Friday, 11 February 2011

More ways with pork belly

My friend Tommy told me the other day that he’d got himself some pork belly with the intention of making some cowboy style pork and beans as described here in November, which was gratifying, but what else, he asked, can you do with pork belly?  Simple answer?  Lots.  So I got myself some more pork belly too.  Enough for a couple of meals, cooked in quite different ways.

First up was my version of a dish cooked up for a dinner party last year by my friend Chris, who is of - I believe - Malaysian descent, so I probably shouldn’t describe it as Chinese style, but I will anyway.  Chinese, Malaysian, or whatever, it was thoroughly delicious.

I started by making my own five spice powder by pounding up a bit of cinnamon stick, a few cloves, a star anise and a pinch each of dried chilli flakes and fennel seeds with my pestle and mortar (or you can use a jar of ready made).  I diced the pork belly into good big chunks, a couple of inches square, and rubbed the five spice into them.  Then used my garlic crusher to make a paste out of a couple of cloves of garlic, a nub of peeled ginger and about an inch of fresh chilli, and rubbed that in to the meat too, along with a little sesame oil.  Then I poured over about a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a couple of tablespoons of rice wine (those quantities are very approximate) and left it to marinate for an hour or so.

Meanwhile I peeled a big onion and cut it into thick wedges.  When the meat had had enough time in the marinade I browned it in my small casserole, then threw in the onions and cooked till just starting to soften, then I poured over the remaining marinade (at this point you may want to add more soy sauce and rice wine, that’s a judgement call, but you’re aiming for a juicy pot roast, not a stew), brought it all to the simmer, covered the pan and put it in the oven, at around 150 for a couple of hours.  Lower and longer would be even better.  When it comes out the meat should be gelationous and softly caramelized, and most, but by no means all, the liquid reduced away to a sweet, sweet, sauce.  I served it up with rice and a stir fry of mushrooms, red peppers and chicory.

While my Chinese style pork belly was marinating, I’d also prepared the marinade for the other half of my big slab of pork belly, following a recipe of Nigel Slater’s that had by happy chance appeared in the Observer Food Monthly that very weekend, which gave me an excuse to use some of the pomegranate molasses I have a bottle of at the back of my cupboard, and to buy a whole fresh pomegranate from the Turkish supermarket, which I always feel I should when they have them, but so seldom do.  That then went into the fridge ready for dinner the next day.

Pomegranate salad
I don’t feel the need to write up the recipe, duplicating what Nigel Slater has already done, but I do feel the need to pull him up on a couple of points.  Firstly, yes, I put the pork, in its marinade, in the fridge.  Or, “in a cool place (the fridge, if you must)” as Mr Slater rather disdainfully put it.  Yes, frankly, Nigel, I must.  I don’t have that many spare cool places in my kitchen.  Nor, I suspect, do most of your readers.  Secondly, and more significantly, I have to take issue with his technique of starting the meat roasting at a low temperature and then whacking it up at the end to crisp the crackling.  That runs entirely counter to my regular practice, which I believe to be pretty much standard of starting a roast off hot (the “sizzle stage” as Hugh FW calls it in his Meat book) then turning it down.  Nevertheless, in the spirit of experimentation, and taking Nigel Slater’s word as good, I tried it.  Have to say it didn’t really work.  By the time I took it out, the crackling showed no real sign of crisping up, but the meat was showing every sign of approaching overdone.  I will revert, in future, to my usual practice of starting hot, turning the heat down, then removing the crackling to crisp up at a high temperature again once the meat itself is done and while it rests.  I have to admit I have yet to achieve a failsafe method of creating perfectly crisp crackling, but I’m quite sure Nigel Slater’s method ain’t it.

Pomegranate molasses roast pork belly, a la Nigel Slater, with pomegranate salad and roast potatoes: Good, but not THAT good...
Anyway, the pork belly itself with its sweet and sticky pomegranate crust was good, although not, perhaps, as indulgently treacly-y good as I’d expected.  And certainly not as good as the previous nights Chinese style pork belly a la Chris.  It seems ironic, or perhaps just straightforwardly revealing, that better results were achieved by emulating, via guesswork, a friend who makes no claims to being a cook, than when meticulously following a recipe published by the self (or at least Guardian/Observer) proclaimed ‘Britain’s Best Food Writer.’  Not that I have anything against Nigel Slater, or his food writing, which I believe to be generally excellent.  Or against the Guardian or Observer for that matter.  Honestly.  I’d be delighted if they offered me a job.  No, the lesson to be drawn here is a broader, and, I believe, a very important one.  That lesson is this: trust your instincts.  And never assume that the recipe writer is necessarily right.  Not even if it’s me…

Chinese style slow cooked pork belly a la Chris, with rice and stir fry veg: REALLY good

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