When you say “ground pork” to Alex Ong, he immediately replies, “mapo tofu.” Ong is an acclaimed chef who landed at UMass Dining at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., after a successful and influential run as a restaurateur in San Francisco.
What is mapo tofu?
“Mapo tofu is a classic Szechuan staple that’s a favorite amongst our students and staff,” Ong says. “It’s the perfect comfort food in the winter and the spice notes awaken the taste buds and enliven the senses. The combination of the spicy ground pork and silken tofu contrasts each other, and the umami components scream for a steaming bowl of rice.”
Mapo tofu is a dish that doesn’t make the chef choose between plant-based protein and pork. This homestyle Szechuan dish features both ground pork and tofu in equally important parts. A hot clay pot splashed with chili oil is the starting point in Ong’s recipe for mapo tofu.
He then adds ground pork, red pepper flakes, green onions, minced ginger and garlic (by now you can imagine the heavenly fragrance of this dish). Soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and water or broth form a saucy base for tofu cubes, gently tucked in then braised for just a few minutes. A cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce and a garnish of ground Szechuan peppercorn and green onions finish the masterpiece.
“Steamed jasmine rice is a favorite to serve along with this dish but a nice piece of toasted baguette rubbed with garlic will also work beautifully,” Ong advises.
Flat Korean meatballs
Wise chefs are on the lookout for inspiration all day, every day. Ben Stambaugh, chef supervisor with Aramark at Mars Wrigley, a B&I account in Elizabethtown, Pa., found inspiration for an amazing pork meatball sandwich from a coworker who loves Korean pop music (or K-Pop, as the cool kids call it).
“Our cashier’s favorite Korean pop band is BTS,” Stambaugh says, so he named the sandwich that, and it’s already a hit on the grill station with its “blend of spicy, sweet, salty and acid. It hits every single taste bud.” The pork meatballs are made with ground pork in the dong-gue-rang style of Korean meatballs, in which meatballs are flattened into plump circles.
From there, it’s all about the loud, bold music of pickled cucumbers, napa cabbage slaw and boom-boom sauce. In addition to the cool flavor factor, these meatballs are economically smart, too. In terms of sticking to a budget, ground pork has been a great find for Stambaugh, he adds.
Caribbean ground pork: picadillo in a casserole
The dining team at Texas Christian University uses ground pork to create pork pinon/picadillo with cinnamon mango and jalapeno escabeche, a dish with flavor to spare. Like so many great Latin American dishes, this one starts with sofrito. If you’re not familiar with sofrito, think of it as the first building block that will flavor the whole dish, similar to the mirepoix in French cooking.
The sofrito for the picadillo is made with garlic, onion, peppers and cilantro, whirred up in a food processor for a rough chop, then into a hot pan with tomato sauce. When the pork and adobo seasoning is added and gets cooking, next comes raisins, sliced manzanilla olives and dry white wine. This ground-pork picadillo is simple and simply packed with sweet, savory flavor.
Pre-fried plantains and mozzarella then form a layer in a baking dish, the picadillo gets layered in with more plantains and more cheese, is served with spicy mango escabeche…and there you have it: a Latin lasagna that’s a pretty cool take on a hot dish/casserole.
Light and bright ground pork in Laotian lettuce wraps
Before you think pork might be too heavy, consider the idea of Laotian-style pork lettuce wraps, a cooking demo hit last year by Brian Brooks, director of business development for Morrison Living.
His recipe begins with sizzling ground pork in a pan, adding shallots, garlic, ginger and chile followed by a simmer with coconut milk and fish sauce. The pork filling goes into lettuce leaves (choose sturdier, cup-shaped leaves, such as butter lettuce or Boston bibb). Brooks garnishes the lettuce wraps with jasmine rice, tiny wedges of lime, a touch of crunchy roasted peanuts, shredded carrots and a bright herbal finish of Thai basil, mint and cilantro leaves.
“It is seriously delicious,” Brooks says. “The coconut milk with fish sauce is 100% umami.”
Chorizo in meatloaf
Chef Andrew Klipsch of the University of North Texas cautions against doing an all-pork meatloaf, because, as great as ground pork is, “it creates a huge amount of grease,” he says. “You want to blend it with other ground meats that are very lean, like mutton or deer.”
You’re more likely to find Klipsch using ground pork for potstickers, dumplings or bao buns these days, and he does like to make that homestyle favorite: sausage gravy and biscuits. He also makes chorizo from scratch occasionally and isn’t opposed to using that (pre-casing) as a component to a meatloaf for a different twist.
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