech-smoked pork loin is that it has a decidedly bacony flavour, if not texture. The texture of the flesh is nothing at all like bacon, and also is not much like a slow-roasted slab of pork belly, which it closely resembles. But it has far less fat than an equivalent sized piece of pork belly, and with the subtle smoking it attains a flavour more reminiscent of your end-of-year hunk of Christmas gammon than it does anything else.

It frankly does not need as much cooking as pork belly either, but I have found that it does not suffer from a bit of slow-cooking with plenty of flavourings, pork being, like chicken, one of those meats that can take on a lot of external flavour, although in the case of pork, unlike chicken, it’s own central depth of flavour still holds its own no matter what you throw at it.

There were two key flavouring agents for this dish: Szechuan pepper, which is perhaps my new favourite thing in the spice cupboard, and sesame oil, with which you may have noticed I have been having a bit of a love affair of late.

These two have been finding their way into all sorts of recipes in my kitchen, but I think this is the first time I have paired them in one dish, and it is a winning combination. The sweetly lemony punch of these little soft, red-brown peppercorns marries so well with the tangy tingle of sesame oil that they’re quite likely to run off into the sunset together and never be heard of again.

The recipe is sparse, intentionally, because I don’t see any reason to add all manner of other ingredients to a dish in which the central core flavour is a marriage of such strong taste elements. One important factor though is that you do not want the fatty, potentially crackly, side of the joint to become damp or soggy, which would prevent it from turning crisp and tenderly crunchy.

Beech-smoked pork loin with Szechuan pepper

250g gammon for each person

2 Tbs Szechuan (a.k.a. Sichuan) peppercorns

3 Tbs sesame oil

2 Tbs dark soy sauce

Chopped fresh coriander leaves to garnish

Salt

So the trick is to have the wet flavourings underneath, with not a drop touching the fat side while it takes in the dryness of the surrounding oven and crisps up.

Dry the joint thoroughly on all sides with kitchen paper. Smash the Szechuan peppercorns with a mortar and pestle (it doesn’t matter which is which, Daisy, put the corns in one and bash it with the other). Put the smashed corns on a flat board, spread them out, and dip the flesh sides (i.e. not the fatty side) in this to give it a good coating. Salt the fatty side of the joint.

Mix the lime juice, zest, soy and sesame oil in a bowl and pour into the bottom of your oven dish. Place the meat on top of this and cook in a 180° oven, uncovered, for half an hour, then turn the oven down to 150 and leave it for two to three hours. If it turns out the way mine did, the meat will have absorbed all those Asian flavours and the fat will have turned to softly crisp crackling.

For the mushrooms, slice them lengthwise into three of four strips and quickly toss in sesame oil, adding a squeeze of lemon juice, and a grinding of black pepper. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves.

 

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