Do you know what food makes more vegetarians fall off the produce wagon than any other?
Yeah, I can see that.
Bacon is the crack of the meat world. Everything about it is enticing. The magical aroma fills your house and makes you feel like you’re a ten-year-old, and Mom is cooking a big Saturday breakfast. It’s pretty to look at; uncooked, there is beauty in potential. Cooked, you can almost taste those gorgeous, color-coordinated stripes.
And then there’s the flavor. American bacon has a smoky, salty flavor that goes well with anything from sandwiches to cupcakes. Italian pancetta which is not smoked, but spiked with herbs, peppercorns, and juniper berries has a porky, slightly astringent quality.
Both bacon and pancetta are cured meats. Originally, before refrigeration, this was done to preserve the meat. But they taste so darn good, now it’s done for fun.
Although its popularity in restaurants has recently soared, most home cooks have never cooked with bacon’s pristine patriarch; pork belly. The belly of the beast can be hard to find, but well worth the chase. My most reliable source for beautiful belly is from Fickle Creek farm, at the Durham farmers market (501 Foster St).
The degree of difficulty doesn’t stop there. Pork belly is not a grilled cheese or a minute steak. Love, time, and care must be lavished upon it. But done well, it results in an unctuous meat whose flavor and texture are totally delicious, and totally unique.
My recipe is original, but some of the technique comes from Chef Emeril Lagasse. It’s a three-day procedure, but don’t let that scare you. The hardest thing is mixing up the marinade. Mainly it’s just time to cook slowly, develop flavor, and become tender.
The marinade uses Coke (not diet) as a base. Cola may sound simplistic, but it’s actually a very complex concoction. There is sweet, acid, bitterness, spices, and flavorings. I promise, this is the best use of a can of coke ever, and this is coming from somebody who loves an ice-cold green glass bottle.
1 ½ pounds pork belly, frozen
1 can coke
1 tablespoon mushroom soy
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon dry thyme
1 teaspoon Chinese 5 spice powder
4 cloves garlic, crushed and sliced
1 bay leaf
Score fat side of belly in a diamond pattern and put it and marinade in zip top bag. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours.
2 cups chicken stock
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place belly fat side down into Pyrex dish in which the meat fits. Pour in marinade, and chicken stock.
Bake for 1 hour.
Turn meat to fat side up and bake for 2 hours more.
While it’s baking, add water if too much liquid cooks out. You want it at least 3/4 the way up the meat.
Remove from oven and skim off as much fat as you can. Let cool for about 45 minutes, then cover and refrigerate.
The final Cook:
1 ½ cups chicken stock
4 cups micro-greens or pea shoots
The next day preheat oven to 400 degrees, and remove belly from fridge. Uncover, and remove any fat that has hardened overnight.
Bake for 25 minutes and remove from oven.
Place on cutting board, and slice into ½ inch slices. Heat non-stick skillet, and lay slices into pan. Add about ½ cup cooking liquid and cook on medium until the juice has cooked out.
Flip slices and add another ½ cup of liquid. Cook until the pan is dry then remove.
To plate, Line up 3 or 4 slices, and top with a handful of greens.
You can throw a steak on the grill, and a potato into the oven to bake any time. But cooking a pork belly for your friends or family really says, “I love you, and want to treat you extra special”.
In fact, The Kid’s birthday is coming up, and I can’t think of a better meal to make to celebrate it.
Unless that nutty child of mine would rather have Dog House.
Thanks for your time.