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Chefs Michael Symon and David Chang serve up dramatic reads and recipes using pork belly, beef cheeks

If you were to turn most cookbooks into movies, you would end up with a documentary. Your movie might be interesting, but probably only to someone who was already a fan of the subject. And it would be rated G. • New cookbooks by award-winning chefs Michael Symon and David Chang, on the other hand, come with enough plot lines, intrigue and attitude to make them decent action-adventures.

Symon's Live to Cook (Clarkson Potter, $35) and Chang's Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, $40) are executed with as much literary acumen as culinary prowess. Essays begin or interrupt chapters to set a scene, establish a theme or hammer an important point. And the narrative in each also serves to get to know our protagonists.

Symon, a Cleveland chef and one of the Food Network's Iron Chefs, takes us on a tour from his hometown in the Rust Belt and up his family tree to the Iron Curtain. His stories about recipes are more than the typical childhood recollections. He tells us how he built on the memory, transformed the recipes, and how and why he would present it today.

There is no dumbing down. His recipes unapologetically call for pig's ears (if not the whole head), pork belly, beef cheeks. He acknowledges not everyone can — or will want to — find these, and gives alternatives. But he also offers tips on how and where to get them if you want to sign on to the adventure.

We learn what his favorite cookbooks are. We learn five things you should never buy. (Most are probably staples on your shopping list.) We learn that the most important part of cooking is shopping, and that we shouldn't buy our food at the same place where we buy "toilet paper, toys for your kid and a lawnmower."

Chang, who runs four-going-on-five outposts of Momofuku in New York City and was the 2009 James Beard award winner for best new restaurant, has released something that is altogether unlike a cookbook. Rather than traditional chapters on meat, fish and vegetables, he has organized his book in three chapters, each based on one of his restaurants. The chapters start with essays on what was going on in his life that led to each restaurant. He discusses in great, profane detail his lack of understanding of how he became such a big deal — Food & Wine best new chef, the Beard accolades, intense coverage in the national food press. He got all that largely on the strength of a brothy bowl of noodles and steamed pork buns, served out of a closet-sized joint on the Lower East Side. He seems almost uncomfortable with acclaim.

In a memorable passage, he discusses his marketing plan for his original restaurant. It involved taking what money he had left and going to a strip club the night before his restaurant opened. The thinking was that if he and his partners could talk some of the talent into eating at their restaurant, crowds would follow.

Though he is one of the most respected chefs, and most copied, he is not among the most visible. The essays, and even the introduction to the recipes, are extremely raw. Will that turn some people off? Maybe. But it lends an unbelievable authenticity to the project. You come away feeling like you know exactly how a conversation with David Chang would go.

So, if Symon and Chang were to get movie deals out of these books, what would we have? Live to Cook would be a big-budget blockbuster with a loud soundtrack, an all-star cast and a PG-13 rating. Momofuku would be an art-house Oscar nominee full of intrigue and intensity, and get a solid R rating.

And both would get four stars.

Having been to both Symon's and Chang's restaurants, and having eaten their signature dishes, I dove straight into their books to see what was involved in making them at home. The accompanying recipes are what I made.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com.

>>DIFFICULT

Michael Symon's Beef Cheek Pierogi

Chef Michael Symon starts out the recipe saying that if you can't find beef cheeks, you can use beef or pork shoulder. But I intended to find them. My search required about 10 phone calls before I found a wholesaler, Master Purveyors in Tampa, (813) 253-0865, that would sell me their smallest case, which was 17 pounds. So, now I have friends experimenting with beef cheeks, too. It was a lot of work, but these came out a lot like I remember them at Lola, Symon's Cleveland restaurant.

Pierogi dough:

1 large egg

3/4 cup sour cream

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups all-purpose flour, more for rolling

Mix egg, sour cream, butter, chives and salt. Mix in flour thoroughly until dough forms. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours, up to two days.

For beef cheeks:

2 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 pounds beef cheeks, cleaned (or substitute beef shoulder)

Salt and pepper

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 red onion, sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup red wine

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2 cups chicken stock

To assemble:

4 tablespoons butter

Serve with:

Sour cream

Horseradish to taste

Mushrooms to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season cheeks with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. Cook in batches to brown, about 6 minutes. Remove from oil.

Heat onion and carrot in Dutch oven for about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add vinegar, wine, thyme, bay leaf and chicken stock and bring to simmer. Return cheeks to Dutch oven, cover, and braise in oven for 1 hour.

Lower oven temperature to 225 degrees and continue cooking for 4 more hours. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, up to 2 days.

Remove meat from liquid and shred the meat. Warm the liquid and strain out the vegetables. Boil the liquid until it reduces by two-thirds. Mix in shredded meat and allow to cool.

To assemble, roll out dough to about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 3-inch rounds. Spoon 1 tablespoon of meat onto each round. Fold the dough over and seal the edges into a half-moon shape. Press edges with fork to seal.

Bring a pasta pot full of water to a boil. Add pierogi, 6 to 8 at a time, and cook until they float, then allow them to cook about 4 more minutes. Drain. In a large skillet, heat butter and saute pierogi in batches until they are brown.

Serve with sour cream mixed with horseradish and sauteed mushrooms.

Makes about 2 dozen pierogi.

Source: Adapted from Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen by Michael Symon with Michael Ruhlman (Clarkson Potter, $35)

>>MODERATE

David Chang's Pork Buns

When you eat them at Momofuku in New York, you assume the pork buns must be impossible to make. They are too good to be as easy as they look. But they are pretty easy. A minimal number of ingredients, pork belly cooked low and slow in the oven, and a little assembly. The pork belly and the steamed buns are available at Asian markets. I found them at Cho-Lon (5944 34th St. N, St. Petersburg). These came out exactly as I remember them at Momofuku.

1/4 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup sugar

3 pounds slab skinless pork belly

For pickles:

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cucumbers, cut in 1/8-inch slices

To assemble:

8 steamed buns, purchased frozen

8 tablespoons hoisin sauce

30 slices prepared pickles

Cooked pork belly slices

Sliced scallions

Chili-garlic sauce, such as Sriracha

For pork, mix salt and sugar. Rub mixture onto pork belly and place in zip-top bag. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, up to 24 hours.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Discard liquid in bag and place pork in roasting pan, fat side up. Cook for one hour. Baste occasionally.

Lower oven temperature to 250 degrees and cook for another hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled (this will make it easier to slice). Then slice and reheat under a broiler for sandwiches.

To make pickles: Combine sugar and salt. Toss with cucumber. Let stand 10 minutes. Use within four hours.

To assemble: Steam the buns until warm, 2 to 3 minutes. Slather each with about 1 tablespoon of hoisin, 3 to 4 pickles, 3 slices of pork belly and some scallion. Serve with Sriracha, to taste.

Makes 8 sandwiches.

Source: Adapted from Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan (Clarkson Potter, $40)

Chefs Michael Symon and David Chang serve up dramatic reads and recipes using pork belly, beef cheeks 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 6:24am]

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