Pork and Chestnut Ragu

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Winter is here, and you know what that means…sickness! Everyone seems to have some form of cold, cough, or sore throat. I’ve definitely caught the bug. While everyone is out and about doing their Christmas shopping, I’ve had to stay in for most of the weekend and take a sick day today from work. This is tougher for me than it should be. General American working culture makes it seem like taking a sick day and, therefore, taking care of yourself, is a bad thing. It’s as if coming into work even though you’re sick is a badge of honor and dedication. Thankfully, I work at a company where culture dictates that taking care of yourself is a top priority. And, who wants to catch my germs, anyways?

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Taking care of yourself 101: Drink mugs and mugs of this beautiful tea—preferably in your favorite mug.

My boss just told me this today, and I think we all need this reminder on the daily: Never apologize for taking care of yourself. You know your needs better than anyone else does.

Part of taking care of myself includes nourishment, of course! When I’m sick, I always muster up the energy to cook myself something, even if it’s just warm chicken broth. Now, when most people are sick, they think “soup!” Well, when I’m sick, the first thing I think of is, “pasta!” (Are you at all surprised?)

So, earlier this week I saw peeled and cooked chestnuts at Trader Joe’s, and something came over me that said “you MUST buy these and cook with them!” even though I’ve never cooked with chestnuts before in my life. I was kicking myself later in the week, staring at these chestnuts dumbfounded. Then I took out all my cookbooks and cooking magazines to look for a recipe. Thank goodness, I found a copy of Jamie Oliver’s magazine (aptly named Jamie Magazine) from November/December 2011. He had a whole section on cooking with chestnuts. Perfect! His recipe was for Chestnut Tagliatelle with Venison Ragu. Well, I hate venison (don’t hate me!) and I did not have the ingredients to make the homemade tagliatelle, so I tweaked the recipe a bit to make my own version of it! Behold (let’s show this beauty pic again…):

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Pork and Chestnut Ragu

  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 vacuum-packed package of peeled and cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup tomato purée
  • 3/4 cup red wine (I used Chianti)
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  1. Add finely chopped carrot, celery, and onion to a sauté pan with 2 tablespoons butter, the bay leaves, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the ground pork and break that up in the pan. Sauté until cooked through.
  3. Add the chestnuts and nutmeg and stir together.
  4. Add the tomato purée, stir in, then add the red wine and stir again.
  5. Add the chicken broth and let the mixture come to a boil. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste and mix into the sauce. The sauce will thicken at this point and should only need a few more minutes to simmer.
  7. Taste the ragu and add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Serve this with a pasta of your choice. Rigatoni pairs perfectly, if you were looking for a recommendation!

The holiday season is about giving to others, but please remember to give to yourself, too. Happy December!

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Kristina Eats: Chicago

Chicago: bright, electric, innovative, resilient.

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, but I moved to Ohio when I was two months old. Needless to say, I hardly had any memories of Chicago or the surrounding area. Last weekend, I finally made the trip for the first time as an adult. Here are some of the places my friends and I fell in love with.

The Publican

A few of my colleagues at America’s Test Kitchen recommended this West Loop restaurant to me. The Publican and Publican Quality Meats boasts high-quality, local meats and cheeses. They diligently document where they source their ingredients. Our meal was guaranteed to include seasonal ingredients.

To start: Honeycrisp Apple—a salad featuring a whole ball of fresh, ultra-creamy burrata, mouthwateringly sweet honeycrisp apples, julienned brussels sprouts, and walnuts topped with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. Every bite was at once sweet, earthy, crunchy, tangy, and creamy. Gorgeous.

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For the main affair: Pork Belly, seared and placed atop creamy, chewy grits. Roasted pears and hazelnuts were placed on top of the pork belly with greens and crumbled farmers cheese. This portion of pork belly featured the meatiest part, with hardly any fatty sections. Pure heaven.

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Bombobar

Located on the side of Bar Siena, this is a walk-up gelato and bomboloni (Italian donut) joint with picnic tables for you to sit at (and heat lamps for when it gets cold outside). The flavors are out of this world. I chose to have one scoop of Caramelized Coconut Fudge and one scoop of S’Mores gelato. Creamy, decadent, and incredibly unique.

Tip: If you ask, they will make you a bomboloni ice cream sandwich. Yes, you read that right.

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Portillo’s

Chicago’s go-to place for the quintessential Chicago hot dog (poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, sliced tomatoes, sweet pickle relish, chopped onions, a dill pickle, pickled sports peppers, and celery salt). I was skeptical, but the poppy seed bun made it work and I loved the combination of flavors. That’s not a soda I’m drinking there, either. Nope, that’s a cake shake. Portillo’s puts a whole slice of double-layer chocolate cake in a milkshake. And that’s their size small. Worth a try, but you’ll probably need to share!

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Lou Malnati’s 

My Chicago friends all told me one thing: feast on deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s. Below marks the first moment I’ve ever had this deep dish pizza pie. The crust was crunchy yet buttery. The cheese was melty, gooey, and stringy, even with fresh tomato sauce placed on top (still a conundrum to my Regina’s pizza heart).

Tip: If you have to wait a long time for a table, never fear. You can place your pizza order on the spot. Since the pizza takes almost an hour to make, your pizza will be ready for you by the time you sit down.

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Fork

Situated in Lincoln Square, this casual brunch spot specializes in cheese and charcuterie. Because of this, I ordered their burrata cheese plate (can you tell I’m a bit of a burrata freak?). This cheese plate featured a ball of homemade burrata placed on top of pistachio pesto. To the right of that is grilled grapes with a balsamic vinegar reduction. Grilled, buttered crostini complete the plate. I loved the smoky grapes and the savory, nutty flavors of pistachio in pesto. The burrata was also top-quality.

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The Allis

For an affordable, casual-chic afternoon tea, I could not have imagined a better place in my mind than The Allis. Situated in the West Loop, this historic building features glass chandeliers and chairs upholstered with various colors of velvety fabric or soft leather. So while the building seems to have once been a warehouse, the furnishings make the space chic and luxurious (hence the casual-chic descriptor). I loved the dishes. I wanted to steal them and take them home with me (I didn’t though, don’t worry!). While I would have loved more tea sandwiches, the buttery, flaky scones and the expertly crafted pastries made the experience well worth it.

Tip: If you run out of tea, just ask for more hot water!

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tea

Here’s to you, Chicago. Thanks for treating me like a queen. Until next time!

Chinese Cooking Experiment #2: Steamed Pork Buns

Steamed Pork Buns
Steamed Pork Buns

To start, my boyfriend Bailey wanted to say a few words about what steamed pork buns, or shengjian bao, mean to him:

Shengjian bao is a variant of its cousin, the “xiaolong bao,” or (little basket bun), which is basically a lump of dough filled with pork and vegetables, a favourite foodstuff in my parents’ hometown of Shanghai.  Only the steamed pork buns are lightly fried under water instead of steamed in bamboo baskets.  During my time in Shanghai as a young man, my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles would break our nonstop video game marathons by advising us we would be having these buns for lunch.  Dilapidated metal bowls of these steamed pork buns, gravid with tasty broth generated by the action of the steam, would issue from the little café down the street, giving us the energy needed to continue playing on into the night.”

The process to perfect these beauties took much longer than expected. One day I will get them to look picture perfect, but the taste is sure there.

To review, the dough for steamed pork buns is the same I used for the scallion pancakes: frozen bread dough. Can you believe that? Sometimes the things that seem complicated on the outside are, in reality, quite simple when you delve into the process.

In my first experiment, I cut one loaf of frozen bread dough into small pieces and used flour to roll those pieces into balls to then flatten them out into medallions. Unfortunately, the flour made the dough less adhesive, and the pork buns opened up while cooking in the steam. Water got into some of them. It was kind of ugly. Nevertheless, some of them survived, and the filling was juicy with the right flavors.

First Experiment: Pork buns on cutting board unnecessarily floured.
First Experiment = Unnecessary Floured Dough

I cut out flour in my second experiment, letting the dough be pliable and sticky so that the folds stuck together and wouldn’t open in the steam. This post is proof that success was had!

Steamed Pork Buns

Dough

  • 1 loaf frozen bread dough (white or wheat)

Filling

  • 3/4 pound ground pork
  • 1 egg
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 1 box of frozen spinach, thawed and chopped (or 1/2 bag fresh spinach, sautéed, cooled, and chopped)
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger (chopped or grated)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • optional ingredient: 1/8 teaspoon of Hondashi (a seasoning of sorts that can be made into a fish stock – adding a little of this brings out the flavor of everything else very well)

1. Start by making the filling. Take your ground pork and put it in a medium-large mixing bowl.

2. Chop the scallions, defrosted spinach (or sautéed and cooled spinach), and fresh ginger. Add that to the mixing bowl.

4. Add the sherry, sesame oil, egg, and spices (salt, pepper, and Hondashi if you have it). In this step, add as much liquid as you need in order to make the mixture sticky. You don’t want it too thin (too much liquid/oil) or too dry (not enough).

5. Take your hands (or a fork if it grosses you out, but using your hands is so much fun!) and mix the filling together, making sure all ingredients are evenly incorporated. Wash your hands and set aside.

6. Thaw loaf of frozen bread dough according to package instructions.

7. With a serrated knife, cut the bread dough into small strips about 1 inch wide.

8. Roll each strip of bread dough into a ball. Set each ball of dough on your cutting board. It’s going to be sticky, but that’s what you want so the bun folds well!

9. Take one ball of bread dough and roll it out into a medallion a little over a quarter-inch thick. If you don’t have a rolling pin, you can flatten it with your hands.

10. Place a small portion of your filling in the center.

Filling the Pork Bun
Filling the Pork Bun

11. Now, to fold the pork buns, lift up one edge of the medallion with your thumb and pointer finger towards the center. With your other hand, take the edge to the right and have that meet the first. It’s hard to explain in writing, but think about the crimping process for pie crust. Keep taking small portions of the edge and folding them up to meet in the center.

Folding the Pork Bun
Folding the Pork Bun

12. Once all the edges are folded into the center, twist the dough on top so there is no chance of it opening in the steam.

Pork Buns Ready for Steaming
Pork Buns Ready for Steaming

13. You will need a large pan with a lid to cook the steam buns. The process is the same as making scallion pancakes. Turn the heat up to medium-high. Coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil and place the pork buns into the pan.

14. Pour water into the pan so that the buns are about halfway submerged.

15. Cover the pan and allow the pork buns to steam in the boiling water. The pork buns will grow in size, don’t be alarmed!

16. Once you see that the water is about evaporated, turn the heat down to low and let the pork buns brown on the bottom. Some may have already browned before you turn the heat down. Just check each bun using a pair of tongs and cook accordingly.

17. When the pork buns are browned on the bottom, they are ready to eat. A crispy bottom with a little char is perfect.

You can dip the pork buns in soy sauce or in a Chinese vinegar. Bailey’s family uses Zhenjiang vinegar. Another fact that is good to know – this filling can be used in wontons to make wonton soup. Genius.

Please let me know if you have any questions about the process of making these, especially when it comes to folding them!