One of my chef mentors regularly said, “Our job as cooks is allow ingredients to speak for themselves. We just give them the mic.” This can mean anything from adding a bit of salt to something sweet for contrast, roasting a vegetable to concentrate the flavor, cutting the ingredient in a particular way to affect the texture. My favorite way of amplifying an ingredient is to pair it with an unconventional flavor allowing for it to be seen in a new light. The way that a room in your family home seems new when the furniture is rearranged, so too can an ingredient you’ve eaten thousands of times seem exciting when paired with something unexpected.
Honey naturally has these flavor variations depending on the type of honey it is. The most common clover honey is light in color and tastes simply of sweetness and a bit of grassy sunshine. Less common buckwheat and chestnut honeys are mahogany hued and equally dark in flavor. They would be out of place swirled into a cup of tea, but drizzled over ricotta on toast are a honey experience that throws Pooh Bear on his head.
Please note many other ingredients parallel that this color to flavor relationship. Maple syrup is the classic comparison—give me the grade B, please. But so too are yellow tomatoes that taste more like plums then tomato sauce. White carrots that lack nuance and seem sugary compared to their earthy, dark purple brethren. Dark fleshed chicken thighs that are more akin to game meat than any boneless, skinless breast you’ve ever chewed. The list goes on but general rule of thumb, the darker the color the more complex the flavor components of an ingredient.
Beyond selecting an ingredient for its inherent attributes, as a cook you have the ability to alter those flavors to invigorate a dish. With honey, and I’m using an average clover honey here, I like to contrast the ingrained sweetness with bitterness or herbaceousness.
Burnt sugar is one of my favorite flavors. The chemical change moves the sticky sweetness to a pleasing caramelization and then pushes it just over the edge into daring. Like sweet being accentuated by salt or spicy heat balanced by sugar, the sweetness lingers but is informed by the bitter. And it isn’t for everyone. But neither are most things of interest.
To burn sugar, simply take it too far. When making caramel, allow the sugar to smoke from the center before removing from the heat. In the recipe below I use the broiler to take honey from a glaze to burnt crust over slow cooked pork shoulder. Like a marshmallow allowed to singe in the camp fire, the honey burns and hardens creating both a flavor and textural contrast to the sweetness of the honey just below the surface and the fall apart tender flesh of braised pork.
If you have access to a blow torch (or small kitchen torch) you can use that to burn the sugar crust. It gives you increased control because you direct the flame to the roast as opposed to trying to turn the shoulder to suit a flat broiler. Any hardware store will have a small three pound propane tank to which you can add an angled nozzle. But beware, if you make this investment you may find yourself burning all sorts of dishes like lemon meringue pie, crème bruleé, the outside of steaks and so on.
Honey, made from pollen, is reminiscent in flavor of the plants from which the pollen came. Given its chemistry, honey marries well to the woody, flowering herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano. The combination fosters the expression of a new identity for an ingredient that otherwise feels very familiar.
I tend to make rosemary honey in big batches to then spoon into other dishes along the way. It will keep for ages not refrigerated. Adding the extra liquid when warming is key because it loosens the honey and helps to keep it from cooking town to quickly while on the stove. Please be careful when pouring warmed honey. Sugar gets very hot very quickly and stays hot. Some of the worst burns I’ve seen in kitchens have been from molten sugar because not only is it very hot, it is very sticky and hard to get off your skin. Allow the honey to cool somewhat in the jar before pouring and when pouring, use a large mouthed storage vessel to protect your fingers from inadvertent spills.
This recipe requires time. Rubbing the meat with the spice/salt mixture and allows the flavors to penetrate deeply into the meat. Allowing the meat to rest overnight in the braising liquid blooms the flavors. Much like how soup is better the day after it is made—same idea here. Both of these steps can be skipped if needed be but don’t you dare skip burning the honey on top. The bitter flavor tempers the sweetness of the honey and adds depth to the already smoky flavors of the paprika and cayenne. The only other word of advice I have is be careful for whom you make this. I made it for Erik in the first six months of dating. We’ve been together for eleven years and he still routinely asks for it for dinner parties.
- 5-7 lbs pork shoulder bone in or out but if with the bone allow for more weight
- 2 T smoked paprika
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp cumin
- ½ tsp cayenne
- ¼ C salt
- 2 onions
- 10 sprigs thyme
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 C white wine
- 2-3 C water or stock
- plenty of honey
- Tie or ask your butcher to tie the roast together if it is various pieces.
- Mix the spices and salt together, feeling free to bump the volume and save extra for the next time around.
- Rub the pork shoulder with the spice mixture and let rest overnight
- The next day: heat the oven to 300F
- Cut the onions and garlic roughly
- Heat a glug of neutral oil and brown the outside of the pork shoulder
- Place the onions, garlic and herbs in the bottom of a roasting pan with a tight fitting lid
- Place the well-browned pork shoulder on top of the onions mixture
- Deglaze the frying pan with the white wine and allow to reduce
- Add the wine reduction to the roasting pan
- Add the water/stock to the same pan
- Cover with a lid (if it isn’t tight place a layer of tin foil over the pork and then add the lid)
- Cook until the pork easily pulls with a fork (approx. 4-8 hours)
- Allow the pork to cool and rest in the cooking liquid overnight
- The next day remove any solidified fat from the top of the cooking liquid
- Lift the pork from pan and transfer to an oven proof serving platter
- Warm the cooking liquid to loosen then strain out the onion, garlic and herbs
- Return the strained liquid to a pan and reduce until very flavorful and a slightly thickened texture
- Cut the strings from the pork shoulder if used
- Turn the oven to broil
- Slather the pork with a liberal amount of honey
- Place under the broiler (or use a kitchen or blow torch if you have one) and allow the honey to burn creating a dark craggily crust (don’t be surprised if this step is a bit smoky)
- Serve with potatoes, grits or rice and the braising gravy on the side
Steeping the honey with the rosemary is one of those examples of kitchen alchemy where the flavors are reminiscent of each but something entirely new. It is herby and sweet but somehow more earthy and heavy too. I’ve done this same process with thyme, black pepper and red pepper. All of which turned out well but the rosemary is my favorite.
Once steeped the honey can be used a myriad of ways (to finish seared salmon along with lemon, to soak a vanilla pound cake, alongside a lovely soft cheese, and on and on) but this is one of my favorite winter desserts. The perfectly light end to a rich, cold weather meal.
- 1 C honey
- ¼ C water
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- 2 C unflavored Greek yogurt
- 2 oranges (a blood orange if you can get one)
- 1 grapefruit
- 3 clementines
- any other citrus you can find or want to use (meyer lemons, pomelo, kumquats, tangerines, etc.)
- In a saucepan combine the honey and the water
- When liquid, stir the pot with 2 of the rosemary sprigs and remove from the heat
- Allow the rosemary to steep for 10 min
- Very finely mince the remaining rosemary
- Remove the sprigs from the honey, scrapping any excess honey from them
- Add the minced rosemary and transfer to a jar for storage
- Peel and cut the citrus into segments or pinwheels or a mix
- On a serving platter or individual plates, spoon a glob of yogurt
- Lay the citrus over the yogurt and drizzle with the honey
- Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and serve