It's interesting that the cast off foods of yesterday often become the culinary stars of tomorrow. Red fish was considered almost inedible until Chef Paul Prudhomme figured out how to blacken it in the 1980s.
Pork ribs were reserved for the poor in the old South, as were collard greens, and you had to be really poor to try to eat green tomatoes before they ripened. My how times change.
Another once-frowned upon food is pork belly, but today it is haute cuisine in some of the finest restaurants. There is no way to make this cut of pork healthy, it is loaded with fat, but it is that same fat that makes it explode with flavor. The compromise is to serve it in very small portions.
French, Swiss and Germans have been putting this cut to good use for years -- salting it, smoking it, but more often than not, braising it. Long ago when beef tended to be very lean, pork belly was used to lard dryer cuts of meat, but that is seldom done today, and most chefs have never even seen a larding needle.
The Asians love pork belly, too. You can find it braised -- there are several very good Vietnamese recipes out there for braising -- but the most famous is Chinese-style crispy roasted pork belly. What can compare to pork that is so crispy it almost appears to be lacquered, and underneath meat so tender is just falls apart?
The Chinese roasted pork is often served with a dipping
sauce and steamed rice. The meat is so rich it is difficult to eat much unaccompanied. Cut it into small squares and place it on a bed of rice, garnish with cilantro, and you will have a beautiful presentation.
Braised it makes a killer po-boy. Tear the meat apart or slice it very thin, it is a good idea to refrigerate it to make it firm before you try to slice it. Add it to a crusty baguette and garnish as you normally would, or for something a little different, top it with spicy coleslaw (add diced jalapenos and hot sauce to your regular slaw recipe). You also can serve it as a main course with sides of vegetables and potatoes any way you like, but you always want to serve this rich dish with a stout starch.
If you want to try what most home cooks would consider a more radical approach, you can also cook it confit style, completely submerged in either lard or duck fat. Simmer it at 250 degrees for about four hours. That technique might not be for everyone, but it can produce spectacular results.
Next time you go to a real butcher shop, give some consideration to pork belly. You already enjoy it as bacon. Why not give it a chance as a main course, or as one of the best po-boys you'll ever have?
BRAISED PORK BELLY
2 pounds of pork belly
1 cup rough cut carrots
1 cup chopped onion
3/4 cup chopped celery
Chicken stock to cover
1 bay leaf
Small bunch thyme
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season the pork with salt and pepper and then sear it in a very hot pan, lightly oiled, until the meat is a deep brown. Take your time with this step and get a good, even sear. When it is just right, remove the pork and set aside. Add the vegetables to the same pan, season again with salt and pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes over reduced heat. Add the pork back to the pan, add chicken stock to cover, add the thyme and bay leaf, and cover with a lid, place in the oven and braise for 3 hours. Resist the temptation to take a peek. When the time is up, carefully remove from the oven, remove the lid and allow to cool before serving. For a slightly different result replace the chicken stock with beer, or a 50-50 mixture. Fennel can also be added to the vegetable mix for something a little different.
CHINESE-STYLE CRISPY PORK
2 pounds pork belly
1/2 tablespoon shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tablespoon five-spice powder
Add the pork belly to a large pan of boiling, salted water. Blanch for about 15 minutes. The pork should be more than halfway done when you are finished. With a sharp fork poke as many holes as you can in the rind side, now set it aside. Combine 1 tablespoon salt, the sugar and the five-spice and set aside. Coat the pork in the wine and then season with the dry mixture. Place the meat on a sheet of tin foil, rind side up, crimp the foil around the pork, but leave the rind exposed. Place in the refrigerator over night. The next day heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring the pork to room temperature, then season liberally with salt. Bake the pork for 45 minutes, then increase the temp to 430 degrees, and bake until the skin is crispy. Use the broiler if you have problems getting it crisp enough.
ROASTED PORK BELLY
This is a very simple recipe compared to the previous one, but it produces delicious results. Involve the entire family with this project, small hands will enjoy this as well.
2 pounds pork belly
Equal parts of salt and sugar
Cover the pork with the salt and sugar mixture, refrigerate, and cure for 8 hours. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rinse the salt and sugar off the pork, dry and place in a roasting pan. Cook, fat side up, for 1 hour, basting every 30 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 250 degrees and cook for 1- 1/2 hours, basting every 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, let it cool for 30 minutes or so, wrap in foil and refrigerate until it is firm and easy to slice. Serve with roasted sweet potatoes.