RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

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RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

Postby Robin Garr » Thu May 24, 2007 9:20 am

Pork belly

Pork belly: The name sounds like a joke, and depending on your point of view, you may think of traders selling commodities futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or perhaps hearty peasant food in China and Korea, rural France and the American South.

But attitudes toward pork belly are changing as comfort food moves upscale. More than a decade ago, it became popular at hot spots in New York City - Daniel and Gramercy Tavern among others - where it was sometimes shown on the menu as "fresh bacon" to avoid putting cautious diners off their feed. Now it's turning up on white-tablecloth menus not only in Gotham but across the U.S.; in Louisville last winter, Chef Todd Richards of the Seelbach Hotel's Oakroom came up with a memorable, spicy and aromatic version that was three days in the making.

Cut from the underside of the pig, as the name implies, pork belly is a fatty cut - layered with crosswise strips of white fat and scarlet lean meat - that's most familiar in the Western Hemisphere once it's cured and smoked as American-style bacon. In Asian cuisines, and somewhat less commonly in Southern soul food, it's most often prepared as an entire slab, marinated and braised for hours so the fat melts out and infuses the meat with silken tenderness.

I've been meaning to try it for a while, but pork belly is not an ingredient that turns up regularly at your local supermarket, or even specialty stores like Whole Foods. I finally found some at a local Chinese market, which offered pork belly in 1-pound frozen packages, already sliced into thick strips like bacon. At first I was disappointed that I couldn't experiment with a whole slab, but after thawing some and playing around with it, the pre-sliced belly started looking like an advantage because the relatively thin slices can be cooked up quickly, almost as fast as making bacon.

Indeed, the finished product looks a lot like bacon, although more brown than red. But it doesn't taste like bacon - or unsmoked pancetta either. Think of a crisp bite, more succulent than fatty, that crunches like thick bacon but isn't salty, with a taste reminiscent of a flavorful, old-fashioned pork chop.

For my first experiment, I kept things simple, in the interest of learning more about the cut, a procedure too simple to require a full recipe: Cut two or three slices of pork belly across the grain into matchstick strips, and skillet-fry them until they're crisp and most of the fat has rendered; drain them on paper towels, keeping warm, and pour off and discard most of the fat. Use the remaining fat in the same skillet to brown chopped onions and minced garlic, seasoning with a little salt and pepper and a shake of dried red-pepper flakes. Then quickly cook a couple of pork chops in the same skillet. When the chops are just done - don't overcook - put the crispy pork-belly bits back in to warm through; deglaze the skillet with a little water, stock or wine, and serve. This is a "meaty" dish to be sure - I used thin pork loin chops to avoid over-serving - but worth the effort, as the intense flavors from the pork belly and browned onions infuses the chops and boosts their flavor.

Another time I used up a few more strips of pork belly as the meat in a quick Hunan-style pork stir-fry. I crisped 1-inch squares of pork belly, then added bite-size chunks of eggplant, mushroom, green pepper and onion with a quick, scanty, lightly spicy sauce. Here's how:

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

3 or 4 thick slices uncured pork belly, about 6-8 ounces (180-240g)
1 small Italian or Thai eggplant
1/2 of a large green bell pepper
1/2 of a medium Vidalia or other sweet white onion
6-8 small fresh brown or white domestic mushrooms
1 clove garlic
1/2-inch (1cm) slice fresh ginger
2 tablespoons (30g) Heinz Chili Sauce (or, if you must, good-quality ketchup)
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons Sherry
1/2 teaspoon Chinese red-chile-garlic sauce or Indonesian sambal oelek


1. Cut the pork belly slices into approximately 1-inch (2.5cm) squares, and cook them over medium heat in a large skillet or wok, turning occasionally, until they are crisp and brown and much of the fat has rendered. Remove the meat to a plate lined with paper towels, and keep warm. Pour off most of the fat and reserve it, leaving a couple of tablespoons in the wok.

2. Cut the eggplant into bite-size chunks, the bell pepper and onion into squares similar in size to the pieces of pork belly, and the mushrooms in thick slices. Peel the garlic clove and cut the slice of fresh ginger, and whack both with the side of a chef's knife to release their juices.

3. Using the pork fat remaining in the wok or skillet, put it back over high heat and stir fry the cut-up eggplant, green pepper, onion, mushrooms, garlic and ginger until they're crisp-tender, adding a little more rendered fat if needed.

4. Mix together the chili sauce or ketchup, the hoisin and soy sauces, the Sherry and the hot sauce plus a small amount of water, perhaps 1/4 cup, just enough to turn the flavoring ingredients into a thick, scanty sauce. Add it to the dish, stir once or twice and cook until the sauce is heated through, and serve with hot white rice.

<B>MATCHING WINE:</B> A lighter-style Pinot Noir or Gamay works very nicely with this dish; I paired it with a 2005 Morgon, one of the "cru" villages of Beaujolais, from Louis Claude Desvignes.

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

Postby Peter Hertzmann » Thu May 24, 2007 11:24 am

I've been cooking pork belly for many years. Besides buying it at my local Chinese markets, I also can purchase it at markets that cater to a Mexican clientèle. It is sometimes labeled as “side pork” rather than pork belly. In French, the cut is called a <i>poitrine</i>, which literally means “breast.” One of my favorite Mexican markets sells it deep-fried and still warm as <i>chicharron con carne</i>, and it makes a great snack. (BTW, <i>chicharron</i> without the meat is just skin, or what is sold in American markets as pork rinds.)

Depending on where the piece is cut from the animal, there may be very little fat or lots of fat. Sometime the ends of a couple of the rib bones will be still attached. The best pieces are cut from high on the ribs, along the sides of the carcass.

One of the nice qualities of pork belly is that if you slow-cook it, the fat transforms from being greasy to gelatinous. I posted 10 recipes using pork belly four years ago on my web site. You may find one or two interesting. The recipe for <i>epaisse tranche de lard dans son jus</i> is very similar to a Chinese recipe I learned many years ago that used large amounts of brown sugar in the braising liquid.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

Postby Jenise » Thu May 24, 2007 1:15 pm

Peter, nice to see you again. I use your website all the time.

But yes, to add another regional comment to what you're saying about pork belly availability, I find it up here all the time, and we have neither a strong Asian or Mexican population, but Scandinavian--Norwegian and even more strongly Dutch. I'm not sure what either does with the cut, but I presume it's availability fresh (both whole and sliced) has to do with their presence.

Robin, for awhile there was a very good pan-Asian restaurant in Huntington Beach, and one of their coolest dishes was pork belly. A whole rectangular chunk from the leaner part, deep fried, and served on a puddle of spicy sauce. It was quite tasty, but even more compelling was the texture, that crispy outer shell and the gelatinous center, with streaks of tasty pork meat. I had pork belly several other places before and since, but none equalled the Red Pearl's.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

Postby Paul Winalski » Sat May 26, 2007 7:58 pm

One of the strips of pork belly currently in my freezer has got a nipple on it. :shock:

-Paul W.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

Postby Sue Courtney » Sat May 26, 2007 11:15 pm

Peter Hertzmann wrote:I posted 10 recipes using pork belly four years ago on my web site. You may find one or two interesting.

Very nicely presented website. I was afraid it was all going to be in French after navigating to the link, so quite relieved to see it in plain English.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Pork belly

Postby Jo Ann Henderson » Sun May 27, 2007 4:50 am

I think pork of any kind should be right up there in the food group pyramid! Like Emeril, I want to be swathed in pork fat when I die as my final dress. Pork belly is my favorite food. I will not start my grill unless I have a piece to smoke for myself as part of my mixed grill. Thanks for the website and the dedication to Pork, Peter. I finally found that recipe for rillette that I have been searching for the past 2 years. Well done.
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