Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pork Belly: An Introduction

If you're experience of dinning out over the past few years has been limited to goods foraged from the woods that surround your desolate shack that sits atop a mist-shrouded wilderness, then pork belly (or belly of pork as some Franco-philes write it) will probably have failed to make its way onto your dietary radar. Hence, this post. Though wouldn't this brief flirtation with civilisation be better spent replacing that potato sack you call jacket, rather than looking up food blogs?

Pork belly is somewhat of a Cinderella story. A slow cut that is now the staple of menus of nearly every price range and cuisine. Not bad for something once so unpopular it was almost considered offal. And while it's a cut that has been done to death at this stage, it didn't get this popular if there wasn't something going for it. (Oh Cheryl Cole, if only the same could be said for you!) Personally I've a great fondness for this slab of pork, in the same way I do for beef cheek, rabbit, venison and bone marrow. Working the sauce section in Alexis involved the daily butchering, preparing, roasting, braising and stewing of a variety of meats. Here our pork belly was rubbed on the inside with butter, salt, pepper and sage. Tied, rolled, seared and then placed in a covered pan in a low oven for about 3 hours. Tying was an art onto itself. Roll by hand, tie a knot at one end, drop the ball of twine down your apron to keep it from moving. Make a loop in the slack, then bring it over the tied end, tighten round the meat, repeat with 1-2" between each loop. Making sure to alternate between the slack coming from the right or the left in order to keep the tension even, so the joint didn't curl. I remember I once did ten in an hour, and we're talking whole bellies here, some with the ribs still on. Gabbo, a Romanian KP, asked me was I taking something as he put a finger over one nostril and pretended to dramatically inhale an imaginary line.

Rolling it is something you don't see in many places, as most are content with serving neat squares that nicely show off the layers of fat and flesh. I guess that's one thing that belly has going for it, it just looks so damn good. Those nice even layers, neatly  framed within a perfect rectangle of meat. So while my old boss was insistent rolling was the way to go, I wouldn't bother. Doesn't look as good and takes longer to cook. So if you've never tried it before allow me to remove the any mystic or apprehension about preparing this meat. Because honestly, from a professional point of view, to cook a piece of fish perfectly or roast a fillet of beef to an exact medium-rare requires a degree of skill and intuition that is nowhere near on the same level as throwing a piece of meat in the oven for 3 hours. In other words, this is pretty easy stuff guys. The demi-god that is Marco Pierre White said that cooking is a number of small things done correctly, do the right thing at the right time and you can't fail. A philosophy that I've somewhat lived by and have beaten into any chef I've had to instruct. (in a nice mentoring way of course) When this is applied to pork belly it can simply summed as; low, slow and covered. That's it, once your meats covered and in a low oven for a long enough time then you can't really go wrong. And if you still manage to mess it up then you probably shouldn't really be let near an oven without someone to hold your hand or clip you round the ear when it becomes apparent you're incapable of making toast.

So here's how I make mine. I like to give mine an Asian twist so I coat it in ground spices and cook it on a bed of veg and whole spices as it braises/steams in a mix of stock and soy sauce. But like I said that's just how I do it. Don't like it, leave it out. Don't have soy, just use stock. Don't have stock, just use water. As long as it's low, slow and covered. Another great thing about this is that it reheats brilliantly. I make this and have in my fridge and just cut pieces off for dinner (as pictured above) or have them in noodles or sandwiches.

Idiot-Proof Pork Belly:

Pork Belly, skin removed: 500-600g
Chinese 5 spice powder
Red onion: 1, roughly chopped
Garlic Cloves: 2-4
Spring Onion: 1 roughly chopped
Coriander seeds: 2tsp
Fennel seeds: 2tsp
Star Anise: 2 whole
Soy Sauce: 4-6tbsp
Chicken Stock: 200-300ml
Rather then give this the neat bullet-point delivery that I did last time. I'm just going to Rick Stein this and give a general run through. Put your onions, garlic and whole spices in a tray. The reason I'm using red and spring onion is simply that that's all I had. For yourself if you just had onions that'd be fine. If you had some carrot, celery, leek or even celeriac, then good for you, that'd be even better. Score the fat of the belly and coat liberally in five spice, salt and pepper. Put a large frying pan on the heat, when hot add a little oil and sear the belly till golden on both sides. The point of this is to add flavour, having said that I've skipped this step in the past and it's still turned out dandy. Place belly on veg. Return pan to the heat, deglaze with stock and pour into tray, pour over soy sauce and cover with tin foil. Put in oven for about 2:30-3 hours at 140 degrees. Remove and leave covered for about a half hour. If not using that day wrap tightly in cling film and put in fridge. As for the cooking juices, pout into a small container and put in the fridge. Throw a spoon of that fat/juice mix in the next time your making any kind of sauce, its also total dynamite in stir-frys.

Enjoy suckaa's!

Had any good (or bad) experiences with belly? Think something else should be given it's moment in the spotlight? Do tell.


  1. Looks good, must try it someday.

    Have you tried the 5-Spice Bork Belly in Cafe Mao? Very good.

  2. Pork belly is on every menu in New York, but I agree with you in the sense it's so damn tasty that I don't mind so much. And low and slow is the only way to cook any meat in the oven, in my opinion. And the next meat that will be in the spotlight... I'm thinking goat.

    -the constant hunger

  3. Haven't been to Mao's in an age. Never really been that impressed with it. Time to bury the hachet maybe?

    Goat? Didn't see that one coming! Never had it myself but could be a winner alright. Having said that you know what I've NEVER seen on a menu, Hogget or Mutton and I don't know why. I mean, who wouldn't lamb but with a bit more flavour?