Since we’re all on stay-at-home orders right now, I thought I’d delve into this recipe’s back story a little more so than I usually do. It helps distract me from spiraling into yet another black hole of Covid-19 news updates anyways, and if it helps distract you a bit too, fabulous! Otherwise, skip on over the short novella to find the recipe instructions below.
Back in December of 2006, I moved from my home state of Texas to Maryland on a quest for healing, belonging, and diversity. At the time, I was very disconnected from my heritage, very cut off from my family, and processing a whole lot of hurt feelings. The trauma I endure with my faith and families rejection, as a gay woman, and the aftermath of tumultuous feelings I experienced as a consequence, set in motion an equal and opposite rejection on my part. Blame it on defiant anger, a broken heart, or whatever else you like, but the mere fact of the matter is, at the time, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with Texas, or its traditions. Once I began to settle into my new life on the East Coast, I quit listening to Country music and all its subgenres, practiced a strict vegetarian diet, denounced any belief in gods, refused to step a foot inside even the most progressive of churches, and I quit celebrating Christian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. Over the past 14 years, I’ve moved around the East Coast a lot, and so I’ve gained and lost friends, family, ideas, and opinions as a result. Through it all, I slowly found comfort in realizing I am in control of which parts of my culture I want to embrace, and which ones I want to reject. This realization is an ongoing ebb and flow journey of compromises, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, have an onslaught of trauma to still process, and so, a whole lot left to learn.
However, learning is something I love. It has been the overall theme of my life, and especially so after taking those first steps alone down to BWI’s baggage claim over a decade ago now. Mostly, I’ve relied on books for knowledge the majority of my life, but books aren’t quite the same as real time experiences. So, what’s my absolute favorite way to learn now? That’s right, over a plate of delicious food! Through eating, cooking, and researching over the past 14 years, I have discovered and embraced a myriad of cultures outside my own, and I’m quite confident that I would not have been exposed to many, if any, of them had I continued to live in that lonely subsidized East Texas apartment I fell apart in. Relocating, and the subsequent cuisines I have since discovered, not only gifted me with a more broaden view of the world, but also provided me an unexpected feeling of “home” in each of the different dishes I tasted. “Food is a universal language” is something I hear again and again in the foodie realm, and it’s very true. The first bowl of Vindaloo I tried, with its spicy, vinegary, luscious gravy ladled over the most aromatic rice I’d ever tasted propelled me into a new culture, while simultaneously bringing me back to Southeast Texas. Spicy vinegar? Tabasco sauce. Stewed meat and veggies in a rich gravy over rice? Gumbo and chili. So, I immediately dove into a new world of Basmati rice, chutneys, saffron, cardamon, and Ghee without hesitation. The spices, the techniques, and the lifestyles of the people who developed them were totally new to me, but the dishes gave me a feeling of being grounded back in my roots, which was something my wayward spirit desperately needed at the time.
Furthermore, my relationship with exploring new foods has continued to provide me that same feeling of “home” without fail. As I learn about new spices, herbs, vegetables, and cooking techniques, I feel more and more connected to the Southeast Texas culture I had to leave behind. It hasn’t mattered whether I am devouring a chunk of sour Injera smothered in spicy Key Wat, slurping umami rich noodles out of Miso Ramen broth, inhaling the nutty, peppery aroma of Arrzo con Gondules, biting into the soft, yet springy texture of Lengua stuffed inside charred corn tortillas, or shamelessly walking around NYC with mustard smeared on my face after chomping down a Nathan’s Famous hot dog. It’s in the diversity of food culture I feel my truest self, and with every new culinary adventure I embark on, the result is the same. My palette is my connection to the world around me, and through this connection, I feel less lonesome for “home”. Travel for me has always been about which new restaurant I get to try or which new market I can find, and I prefer road trips just so I can bring ingredients home with me. I dare say that most folks get excited about procuring the latest tech gadget, newest name brand clothing, shoe, or handbag, but not me. Sure those things are all great, but what really gets me excited is black garlic, saffron, cheeses, cured meats, fish sauce, olive oil tasting rooms, flavored salts, peppercorns, dried pastas, and chilies. When surround by new ingredients and spices and their resulting flavors, I am home.
With all that said, however, there’s still absolutely nothing that connects me to my roots more than offset smoking does. It doesn’t get anymore Texas for me than rubbing down a brisket or turkey or chicken or baby back ribs with a heavy-on-the black pepper rub then smoking it slow and low over Pecan or Mesquite. The bittersweet smell of billowing smoke, the crackle and pop of the white hot coals, the sizzling steam of the soaked wood chunks, and even the inevitable tears and soot smudges all instantly transport me back to that big backyard surrounding my parent’s humble trailer. I can still feel the warm, dry summer grass scratching the souls of my feet, as I ran around carefree under an enormous Texas sky secretly watching my daddy feed another Pecan log into the handmade smoker my Uncle built for him. Any smoker does it for me too, not just the one on my deck, as everytime I see a roadside smoker I immediately roll down my car windows and breath in the deep, familiar scent of my childhood. It doesn’t seem it today, but I come from a very large family. Offset smoking is a tradition where I’m from and I can’t remember too many holidays or church potlucks or family gatherings without smoked meats. As soon as I got a backyard of my own, the first thing I did was set up a charcoal grill. I knew nothing about grilling or smoking meats myself, however, as I, a girl, had only been allowed to watch. It’s literally called “manning the grill” and my family interprets that as literally as they do the bible. Despite this, or more honestly, in spite of this I fired up my first backyard grill undeterred. It felt wonderful to create those homey, smoky flavors I’d been missing in my own backyard. The ability to take control over the traditions I grew up with freed me from so much heartache. So, when I fire up my smoker today, it’s about family and is why I usually reserve it for holidays, and primarily smoking on the holidays, true to tradition, has always been enough for me to feel connected to my roots.
Yet, as the uncertainty of this pandemic unfolds, so to has my old ache for comforting family meals, and I am craving those sort of flavors as intensely as I did back when I first took off on my own. So, how do I bridge offset smoking with all the new spices, herbs, and techniques I’ve discovered since leaving Texas behind? How do I utilize offset smoking in a more day-to-day fashion instead of reserving it just for holidays? Well, lately, I have been trying to find the answer to that question in researching, experimenting with, and enjoying the enticingly light and aromatic flavor combinations of Southern Vietnamese cuisine. Star anise, fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, and Thai Bird chilies were once spices and herbs that I knew little to nothing about. My first introduction to Vietnamese cuisine was while house hunting in Springfield, MA. I had done my usual “foodie” research and insisted we stop at a small restaurant, Vinh Chau, for lunch. Once reading over the menu several times, I finally ordered a bowl of Pho Ga, as chicken noodle soup is especially delicious while on the road for some reason. The aromatic bowl of broth laced with star anise and charred ginger root enticed my senses before the waitress ever reached the table with our order. The pile of Holy Basil so fresh the stems were still on, slices of jalapenos, mound of raw mung bean sprouts, and lime wedges served along with it created a type of interactive soup I’d never experienced before. More than anything, however, I fell instantly in love with the house made chili paste sitting at the table in a self-serve condiment caddy, which I self-served onto my noodles over and over again. Numerous portions later of delicate soups, fresh herb packed summer rolls, spicy, funky dipping sauces, and marinated grill plates from Vinh Chau quickly transformed this once unfamiliar cuisine into the regular flavors of my home cooking routine. My desire to know more about this culture, its spices, and cooking techniques inevitably lead me down the road a bit from Vinh Chau to Saigon Market, where the staff generously and patiently helped me learn the differences between different types of dried rice noodles, how to prep fresh lemongrass, and just how over-the-top spicy fresh Thai Bird chilies can be. Over the five years I lived in Springfield, I learned how to roll my own fresh summer rolls, made my first batch of Pho Ga, and grilled many a lemongrass spiked chicken thigh. Now fish sauce, lemongrass, rice noodles, and Thai Bird chilies are staples in my kitchen.
Aside from the very tasty hands-on research I did back in Springfield, watching several hours of travel documentaries and how-to YouTube videos since then as also helped me immensely along the way. My current favorite how-to video is Vietnamese Food Any Day and my latest travel/food show obsession is Huang’s World, which makes a great binge watch fyi. Being stuck at home like this, and unsure of the next opportunity I’ll have to explore new places and flavors, has driven me to many travel shows of late. Not that this type of viewing is out-of-the-ordinary for me, but somehow the lack of other options makes me appreciate living in a time when television of this sort is readily available, especially now more than ever. Much like my culinary experiences over the years, this current state of affairs is familiar and foreign to me at the same time, and has prompted much thinking about how I can translate all this into my cooking. Cooking is my main way of tackling the challenge of pushing through flairs of my depression, which I was already battling in the aftermath of my grandmother’s passing. Now, I suspect many others are facing similar battles, and if you’re anything like me, it can prove difficult to push through undue stress and anxiety and keep practicing a craft or hobby. That’s why I so appreciate travel shows, cook books, how-to videos, and recipe writing, as they are the pillars inspiring me to hold on to what truly matters in this life. What matters is very interpretive and unique to each of us as individuals. For me, it’s learning and practicing new ways to interpret tried and true cooking methods and flavors.
So, and without further adieu, here is my latest recipe, Smoked Pork Vermicelli Bowls. The fish sauce forward brine I concocted produced the most delectable smoked pork I’ve ever cooked or tasted. Brining with fish sauce is a method I’ve never tried before, but smoking pork slow and low with Pecan chunks is something I could probably do in my sleep. It seems, for me anyway, that intertwining the unknown with the familiar is a very therapeutic and comforting way for me to process feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety. I hope, with sharing this recipe’s backstory, it helps inspire you to embrace all this “new” by finding at least one familiar taste or sound or feeling to guide you through these uncharted waters. My hope, too, is that you find something that pulls you back down to your roots, because a feeling of being grounded in the moment is especially necessary when the future is so outside our control. I’m going to continue to develop and practice recipes irregardless of this pandemic, and especially focus more on the combination of new and old with my cooking, as it seems creating flavors that taste of home and comfort are more important to me now more than ever before. I’ve survived excommunication; I’ve survived homelessness and poverty; I’ve survived trauma and discrimination. If I can find a way to thrive through all of that, then I can continue cooking through this global crisis. Plus, it’s just damn delicious! I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that you find your own comfort and joy through these troublesome times.
3 to 5 lb center cut pork loin
For the Brine:
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup raw sugar
1 lemongrass stalk, trimmed, cut in half, and gently smashed
2″ piece of fresh ginger, cut in half
2 Thai Bird chilies, stems removed, left whole
2 tbsp roasted peanuts
5 to 6 whole Star Anise
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp Vietnamese cinnamon
2 green scallions, trimmed and cut in half
4 cups water
For the Rub:
course sea salt
very generous amount of fresh cracked black peppercorns
2 tbps 5 Spice powder
For the Bowls:
2 cups cooked rice noodles, rinsed and completely cooled
1/4 cup cucumber, cut matchstick size
1/4 cup carrot, cut matchstick size
1/4 cup fresh mint
1/4 cup Holy Basil (if you can find it; I could not for this recipe)
2 – 4 tbsp Nuoc Cham, follow the link for a recipe
1 – 2 thinly sliced Thai Bird chilies, optional
1 tbsp roasted peanuts
1 green scallion, sliced
To begin, plan to prepare the brine for the pork at least 24 hrs before you intend to smoke it.
In a med soup pot, over med high flame bring all the brining ingredients to a boil. Turn off the flame and allow the brine to completely cool.
In a large container or bowl with a lid, add the pork and cover with ice. Slowly pour the brine over the pork until it is completely submerged, adding additional water, if necessary. Cover with the lid and transfer to the fridge. Allow to brine overnight and up to 24 hours.
At this time, soak any wood chips/chunks, if you are using them, at least a few hours up to overnight. I used Pecan for this recipe.
After the pork has brined sufficiently, remove it from the fridge, discard the brine, and transfer to a clean surface. Evenly coat all sides of the pork with the salt, black pepper, and 5 Spice. Set aside 1 – 2 hours before cooking, or until it reaches room temperature.
Prepare an offset smoker, or grill of choice. Once the coals are white hot, and the smoker temperature is between 225 to 300 degrees, place the pork at the coolest end of the smoker. Add the wood chunks to the coals and smoke the pork for 1 hour. Move the pork to the hotter end of the smoker and add more wood chunks to the coals. Make sure the smoker reaches at least 225 degrees, adding to or manipulating the hot coals as needed. Smoke an additional 2 hours.
Finish the pork in the oven on the slow roast setting (225 degrees) an additional 30 to 45 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 151 degrees. Turn the oven off, but leave the pork to rest in the oven until it reaches at least 155 degrees, an additional 5 to 10 minutes. Once 155 degrees is reached, remove the pork from the oven and allow it to rest an additional 10 to 15 minutes more before slicing. Since this is center pork loin, it should not be cooked beyond 160 degrees or the pork will be over dry and unappetizing.
To assemble the bowls, layer in the rice noodles, fresh herbs, raw veg, and sliced pork. Top with the Nuoc Cham sauce, roast peanuts, green scallion, and Thai Bird chilies, if using. Serve immediately.