My cozy domain was invaded by a former U.S. marine and his platoon of wife and twins and an onslaught of infant paraphernalia last Saturday. I generally like to spend Saturday doing a lot of work around the couch, but this weekend it simply wasn't to be.
There would only be one way to overcome the initial shock and awe of this incoming army of in- laws...
I needed to be swift, precise and very calculated. After all I was up against a man who just drove over 250 miles, with twin infants in the back seat and limited cigarette breaks. I would have to out flank him with copious amounts of beer and send a full attack squadron of pork products and encased meats directly into his front lines. Semper FRY!
When confronted by a former soldier, a poster child for the term “Meat and Potatoes Man,” the great equalizer will always be pork; the only respectable white meat. In our case it was Pork Belly, slowly braised in a hard cider sauce.
When it comes to lesser cuts of meat, the shoulders, necks and bellies of the beast, patience must always be practiced. It is often the hardest working muscles that take the longest to relax. Coaxing a tough and fatty cut of meat like pork belly into a sublime meal will take time. As with many of the more popular pork cuts that see the bulk of action in and around the barbecue pit, pork belly needs to be treated to a pre-meal reveille of sorts. A full course of rubbing, poking and prodding along with curing is usually the best answer to a cut usually reserved for smoker.
If you hadn't picked up on it by now, the pork belly is the same cut of meat that is normally made into bacon. After a good time curing in a butcher’s cooler the belly is smoked and thus sliced into delicious bacon. Why would I want to go messing around with that ethereal ingredient? Because the only thing in the world that could possibly taste better than bacon is the piece of meat that they use to make bacon.
Here’s how we break this down:
Excuse the poor military analogies that follow, but remember I was cooking for a Marine. Hooah!
Step 1- Prepare a cure of some sort. No, you’re not going to make “bacon,” but you are going to use salt and sugar to help firm up the pork belly and to drive flavor and seasoning right into the center of the meat. Think of the cure as being your initial assault on the meat. The goal is to infiltrate the muscle tissue with savory goodness. This will need to be done over night or for at least 6-8 hours. *Cure Recipe
Step 2- Gather up all the troops. You’re going to need a large heavy pan with a tight fitting lid to braise the meat in. I recommend the Sherman Tank of kitchenware, a Le Creuset French Oven. Also, prepare the usual gang of aromatics; carrots onions celery and the like, and some sort of alcoholic liquid. Remember, war is hell. You’ll need to take the edge off some how, plus the liquor helps to flavor the braising liquid. And lastly...
Step 3- Get your hands on some really good stock. Whether it be chicken, pork, or veal, the stock is going play an important role in this braise and it will eventually be your sauce. Don’t skimp on this one. It’s finally time to make Martha proud as you cook up all of those frozen bags of chicken bones in your freezer. Here’s one recipe for a killer roasted chicken stock. Note: If you aren't facing a battalion of marines ready to bare their bayonets, a reasonable substitute is Swanson’s Chicken Broth (Cook’s Illustrated rated it tops among 15 broths in a taste test conducted in 2003.) Alternately, if you live in Chicago, The Fox and Obel market makes an in house tasty stock that you can buy and keep in the freezer.
Get right into the trenches with the Pork Belly. Rinse the cure off completely and take care to dry the meat off thoroughly. Take out your Rambo knife and use the compass embedded in its butt to get your kitchen-bearings. If you’re facing west while preparing the meal it will taste better. Really. With the sharp blade of your knife score the surface of the pork belly in a crosshatch pattern. This will allow for the excess fat to be rendered during the initial searing of the meat.
Heat up your pan and place the portions of Pork Belly into the pan, skin side down. Cook them over a low to medium heat allowing for the fat to melt into the pan. This will always be your first step in any “braise.” What your doing is sealing up the outside of the meat to keep all of the juices in while it cooks in the liquid. If you skip this and just throw the pork belly into the cooking liquid you’ll end up with a piece of meat Klinger wouldn't even have served to Hawkeye and Radar.
After you've completely seared the meat and rendered a good portion of the excess fat from the Pork Belly you can remove it from the pan and begin the slow march to braise-land.
Sweat your vegetables in the fat that has rendered off and then deglaze the pan with your liquor. You did remember to save some, right? So help me...if you drank it all I’ll have you on KP duty until the cows come home! And then I’ll make you cook them too. But I digress. Deglaze the pan and scrape all of the drippings from the bottom. This is the good stuff. All of those caramelized drippings have a ton of flavor.
Reduce the liquor and add the pork belly back in along with all of the other ingredients remaining in your recipe. You can slow cook a braise like this either in the oven or on the stove top. Now head back to the officer’s club and have a few drinks. The braise will take a few hours. But, just as in any battle, to the victor goes the spoil. These steps are really just the broad strokes though. Check out the recipe for Braised Pork Belly in Hard Cider Sauce.