"My Signature Dish" is a new CTbites column featuring a rotating cast of chefs, and the dishes that define their cooking style, or simply make them happy to fire up the oven.
We looked forward to learning about what Scott Ostrander had chosen as his signature dish at Mama’s Boy in SoNo, a Connecticut restaurant featuring Southern cooking and cuisine. But he was reluctant to tell us much about it. “We’re dealing with some major issues,” he confided. “Trying to dodge disaster.”
Issues. Disasters. Great. The stuff of a good story. We urged him on. But Chef Ostrander demurred. “I just can’t get into it right now,” he apologized.
The next time we met, the chef was all smiles. Problems solved. Scott shared the back story, one that reveals how a gifted chef deals with and solves both business and culinary challenges.
His new signature dish at Mama’s Boy is Crisp Pork Shank, an osso bucca-like braised pork shank with a dramatic Southern twist. Traditionally, slowly simmered meat is tender, juicy, and deeply flavored. But its soft texture is monochromatic. For his shank, Scott wanted contrapuntal textures. Soft. And Crunchy. Drawing on a career spent cooking in the South; he immediately knew the crisp that would work: crackling. Good Old Boy deep-fried pork rind. Named for the sound it makes in the mouth. Onomatopoeia in every bite.
Since crisp plays well with tender (e.g. southern fried chicken), Scott knew he had the right textures. Now for an ingenious prep. He began by scoring the tough pork skin so that the taste of subcutaneous fat could bubble through, the key to tasty crackle. Next he plunged it all into the deep fryer, quickly achieving an exterior, golden crunch. For the interior, Scott went low and slow, simmering the shank until the butt meat was fork tender.
The idea was inventive, but as he soon discovered, “Aha” turned into “Oh No.” Down South, anyone can buy skin-on pork shank at a local market. But Up North – it’s not butchered that way anywhere. Mama’s Boy’s vendors in Connecticut had little experience with skin-on pork shanks and weren’t able to supply the right size, the right cut, much less deliver the right price. That was Scott’s predicament when we first met. As a last resort, he turned to famed New York meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda. To Scott’s relief, the ultimate urban butcher delivered a product that met his southern standards.
Scott also realized that crackling the pig skin posed another challenge. Braised meat is first seared to create a crust that will infuse the interior meat with flavor during simmering. But skln on shank couldn’t be seared. So Scott decided to build flavor in the meat by adding an array of strong aromatics to the simmering liquid, like peppercorn, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and other herbs and vegetables. He was amazed with the result. The tender pork took whatever flavors it needed from the broth and left the rest. Scott asked some of the staff to try it. All agreed, he had hit the pork out of the park.
Now, Scott needed to plate a side that was bold enough to stand up the big size and hearty flavors of crackling and shank. For inspiration, he turned to his library of 400 cookbooks at home and found a favorite dish of his in Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South. It was called “Maque Choux,” a creamy creole succotash bursting with colors and flavors. Little known in the North, the corn dish is extremely popular in cajun country. But Scott decided to exchange the traditional corn used in Louisiana with red peas from Carolina low country, adding pablano for heat. As a final touch, he incorporated a reduction of the herb infused braising liquid to the succotash, letting it reflect the flavors of the meat. This was more than a side. It was a base, a a rich taste platform beneath the hearty 1 ¼ lb shank. The Maque Choux (pronounced “ Mock Show”) was not only fun to eat, it’s fun to say.
“It just sounded cool,” Scott told us, smiling. “ And of course most of our customers never heard of it. So that starts a conversation with the server and hopefully strengthens the relationship to the restaurant.”
The Crisp Pork Shank has quickly become a crowd favorite at Mama’s Boy. Big, loud textures and tastes dramatically play off one another, presenting a regional cuisine unfamiliar to and unfound in most of New England.
Scott Ostrander has put his unique signature on a dish that exemplifies an American regional cuisine. Though he graduated top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America, Scott Ostrander was taught little about the traditions of Southern Cooking. After stints in Hawaii (with fusion chef Roy Yamaguchi) and the Washington DC area (with chefs like Christopher Brooks), Scott took a position in a small restaurant on the outskirts of Charleston, which introduced him to the wonders of Low Country cooking. Further stops at Savanah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida deepened his knowledge and appreciation for authentic southern sourcing and preparation. The invitation to join Mama’s Boy proved irresistible to Scott -- a chance to return home and introduce southern style cooking to Connecticut.
Chef Ostrander has cooked for two American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both proud, unabashed Mama’s Boys.
19 NORTH WATER STREET SOUTH NORWALK 203-956-7171 MAMASBOYCT.COM
[Photography Courtesy of Tom McGovern]