Framed by majestic cliffs on one side and an enormous cruise ship on the other, Iron Chef Michael Symon kicked off his first ever visit to Mexico last Friday morning with a spicy pork shank demo at the Food & Wine Festival in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. "I'm kind of a meatatarian. And I love pork" he confessed while mixing 2 liters of water, sugar, salt, toasted cumin, garlic, and some rosemary for his brine. "Bring this all to a simmer, to melt the salt, melt the sugar and then chill it all down." Once the mixture is chilled, he drops his pork shank into the brine.
"You should eat what surrounds you" he continued, crediting his Midwestern roots and restaurants with his meat centric ways. "We have these amazing farms and meat in Ohio. At Lola [his Cleveland flagship] we have these great farms nearby, we want to see the cows and pigs, and know how they are slaughtered. If I hear one more chef say that he is farm-to-table, i'm going to jump off a cliff. To me it's just common sense. If you are cooking at a certain level, your ingredients should be local. They are just better, a vegetable comes out of the ground sweet and wonderful. You want to cook that as soon as possible. It's also important to be supporting your local economy and the people working in it."
"Your meat should be room temperature when you cook it" Symon explains as he rolls his shank in all-purpose flour before putting it in an already hot pan over medium-high heat "to get a brown, good caramelization."
"I love cuts of meat like this, with lots of fat — the intramuscular kind that melts down" he gushes "My least favorite cut is the tenderloin. It's a shitty piece of meat, it's flavorless, a butcher would never eat a tenderloin."
And Symon is not afraid of fat. "I think that we have become a fat-phobic nation. We take the fat out of things and then crank them up with sugar and sodium to make them taste good. Number one, fat is delicious. Number two, when it is real, your body knows what to do with it." But even so Symon eats healthily. While at the restaurant the portion sizes have to be larger " I call it the Cheesecake Factory effect" he says, shaking his head, "where the public expects ever increasing portion sizes. If there are not leftovers, the customer feels like they aren't getting value," at home he balances out 5 ounce portions of protein with lots of crunchy vegetables.
"Because I like to use a lot of meat, I think that you need a lot of crunchy acid on the plate as well. Always cook with point/counterpoint. The most tragic thing in the world to me is steak over mashed potatoes."
He adds sliced onions, diced carrots, celery and whole garlic cloves to his pan with a liberal dash of salt before deglazing his pan with beer. "You could use wine here, or broth or water, I just felt like drinking the rest of this beer today" he says with a hearty laugh. He then adds stock, a bay leaf and toasted coriander seed and brings to a simmer before popping the whole thing into a 250 degree oven. "You want to make sure that your braising liquid only comes up 1/2 to 3/4 of the way up the side of your protein" he cautions. "Keep the fat cap above the liquid."
While the meat is cooking until tender (about 2-4 hours and you "want the meat to be tender and pull off the bone, not fall off the bone itself' he warns) he turns his attention to his Brussels sprouts salad. "I love underrated vegetables." He slices the sprouts super thin and tosses them with a vinaigrette. He serves by topping the tender rich meat with a generous scoop of the bright acidic greens. Point, counterpoint.