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Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Other White Meat: My Slow Cooked Pork Belly Adventure

"Dude, that sounds gross!"

That was the reaction of my co-worker when I told him I bought a chunk of pork belly.  "Bill" (not his real name - or is it?) eats a lot of interesting stuff but doesn't cook, so I could understand his apprehension.  After all, pork belly sounds a lot like cow's head or sheep throat or any other number of unappetizing descriptions.  I had never cooked it before but have eaten it in restaurants and been noticing more and more high end restaurants treating it like it's the new foie gras, meaning a trendy expensive ingredient, so when I saw it for $2.99 a pound, I had to get it.

So this is it.  And look, it looks a lot like bacon!  That's because bacon is made from pork belly.  See, sounding better already.  So let's cook this thing and see what it's all about.

STEP 1:  Score the "rind" (aka pig skin) deep enough to cut through but not so deep as to hit the meat.  You'll need a sharp knife as cutting through the skin is sort of like cutting through a football.  I have a pretty sharp knife but wished I had sharpened it before I started, so there's your first tip.

STEP 2:  Coat in olive oil and liberally sprinkle Kosher salt and pepper.  Yeah, Kosher salt.  I know.

Put the slab of pork belly on top of a bunch of onions and add some water to the bottom of the pan to keep things moist as well as keep the dripping fats from burning.  Now some recipes suggest you can make gravy out of the "drippings", but the drippings are 99.9% fat.  I figure this dish has enough artery clogging fat in it so decided to skip the gravy and let the ingredient shine, as they say on all those cooking shows.  So another tip - if you decide not to make gravy, line the pan with foil to make clean up easier. 

STEP 3:  Now pop it in the oven at 320 degrees for a total of 2.5 to 3 hours.  Set your timer for every half hour or so to check to make sure the water hasn't all boiled out.  How much water?  A quarter to a half inch is fine.  If you have a nice bottle of pinot noir, open it and have a couple of glasses.  That's what I did.

Here's what it looks like out of the oven.  You know it's done when the skin goes "thunk, thunk" when you tap it with a fork.  It should be solid and crunchy.  Don't toss those onions - pretty damn tasty, just don't let your guests see them sitting in all that fat. In fact, don't let your guests see any of this!  It might freak them out. 

We decided to go Southern California healthy with the rest of the dinner and oven roast some vegetables - carrots, turnips, fennel, potatoes.  We were going to make mashed potatoes but that pinot sort of gets away from you and before you know it the pork was nearly done so cutting up the tots and tossing them into the oven with the rest of his veggie friends was just too easy to pass up.

Now pork belly is pretty rich, which is a nice way to say that it's fatty.  You don't need a lot of it to feel satisfied, and quite frankly, too much of it and your stomach might be asking what they hell were you thinking.  So let's plate this up restaurant style.

OMG, a bite of golden deliciousness!  The pork is melt in your mouth succulent, the skin a contrasting pop of crunch, is this the best thing I've eaten in a month?  And look, a touch of finishing salt, how elegant!  Thomas Keller suggests small bites like this and serves it as an appetizer, which is probably wise.  But I thought I'd plate it up my way.

Crazy good!  The meat doesn't taste fatty at all.  When I first started cooking this I was thinking it would be 50% fat, but the meat sort of plumps up and the fat, well, let's just say it cooked off  to make everyone feel better.  Let's see the other plate.

I mean, seriously, doesn't this look outrageously good and restaurant quality?  $28?  $32?  How about five bucks for the entire pork belly?  And cooking it was only slightly more difficult than boiling a hot dog.  So there you have it, a not so adventurous pork belly adventure.  You want to impress your foodie friends, cook this dish.  The hardest part it getting the nerve to buy the pork belly.

So let's recap -


Ingredients:  2 pounds pork belly, 1 onion, kosher salt and pepper.

1.  Score skin of pork belly to cut through it, but not all the way into the meat.  Make scores about 1/4 to 1/2  inch apart.  Pat dry.

2.  Rub olive oil all over meat and then massage Kosher salt and pepper into it, getting into the cuts of the skin.

3.  Place on top of cut onions and add water to the bottom of the tray.

4.  Put in oven for 2.5 to 3 hours, checking every half hour to make sure the water hasn't all evaporated.  It's done when the skin is all crunchy (tap it with a fork to check). 

5.  Slice it - easiest to slice by turning it upsidedown and cutting through the meat first, then crunching through the skin.


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