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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