My relationship with pork belly began with a Laura Calder recipe called “Pork Belly and Lentils.” Delicious! Ms. Calder uses apple cider and honey as the braising liquid. A year or so later, while reading Simon Hopkinson’s 1994 book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, I ran across his recipe called “Slow-Braised Belly Pork with Soy, Ginger, and Garlic.” Now, I use Laura Calder’s technique of roasting the pork belly at 450 °F for 30 minutes (“to get the fat running,” she writes); and Simon Hopkinson’s spice combo (soy, ginger, garlic), which is a totally tasty braising liquid. Then, I turn the oven down to 275 °F and slow-braise the pork belly for 2 ½ hours in a convection oven. Super-duper yummy – over lentils (as in Ms. Calder’s original recipe) or with mashed potatoes and peas (my favorite)! I have yet to try it sliced on the bias and served over rice vermicelli noodles, generously dressed with the sauce.
The pork belly I get from my local mega-marketplace is cut into strips and comes about 4-6 to a package, so I’ve had to adapt both Ms. Calder’s and Mr. Hopkinson’s recipes, to work in my kitchen, with my single life. Plus, my parents don’t like pork belly, so even when they are here with me in the summer months, I still make it – and they don’t eat it. That said, I needed a single man’s recipe for this one – and here it is.
Approx. 1.73 pounds of pork belly, cut into strips. (This is one package of 4-6 pork belly strips.)
Coarse kosher salt and coarse-ground black pepper
As many carrots as you like, to cover the bottom of the pork belly; or you can use onions, or both, or no veggies at all – as always: it’s your kitchen, it’s your call. I always use a few carrots (and no onions); just enough to sit the pork belly strips on as they braise.
¼ cup dry sherry
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick (about an inch will do)
1 teaspoon of dried ground ginger (or about 7 thin slices of fresh gingerroot)
Red pepper flakes (to your taste or not at all). I like nearly everything spicy, so I always throw in some kind of fresh or dried pepper.
Approx. 1 ¾ cups soy sauce
1 tablespoon of apple butter. (Mr. Hopkinson’s recipe calls for red currant jelly, which I never have; on the other hand, I usually keep a jar of Amish-made apple butter, so I use that, which works beautifully, as pork and apples have an affinity together.)
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
As many garlic cloves as you dare. I like a lot.
An herb of your choice: cilantro, parsley, whatever you like. I almost always have cilantro and parsley.
Mise en Place (French: “putting in place” or “everything in its place”)
Before I begin cooking, I lay out (and prep) all the ingredients and choose the cooking vessels. For this recipe, I use a 2-quart stoneware shallow square casserole, which gives one package of pork belly strips a snug fit. I have also used a small (14-inch) stainless steel roasting pan.
Preheat the oven to 450 °F.
Don’t skip this next step; it’s the little things in cooking that make a big difference.
Score the fat cap on each pork belly strip. You will know the fat cap because it is all white and tough like skin. Take the sharp tip of your knife (which, of course, you sharpen before every use!) and cut into the fat cap, in a pattern of your choice – a few x’s or a few slashes on each strip. Scoring opens up the fat cap, gets the juices flowing, and adds to the visual appeal of the cooked meat.
Generously season all sides of each pork belly strip with fine kosher salt and coarsely-ground black pepper.
Lay the carrots in the bottom of the casserole dish (or roasting pan). Place the pork belly strips on top of the carrots.
Pour the sherry around the pork belly to coat the bottom of the casserole, without wetting or displacing the salt-and-pepper coating on the fat cap.
Roast the pork belly and carrots (uncovered) for 30 minutes at 450 °F, “to get the fat running,” as Laura Calder writes.
While the pork is roasting, grab a small mixing bowl and stir together the star anise, cinnamon stick, dried (or fresh) ginger, red pepper flakes, soy sauce, apple butter, and balsamic vinegar. Pour this braising liquid over the pork, till the sauce comes halfway (or so) up the meat. When braising, the meat is not completely covered; in this case, the crusty fat cap remains above the liquid.
Turn the oven down to 275 °F.
Continue braising the pork belly for 2-3 hours, till the meat is spoon tender, meaning you can easily break the pork belly with a spoon – no knife and fork needed – which, in my convection oven, usually happens in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Cut up the scallions (any way you like looking at them) and throw into the casserole. Break some fresh parsley (or cilantro) leaves into the casserole and gently stir into the sauce. Serve and enjoy.