Labor Day is more or less the last “official” cookout holiday of the year. In other words, if you have the luxury of a long weekend, there’s some general cultural expectation that you’re going to take it (and the still-summery weather) as an opportunity to grill something. I have no problem with this; I’ll welcome any excuse I can to cook over a fire, be it summer or winter, a federal holiday or a random Wednesday, whatever.
What I’m less into is the impulse to reserve American holidays for “American” food. Steaks and chicken on Memorial Day; dogs and burgers on the 4th; that sort of thing. I mean, I get it, but there’s so much more. In that spirit (and because of all the American summer grilling holidays, Labor Day seems to be the least rigid), I want to shower some praise on a recipe that will hopefully become a permanent staple of your cooking life, or at the very least a highlight of your holiday weekend.
It’s a dish based on a Cambodian staple called bai sach chrouk: marinated, grilled pork served with pickled vegetables and rice. It’s traditionally cooked over charcoal by roadside vendors, and is served for breakfast (I’d eat this over bacon and eggs ten times out of ten). But it’s good any time of day. Really good.
There are two components to this dish, the pickles and the pork (rice not included; I trust you). They’re perfect when served together, but, of course, can also be treated separately. The pickles are julienned carrots, cucumbers, daikon, jalapeño, and ginger submerged in a cooled-down brine of vinegar, salt and sugar. You want them to sit in the fridge for at least three hours, but they’ll keep their crunch for up to 4 or 5 days.
The keys to the pork are the habit-forming marinade (coconut milk, soy sauce, honey, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic) and the cut (you want something thin that you can char and cook quickly). The recipe here calls for thin-cut, bone-in pork chops (ideally, less than an inch thick). If you can’t buy them already thin-cut, just put whatever pork chops you’ve got between sheets of plastic wrap and pound them out a bit with a meat mallet or the bottom of a heavy skillet (careful of the bone). You can also substitute pork sirloin steak, or even thinly sliced boneless pork shoulder (the texture of shoulder will be a little tougher, but the fat and flavor are great).
Anyway, you marinate the pork until you’re ready to grill; I think the longer the better, up to several hours in the fridge. The cooking should be hot and fast. Put the pork directly over the flames, charcoal if you have it, but gas is totally fine, get some nice char on it (the honey in the marinade helps with that), and as soon as the pork is no longer pink in the center it’s done.
Of course, not everyone has a grill and not everyone eats pork. There are workarounds here. You can cook these under the broiler just as easily; just keep an eye on them so they don’t burn, especially if they’re close to the heat source. As for alternative proteins, the great thing about this marinade is that it will transform almost anything into gold. Boneless chicken thighs are just as good as the pork; skirt steak would also not disappoint (never tried it, but how bad could it be?). Shrimp is amazing (I cook those as kebabs, and try to keep the marinating time under an hour so they don’t get mushy), and if you’re not a meat eater, slices of firm tofu will soak up that marinade like a sponge (a really good thing).
No matter what version suits you best, if you stick with tradition and have it for breakfast, you’ve got my respect. Enjoy the (hopefully long) weekend, and see you Tuesday.
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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma’s potato salad, or your mom’s meatloaf, or your uncle Drew’s three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don’t hesitate to reach out anytime.
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