The finer points of moist-heat cooking with Callawassie Island chef Jim Spratling.
Story by Amy Bartlett
There’s an old saying that, “in the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.” It’s been worded several different ways and attributed to as many sources, from Buddha to simply “Dad” in a 1988 copy of A Father’s Book of Wisdom. It’s also been pared down to the paraphrase: “In Time, Water Wins.” Whether cutting grooves in stone or patiently winding its way through every layer of your roof to tap out a rhythmic leak, water is all-pervasive, and when it comes to the table (or we do), there isn’t an element it didn’t touch.
Water is the new fire
“Water is in complete control,” says chef Jim Spratling of Callawassie Island. “As culinary science has progressed and we’re able to study how water affects our food (such as, keep x in the water for y amount of time), water now plays the role of fire – they’ve alternated roles.”
“Cooking without water is basically caveman style. When I think of how we use water in the kitchen today – either tricks of the trade or maintenance, from sanitation (cleaning hands, workspace, food) to methodology (steaming, poaching, sous vide) – it begins and ends in water. A lot of the foundation of what we cook, especially in the style we use at Callawassie Island, is modern French-style cuisine by French-trained chefs. That’s all based in stocks and sauces, and you can’t make a stock without water. You start with a vegetable and/or animal part, add water, and that’s your stock or the foundation of your sauce or soup. Everything starts from there. It’s fundamental in the classical training we received and in a modern approach. Water is invaluable.”
Officially, we’re told we should be drinking “eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day,” or more scientifically calculated, “one-half to one ounce of water for each pound you weigh.” But when it comes to food-talk, the only official nutritional guide to give water its due weight as foundational or centric (or even a spot on the chart) is the German Food Pyramid and an unrelated publication released by the University of Michigan. The US Department of Agriculture or Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health all list only vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins, dairy, and sometimes oils (like “and sometimes y”), without water making a single credited appearance. Yet every item listed on every tier is under the essential influence of water, whether growing, sustaining, preparing, or as a partial ingredient (water content).
Given the challenge to pull mouth-watering recipes celebrating the relationship of water to our food, in content or preparation, Spratling immaculately crafted bookends from “something that could have been made 1,000 years ago on a stone” to “something that depends on modern culinary food science and a highly controlled environment.”
“You can be as simple or as complex as possible and find water at the heart of the next level of thought, experience, and scientific knowledge of food preparation,” Spratling explains. “As the world evolved and people eat for pleasure in the developed world, we have time and ability to pay people to sit around and develop food science in an advanced laboratory setting. Modern molecular gastronomy was the culinary quantum leap.”
Water, water everywhere
The hot water cornbread is loose, basic. Its roots are simple and based out of necessity, cooking from ingredients that can be scraped together and cooked on a stone or some sort of agricultural equipment – like a hoecake can be made on a hoe,” though Spratling includes and suggests any number of variations on a theme from scallions, bacon, or selected “hard cheeses,” to jalapenos and doubling down the corn. The pork belly on the other hand is “as controlled an environment as you can get. Cooked under a vacuum seal for eight to sixteen hours, temperature is highly controlled; pressure is highly controlled; time controls your results. There’s no rushing or corner cutting.” The results of both or either, Spratling specifies, are completely dependent on the influence or inclusion of water. “Without water in specifically these two recipes or in most cooking, you’ve got nothing. Water pulls it all together, creates the needed environment, speeds the cooking process,” and in cornbread, “without it, the ingredients would be a dry oily mess.”
Highly symbolic of the surrounding community, whether Callawassie Island or the Lowcountry at large: Water pulls it all together, touches everything, and makes it what it is.
In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.”
Callawassie Island – Asian pork belly
2 pounds skinless, boneless pork belly
6 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sambal oelek
1 tablespoon grapeseed
1 immersion circulator
1 1-gallon vacuum-sealable bag
1 vacuum sealer
Directions  Clip immersion circulator to a tall, large container. Fill pot with warm water to height according to manufacturer’s instructions (keep in mind that pork, when added, will cause water to rise).  Cut pork belly crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips. Place pork belly, scallions, honey, soy sauce, and sambal oelek in bag and turn to coat.  Vacuum seal bag. To ensure proper cooking, contents of the bag need to be completely submerged in water. Turn on circulator and heat water to 165 degrees. You may need to set a small plate on top to prevent floating. Cook pork belly, maintaining water bath at 165 degrees, for at least 8 hours and up to 16 (letting it cook overnight is ideal).  Remove bag from water bath and let pork belly rest in bag 15 minutes (this lets the pork absorb some of the juices).  Remove pork belly from bag and pat dry with paper towels. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high until very hot. Add oil and cook pork belly on all sides until browned and crisp, 1-2 minutes total. The honey will help the meat brown quickly. Transfer to a platter and serve. Delicious served over steamed white rice or ramen or udon noodles.
Callawassie Island – Hot water cornbread
2 cups canola oil
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons sugar
2 cups boiling water
Directions  Add enough oil to large cast iron skillet to reach halfway up the sides of the skillet. Heat oil over medium-high heat.  Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, salt and sugar. Add boiling water and stir until smooth.  Spoon the batter into large tablespoonfuls and gently flatten with wet hands. When the oil is hot, fry in batches, turning once until crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve.
Chef’s note: Some great additions include sliced scallions, bacon, corn kernels, jalapenos, fresh herbs or diced bell peppers.