Pork Belly

In Making Food on February 23, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Week 1
Pork Belly

In keeping with character – which could charitably be described as recalcitrant, or more accurately as belligerent – I didn’t start this blog on time. Though I’d simultaneously been trying new ingredients (the popcorn finally got popped! the veal chops got seared and roasted!) and seriously contemplating starting the blog, I couldn’t get my act/energy/timing together enough to make the two worlds collide. But an invitation to a Chinese New Year potluck dinner party provided me with both an out and a fresh fresh start. Even if it doesn’t start on January 1st, the Chinese New Year is new enough. I’d had pork belly stashed in my freezer for months (more on that later), and I’d been wanting to make bao – steamed, filled Chinese rolls – for quite a while. So the first blog was shaping up to be a two-fer.

Making a dish for a potluck for 12 people can be a daunting proposition, especially when the only people you’ll know are the two who invited you. What’s the adventure level? Do you go for full-on spice? Will the main ingredient be too weird? Will the food be sitting on a buffet for hours, or will it be a sit-down, served-at-the same-time thing? I agonized over these questions for about 30 seconds, then decided to not sweat anything except the spice level (ha!).  I’d omit a spicy element in the recipe, but make sure Sriracha was handy tableside.

Pork belly’s a funny thing. It might’ve been a left-field option a few years ago, one that would intimidate and maybe even repel casual potluck diners, but here in Chicago, at least, it’s de rigeur on a lot of restaurant menus and most people I know aren’t fazed by it. But even though you’ll see it everywhere from dim sum bars and hotel restaurants, you’ll rarely find it in mainstream groceries; even our store’s well-appointed meat counter doesn’t carry it. So when I saw a package of pork belly in the meat case at Harvestime, I snapped it up. Then I put it in the freezer… and there it sat until now.

A couple days before the potluck, I started looking up methods for dealing with pork belly. And I realized, suddenly, two very simple stupid things: pork belly’s nothing more than unsmoked bacon, and I’d actually had some in my freezer for even longer than I’d thought.

There’s an awesome meat market in my hometown, and whenever I go visit my parents, I bring a cooler bag. We’ll drive out to the meat store and I’ll load up on stuff that’d cost me four times as much in the city, somehow always forgetting that I’m going to have to lug the whole thing home by myself on the train. On one such trip, my mom spotted something called ‘side pork’ in the freezer case and bought two packages – one for me, one for her. It was unsmoked, unsalted, uncured, thickly sliced bacon, which she fried up, drained on paper towels, then doused with salt and pepper. She’d had it all the time as a little girl, she said, but hadn’t seen it in years, and didn’t realize the meat store carried it. I carted my side pork pack home along with everything else, threw it into the freezer, and promptly forgot about it. Until I realized that pork belly and side pork were exactly the same thing, and that my mom’s actually and inadvertently got one up on me on the adventurous eating front.

I pulled both the side pork and the pork belly out of the freezer, defrosted them in the fridge overnight, and opened the packages. The belly was in shorter, fatter pieces, while the side pork was longer and more thinly sliced, but I decided to treat them the same way; I had about two pounds pork belly total.

Were you to duplicate my steps, here’s what you’d do:

Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. Chop the meat into rough one-inch pieces, then throw the whole lot into boiling water for two minutes. (‘Throw’ is obviously a colloquialism here. Use common sense.) Drain it into a colander, rinse the scum off the pork and the pot, then return the empty pot to the stove.

Over medium heat, add a couple tablespoons of peanut oil and a teaspoon of sesame oil, then throw in five quarter-sized slices of ginger and almost an entire bunch of sliced green onions. (Which is to say that you should slice a whole bunch, then set a couple handfuls aside for later use.) When the ginger and onions get really fragrant – after about a minute or so – add the pork, along with three whole star anise, ten peppercorns, 1 cup of soy sauce, ½ cup sake, and ¼ cup (tightly packed) brown sugar, and just enough water to barely cover the meat. Bring it to a boil, then crank the heat all the way down and let it simmer for two and a half hours – uncovered is fine, or you could use a mesh splatter screen.

(A note to the alarmists here: This dish’ll faintly smell not-good until it aggressively smells really good. At the start of the cooking process, it wasn’t a giant stretch to imagine how awful it must be to work in a rendering plant, and I really, really thought I’d made a terrible mistake. But an hour later, the house smelled awesome.)

Using a slotted spoon, lift out the pork – draining off as much liquid as possible – and set aside in a small bowl.  The liquid left in the pot’ll be crazy fatty; you can either spoon the fat off the top if you’re in a hurry, or cool the sauce to room temp, then place it in the fridge overnight, where the fat will solidify and you can chunk it out with a spoon. Either way, once you’ve defatted, return the pot to medium-high heat and reduce the sauce until it’s thick and syrupy. Pour over the pork belly (making sure to pick out the star anise and peppercorns), add the rest of the green onions (remember those?), and stir to combine.

You could serve this over rice, or you could stuff it into bao. Stay tuned.

  1. Do you think side pork (aka pork belly) is the same as fat back? My family owned a sausage market til a few years ago, and couldn’t put enough fat back in the coolers. It was sliced like bacon, but looked like 100% fat strips. I’ll have to ask my dad…maybe it’s literally fat, from the back of the pig.

    • Yup — fatback is literally the layer of pork under the skin on the pig’s back. It can be rendered down to make lard, or used in sausage- or charcuterie-making, and if you leave the skin on, slice it up and fry it, you’ve got pork rinds. It’s also commonly used in collards, black-eyed peas and other southern-style stewed vegetable dishes. Was your family’s shop in the South?

      Side note: fatback is such a great word. Fatback! I think I’m going to start saying it instead of rad.

  2. […] good. See, for example, the stench of uncooked queso blanco, or the hog-rendering-facility smell of pork belly as it braises. Sauerkraut, vinegar and beer fall into this category too, I’m […]

  3. […] that puzzled me are stumpers for other people, too. The number of hits I get for ways to deal with pork belly, black currants, guanabana, palm sugar and salt roasting are encouraging — could Smart […]

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