When I was thirteen years old, I cooked dinner for my parents. I had just discovered my mom’s cache of early 60s cookbooks in the basement, where they had been collecting mold for 20-odd years. I presume these were wedding gifts, offered to a woman who was only marginally enthused about setting up housekeeping with anyone, let alone my dad.
I should also mention that my parents waited ten years to have me. Looking back on my adolescence, this fact explains much but excuses nothing. It wasn’t so much a decline in energy or parental interest, the problem was a bit more subtle. I wasn’t even able to understand or cope with it until it was too late. The problem was cultural: that specific ten years placed them on the other side of the generation gap – distinguishing them from the classic boomer parents most of my friends seemed to have. Come to think of it, we never went to the neighborhood block parties, our folks were always terribly suspicious of our friends’ parents, never quite comfortable with the cultural touchstones the era (It’s difficult to communicate someone who never listened to rock and roll or ever saw Star Wars.) and, most critical to this meal, never quite able to understand their two kids’ desperation to simply walk their own unconventional, independent path.
So back to this meal. Chicken flavored Rice-a-Roni, Jello instant pudding, and the piece d’ resistance, a soup, consisting of reconstituted bullion cubes and microwaved chicken tenders, served in a hollowed out watermelon. Inspiration for the latter derived from this book called “The ABCs of Chinese Cookng,” an otherwise forgettable collection of MSG, cornstarch slurries, unspeakable rice shortcuts. But I saw the watermelon image and felt like one of those people who gaze upon a picture of the Arctic and know… right then… that they would have to one day attempt it.
Epic. And I choose that word carefully, because the final audacious course was remembered, discussed, and eventually celebrated in family lore for years. Sadly, pictures did not commemorate the event, but the illustration above should give you an idea.
My poor parents. They tried. They picked their way through the rice. (The San Fransisco treat was hardly a stranger at our table) and did manage to eat a bite or two of pudding. But this soup! They just… stared at this watermelon with this look of shock, bewilderment and horror as I lugged it from the kitchen to the dinng room, barely knowing what it contained or if they should laugh or cry or ground me.
And that’s what I most remember – my parents blank look of “why would I want to do something so… strange?” as they whispered dibs on the microwave popcorn.
Anyway, despite the early setback, I suppose there is still a part of me that needs to swing for the fences once in a while. To indulge my need to conscript every pot, pan and cooking utensil I own, to scorch the inside of my ancient oven, or to stage a D-Day like mis-en-place across multiple counters. All in the name of multiple, if haphazardly combined, courses.
It happened a few weeks ago for my friends Nathan and Anna. In addition to being fun to be around – Nathan and I can discuss pork products for hours on end, while Anna and I have an eerily similar job – they both strike me as adventurous culinary spelunkers, which afforded me a free pass to set aside my little rule
about always preparing things two or three times before feeding company.
This time? Small plates dinner. Five courses, each involving pork. Including desert.
Fortunately my cooking skills have improved somewhat since 1983, but some of what I made was forgettable. The homemade ravioli (filled with Linguicia sausage) set too long and lost its lusty yellow color, my rib bits were succulent but under-seasoned, and my scatterbrained mole would have sent Rick Bayless into anaphalyactic shock. My prosciutto ice cream was good, but with the sticky toffee pudding it just seemed so… heavy. And despite my significant efforts to perfect the dressing, the salad course was woefully short on pork skin.
Still, there WAS one thing…
So, news flash. The fattiest and most tasty part of the pig, cured in spices, bathed in a sauna of pig fat, allowed to cool, cut into large cubes and then crisped up on a rocket-hot skillet? Yeah. That’s quite tasty.
Actually, you have no idea how tasty it is. Imagine a chunk of bacon roughly the size of a larger petit-fours. Its exterior is molten hot, shimmering with that last little bit of fat, and yet crispy. You bite in, and the exterior’s crispness and smoke yields to a succulent surprise of incomparable piggyness – tender as a perfectly smoked spare-rib but salty and sweet like traditional bacon – a combination that is at once familiar and yet exotic.
I mean, it’s difficult for pork belly to be particularly bad, but getting the most out of it requires some patience (or at least a cold-smoker). My recipe wound up an amalgamation of three recipes, Thomas Keller’s in Ad Hoc at Home, Eric Ripert’s in Culinary Artistry, along with Ruhlman’s Ratio advice about brining. I had a much smaller piece of meat, and thus was able to reduce the cooking time a bit. I also eliminated a “pressing step” that removes excess fat from the meat… but this basically brought up philosophical conundrum, namely, what precisely, constitutes “excess” fat in a pork belly dish?
Pork Belly Confit
loosely adapted from Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc ad Home” and “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
for 1lb of pork belly:
Anyway, the first step was a brine:
4 Cups Water
45 grams (a bit less than 1/4 cup) of kosher salt
(Note to Ruhlmanites – thats roughly 20:1 or a 5% brine)
1 “Pfffthft” of honey
1 small handful of each parsley and thyme
couple of bay leaves
5 cloves of garlic
a few juniper berries
Bring the water to a boil, add remaining ingredients, when everything looks dissolved, allow the brine to cool. Pour over the pork belly – the meat should be covered completely, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
Second step: a braise.
Preheat oven to 200F.
Remove the pork belly from the brine. Discard the brine.
Place the pork belly in a bread pan or gratin dish (or some other small cooking vessel)
Cover the meat with four cups of lard, melted.
Cover the pan with aluminium foil and braise for four hours, checking the meat on the hour and flipping, if need be. The pork belly will be fall-apart tender, and a soft shade of pink when done.
Then, a chill:
Allow the to cool on the counter, covered for a couple of hours, and then refrigerate. DO NOT REMOVE FROM THE FAT. Preserving meat in fat, by the way, is one of the oldest methods of preservation.
When the fat has solidified (after 8 hours or so) remove from the thick coat of lard and then gently score the fat layer (very shallow cuts which will allow some fat to evacuate as cooked.
Cut into one-inch (or larger) cubes.
Finally, sear and serve:
Heat a cast-iron skillet to high. Cook pieces on at least two oppostie sides, leaving the top fat layer intact. Allow a crust to just form. Serve immediately to people who will soon be singing your sincere praises.
Which brings me back to my childhood. Ive come to learn that the world basically divides itself into two types of people. There are those who appreciate the unusual, the freakish, the unique and the different, and people who do not. I am quite happy to know which side I’m on, and really lucky to have such great friends who are there with me.