Breaking News: Pork Belly Confit Tastes REALLY Good

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.

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This is Who I Am

I was going to write about smoothies this week but it just seems easier to write about pork belly.

Now, even I can’t be “The Bacon Guy” every day.   I’ve worked hard these past seven months or so to change my eating habits, making sure I have plenty of fruit in the morning and trying to center my evening meals around vegetables and whole grains.  I’ve developed a strange affinity for turnip greens and no longer grimace when unsweetened iced tea crosses the threshold of my mouth and I really, really think the world would be a better place if we were all a little bit thoughtful about what we ate.

Okay… I get it.

But at some point we have to take stock and remember who we are. Yes, I still eat bacon. Yes, this is still a blog about pork products. Yes, I still think about ways to adding bacon to popcorn and toffee and yes I still grunt primally when I smell it from eight miles away, and yes I would fight man three times my size in an alley in the seedy back alleys of Barcelona for the last piece of perfectly seasoned chorizo (I would totally frikkin win, too) and yes, I want to lurk in the trees like Rambo and pounce upon wild boar with my knife and build an elaborate necklace out of its rib bones and yes, I want to smear myself in pig fat and run through the streets singing “alouette” at the top of my lungs.

But I’d settle for some pork belly.

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Pork Belly Sous Vide

I’m sorry for such a long post, but there is a lot of pork to discuss.

This all started with a line in a cookbook which read something like, “you can cook a pot roast to medium rare, but still long enough so that the meat falls off the bone…”

I am unable to continue to quote because the remainder of the page is basically obscured by drool.

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An Orphan Thanksgiving

I’d like to preface this, for the record, by stating that my contribution to Julie’s Orphan T-day was minor at best.  As I told our hostess, I would have been satisfied with toast and popcorn, given the laughter and the company and Kate’s two very strong and impeccably prepared Manhattans – not to mention a lot of other wonderful food.

But seriously.  I should do guerrilla marketing for Tide. Because evidently I seem to have this knack for effortlessly getting other people excited about things I’m borderline obsessed about.  I mean, within three minutes of walking into the loft, everyone at the party was talking about bacon.

Yes, I’m exaggerating slightly for comic (?) effect.  But still.

I didn’t even force the conversation, I just have some pretty cool baco-curious friends.  And it didn’t hurt that I brought THIS.

Glazed. Pork. Belly.  First among equals in the Bacoverse, this is the most solemn moment on the High Altar of porcine worship.

Okay, maybe not.   But, when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing stuff.  Pork belly is raw, uncured, unsmoked and unsliced proto-bacon, which you can treat like a more flavorful and even richer form of pork shoulder, and serve it in steaks, slices, chunks, you name it.

I giggled at the recipe.  Specifically, the line which read “Trim away the excess fat from the pork belly.”   Mkay, what, precisely, constitutes “excess” fat?”  As far as I’m concerned every bit of it is critical. As if.

This dish was inspired by the Balthazaar Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the NYC brasserie.  I joke a lot about cookbooks basically being pornography, and this book is certainly no exception.  But the recipes… work.  They’re well written, logical, and have always yielded good results.  Their braised short ribs have become my standard preparation, the mascarpone-parm polenta was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted, and I make the pan roasted root veggies fairly regularly.

But I have to admit that in this case, I went my own way.  The spice combination didn’t sound particularly appetizing (I don’t care for star anise in savory dishes), and, as much as I love my friends, I’m not using veal stock.

So we improvise.  It’s pretty much a straightforward cure/braise.

1 1/2 Cups kosher salt
1/2 Cup Sugar
1 t fennel
1 t ground mustard
2 t black peppercorns
1 T juniper berries
6 Cloves Garlic

2-3lb slab of pork belly, uncured
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 cup diced fresh pineapple
1 T tomato paste
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
1/2 dry white whine
1 cup chicken broth + 1 cup beef broth (or two cups veal stock)

Place the dried spices in a nonstick skillet over low heat, jiggling the pan constantly until the aroma fills the air.  Apply the spice mixture liberally to the pork belly, then submerge the entire piece of pork underneath the salt and the sugar within a large bowl.  It may be necessary to cut the pork into two smaller pieces.  The key is complete coverage.

Cover with plastic, and let sit in the fridge overnight.

Next day, remove the pork and allow the meat to come to room temperature.  The pork should be a much deeper red color.

Rinse off the salt and pat the meat dry.

Preheat the oven to 300.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed roasting pan.  Add the onion and sweat for several minutes, along with a pinch of salt.  Add the celery and carrot and cook until translucent.  Add the pineapple and cook for five more minutes.    Add the tomato paste fresh tomatoes, herbs and wine, and cook for a moment to allow the alcahol to cook down.

Place the pork belly, rind side UP, in the pan and pour enough stock to fill the pan but not cover the meat.  The liquid should be just level with the top layer of the fat.  Add water if need be.

Bring to a simmer, then transfer to the oven for 2 hours, basting every 15 minutes.

Remove the pork to a plate and strain the sauce into a medium saucepan.  Bring to a skimmer and whisk away any fat that appears on the surface.  Reduce the liquid by half, and adjust the seasoning to taste.

The cookbook recommends that you slice the pork across its width and serve with the sauce spooned over.  I simply cut it into chunks and served it as a stew.

I also happened to make bacon-cheddar-chive biscuits.  They were optically pleasing but were a little tough.  The extra fat and flavor from the bacon and cheese mitigated this somewhat, but I don’t think these guys are ready for prime time.

Lastly, I made another chocolate truffle torte.  It received raves from the Hostess’ mother and one marriage proposal, which I found immensely flattering.  But the recipe is not really my own and I hate to take credit for it.

Anyway, this was the best Thanksgiving I’ve had in quite some time.  Thanks, everyone.