For as much pork belly I eat, I've cooked very little of it. Partly because up until recently, finding pork belly at the store was just as likely as finding a genuinely ripe avocado. But the bulk of my avoidance was purposeful. Pork belly is a sublime thing. How could I, an imprecise kitchen being, ever come close to achieving the same level of mouth-watering greatness that made me love it in the first place? How could I dare to come so close to perfection, like reaching out your fingers to the most supreme of beings in your mind without the faintest trembling, nevermind controlling the drooling.
My knees shook. My palms sweat. But reality trumped hesitance and fear. The freezer was crammed with things intended. Pie crusts. Sunday roasts. But mostly the huge piece of pork belly supplied by a fellow pig lover who thought I would enjoy a bit of play. If Ben and Jerry were to cohabitate in the new freezer (or anything new for that matter), I would have to cook the damn/blessed thing.
So I did.
Not that I'm one for rules and limitations, but pork belly to me has always been a weekend food. Dim sum dishes adorned with little red cubes of cracklin' topped belly or braised tender in a beguiling sauce built on inumerable ingredients. Cooking it as well is a weekend endeavor.
Once thawed, I unfurled the rolled up meat. A flat sheet of pork with deep striations of fat sat on the countertop. The pristine sheet of pig skin was facing me and I was facing it with a sharp paring knife. The only reason I have a sharp pairing knife is because of another dear friend, who had the unique problem of cutlery excess and he supplied me, the woefully deficient.
With the tip, I scored across the skin. Some parts were deeper than others. Perhaps too deep. But once a cut is made, there's only so much one can do. And the rest of the week had long fulfilled the guilt-quota for the week, I decided not to sweat any butchery faux pas.
The diamond or cross hatch pattern is wonderfully retro, decking out the glazed baked hams that sometimes went all out with whole cloves like cufflinks at each intersection or topped with the pinnacle of classiness, the canned sliced pineapple.
Here, I believe the purpose is decorative and strategic in how the fat renders, cooks out and morphs the skin into something so crisp its English name is "crackling." To me it's no coincidence that "crack" is the first syllable of the word. As much as arteries might tremble at the thought, there are few things as memorable as the crunch of the skin yielding into the silky, soft meat.
I remind my remarkably healthy friends that belly is what's used to make bacon (which they would normally eschew for turkey sausage) as they take another bite without resignation or protest.
Sitting in the oven for a few hours, the fat works its way out, lubricating, bronzing and moisturizing everything in the pan. If there's room, you might as well throw in potatoes cut large to cook slowly with the belly. Or if you do a bit of urban foraging, some whole crab apples. Either way, I see it as an act of frugality. Don't bother with a pour of olive oil. The fat will come soon enough and pity it should be wasted pooling alone without something to transform.
This time around, though, the belly was huge (for once, I say this as a good thing). So the Lemony Roasted Potatoes sat in a separate adjacent pan. After almost two hours of quiet time in the oven, I heard a sizzle, crackle and pop. As I opened the oven door and peered in the coil was as bright as a neon sign. It lit the goods above. I could only think of food porn.
I could've spent the day working on a novel. Planning for a sound financial future. Or if my mother had her way, applying for law school. But instead of doing any of these things and saving the world, I roasted a pork belly. My mother always said that I was irresponsible and needed to grow up eventually.
True, I might not be a millionaire or a successful big shot. But I've got generous friends with pork belly to spare and lots of sharp knives.
ROAST PORK BELLY
Farmers' markets and freezers will occasionally host a block of pork belly. If you're lucky, it's a good heirloom variety like kurobota (Berkshire). If you're super lucky, it'll still have the skin (maybe not with the Berkshires since they're a charcoal shade and people tend to be freaked out by the natural darker hue versus the baby's bottom pink we envision with piggies). Serve with something starchy to soak up the resulting juices and something tangy to off-set the richness.
1 3- to 4-pound piece of pork belly (preferably with skin on) * 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce * 3 cloves of garlic, minced * about 2 teaspoons of your choice of ground spices (I went with allspice, coriander, star anise, and white peppercorn) * 3 large baking potatoes peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (optional) * a handful of crab apples, scored equatorially OR 3 Granny Smith (or any tart) apples cut in half and cored (optional)
Place the pork belly in something that'll hold it in a single layer (not ruffled or folded). I like Pyrex or ceramic -- the metal conducts heat much more wildly than I can handle. Using a sharp knife, score the top (whether skin or fat alone) with diagonal lines and repeat with another set of diagonal lines positioned so that you get a cross hatch or diamond pattern.
Make a paste out of the soy sauce, garlic and spices and slather it all over -- into the skin and fat and the literal underbelly. Let it rest for about an hour in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Let the pork belly warm up a bit from the fridge chill. Meanwhile, you can reposition the oven racks so that one sits in the lower-third of the oven. Add potatoes or apples to the pan if using. Place the pan of marinated belly onto that rack and roast for about half an hour. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and roast for another hour or 1 1/2 hours. If the skin is still in tact it will be burnished and crispy. If there's no skin, you don't get the special effects, but there's still plenty of juicy meat to console you. Don't worry about taking temperatures here -- the thickness of the cut and the time in the oven is plenty to make the Department of Health happy.
Remove the pan from the oven and let the meat rest for about 15 minutes. It's here that I obsessively season with salt, sprinkling it directly into the crevasses between the cuts and onto the potatoes. Carve into large chunks and serve with steak knives or carve into thinner ribbons for those of you who don't have an army of sharp knives to offer guests.
I love chutney with this. I love spicy lime pickle. Hot grainy mustard on the side isn't a bad idea, either.
Leftovers are sublime. Do an encore performance of the weekend dinner or dice and add it to green salads. I went so far to take the already cooked leftovers and putting them into my enameled cast iron pot and topping it with various odds and ends for a braise that I will save for another story. But I will tell you, the reincarnated braise was as tender and flavorful as something that started with something raw. My corn tortillas runneth over...