Pork belly: What's old is new again

The Baltimore Sun

Meat in the middle. Soul on the edge. Pork belly inspires thoughts like that for me.

Maybe it's just the fat rushing to my brain.

But when I introduce someone to pork belly - to soft meat surrounded by fat that is meltingly tender on the inside and crisp on the outside - what I usually hear (through the moans) is, "That is to die for."

"Yes," I reply cheerfully. "And with that in your arteries, it won't be long."

Pork belly, of all things, has become a food-world darling. Wait - isn't pork belly the stuff that's traded as a commodity on Wall Street?

"It's bacon, something you already know and love, just in a different form," says Joseph Bonaparte, the culinary dean at the Art Institute of Charlotte, N.C.

Before you blame me, blame Bonaparte, my pork-belly enabler. He's the one who gave me my first bite.

At a Taste of the Nation event three years ago, Bonaparte and chef-instructor Mark Martin served a blue cheese-walnut cracker topped with a dab of strawberry-rhubarb jam and a slice of braised, seared pork belly.

One bite and my world stood still for a minute.

The meat was both crispy and meltingly soft, sort of like foie gras when it's seared just right. Set off by the savory cracker and the sweet jam, it was pork, but better. It was bacon, but better.

In New York right now, you can cross the city on a pork-belly high. At the sleek bistro Tailor in Soho, pork belly is cut into tender slices and tiled across a salty-sweet sauce of butterscotch and miso.

At Szechuan Gourmet on West 39th Street, it's cut thin and double-cooked in a stir-fry of leeks in hot chili sauce.

At David Chang's so-hot-they're-cool Momofuku restaurants, it's tucked into soft steamed buns with hoisin and scallions.

At Ratcliffe on the Green in Charlotte, chef-owner Mark Hibbs is serving slices of pork belly with tiny puy lentils.

For chefs, pork belly is part of the movement toward rediscovering old cuts. "It's like oxtail or shank or shoulder," says Bonaparte. "It's taking the underutilized stuff, the cuts that require more knowledge and skills. You're seeing a lot of educated cooks with good techniques and they're looking for more than just searing a beef tenderloin. They really want to feature their skills."

In other words, it's more challenging - and more fun - to take trash and make treasure.

Facing a week off in February with nothing to do but hang out at home, I took the plunge.

First, I called the meat manager at a market and ordered 5 pounds. I also left a message at Grateful Growers Farm in Denver, wondering if the farm had any pork belly from its old-breed, pasture-raised pigs. The next thing I knew, I had 16 pounds of pork belly.

I cut it all down into 3-pound sections and got to work. To re-create Bonaparte's seared pork belly, I rubbed one section with a mixture of salt, sugar, pepper, ginger, garlic and herbs and refrigerated it for three days. Then I braised it for four hours and chilled it under a weight.

While I waited for that, I turned to Emeril Lagasse, the pork-fat king. His recipe for slow-cooked pork belly with a tangerine glaze became my Fat Tuesday dinner.

Leftovers got fried for breakfast.

After I finished all my experiments, I did something bold. I made my own version of Bonaparte's dish, this time served on cheddar-mustard crackers with strawberry jam. Then I packed it up and drove over to the school, to feed the chef his own dish.

We sat in the dining room, sampling his version and mine.

My version? He admitted it was even better.

Cheddar-Mustard Crackers

Makes about 4 dozen

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 pound sharp cheddar, coarsely grated (preferably in a food processor; 5 cups)

1 large egg yolk

1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons dry mustard

2 tablespoons brown or yellow mustard seeds

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface

Blend butter, cheese and egg yolk in a food processor until smooth. Add mustards, salt and flour and pulse just until combined. Transfer the soft dough to a bowl. Cover and chill 15 minutes.

Halve the dough and shape each half into a log on a lightly floured surface. Wrap in wax paper and foil and chill until firm, at least 4 hours. (Dough can be frozen for several months. Defrost in the refrigerator before slicing.)

Place oven racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (or nonstick baking mat, such as Silpat). Unwrap logs and cut into slices with a sharp knife. Place slices on baking sheet about 1 inch apart.

Bake until lightly brown around edges, switching position of pans halfway through baking, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on a rack. Cool crackers and store in an airtight container.

Note: Even if you don't top them with pork belly, these are tasty to keep on hand for entertaining. The dough can be made in advance and frozen.

Adapted from Gourmet magazine

Per cracker: 98 calories, 3 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 4 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 159 milligrams sodium

Crisp Pork Belly on Cheddar Crackers

Makes 8 to 10 servings

4 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon minced fresh gingerroot

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves

2 to 3 pounds fresh pork belly

1 onion, peeled and sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 stalk celery, sliced

about 3 to 4 cups apple juice or fresh apple cider

1 to 2 cups chicken stock or water

strawberry jam

cheddar-mustard crackers (see recipe)

Mix the salt, sugar, pepper, gingerroot, garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage. Rub all over the pork belly, coating it well. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Unwrap the pork and rinse off the seasoning mix, then dry with paper towels.

Place the sliced onion, carrot and celery in a roasting pan large enough to hold the pork. Add enough apple juice or cider to come halfway up the pork. Add enough stock or water to come 3/4 of the way up the meat. Cover the meat with parchment paper, then cover the pan tightly with heavy-duty foil and a lid.

Place in the oven and cook about 6 hours, or until very tender. Line a jellyroll pan or cookie sheet with parchment paper. Carefully remove the pork belly from the cooking liquid, lifting from the bottom with a couple of spatulas so it doesn't fall apart. Place it on the paper-lined pan and place another sheet of parchment on top. Place another pan on top, then weigh it down with several pounds (such as heavy cans).

Refrigerate overnight. (The cooking liquid can be strained and used for another recipe, such as soup.) Remove from the refrigerator, remove weights and peel off the paper. (Can be made to this point up to 4 days ahead. Refrigerate until ready to serve.)

Slice the firm pork belly into 1-by-2-inch cubes. Place in a skillet over medium-high heat and sear, turning carefully with tongs, until browned and crisped on all sides. Serve on a cheddar cracker with a dab of jam.

From Joseph Bonaparte of the Art Institute of Charlotte, N.C.

Per serving (pork belly only, based on 10 servings): 480 calories, 9 grams protein, 48 grams fat, 18 grams saturated fat, 2 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 497 milligrams sodium

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