You might think pork belly is a big old fatty slab of meat for eating in the summer months when we tend towards main course salads, fish or maybe chicken. But I’m looking out of the window right now and watching the rain teem down from a leaden sky and I don’t know about you, but I’m really not feeling all that salady. Anyway, I really don’t think I could possibly go a whole three months without a pork belly fix, which was probably what was mainly going through my mind the other day when I picked up a slab of belly from the butchers. The weather then, by the way, was pretty non committal – not as soggily dismal as today, nor as gloriously hot, bright and shimmery as yesterday or the day before. Never mind – back to the meat: as is my wont, I got a piece a little over a kilo in weight, for just about a fiver, cut it in half and used it for two meals.
Roasted with borlotti beans, Spanish style:
Further to the question of pork belly’s suitability for the summer months, I think it’s pertinent to point out that one of the best and most memorable pork belly moments I’ve ever had was in a bar/restaurant in Seville. Admittedly we were in Seville in the springtime, but it was in the middle of an unseasonal heatwave, and believe me, anything considered a heatwave in Seville, regardless of the season, is HOT.
This dish of roast pork belly served on a bed of borlotti beans now seems to be a staple of modern tapas restaurants of the kind that I’m delighted to see springing up all over London these days, and a certain kind of Italian place, currently highly fashionable, particularly in Soho, places like Polpo, or Bocca di Lupo, specializing in ‘small plates’ – although there’s nothing inherently small about this plate. It’s on the menu at Brawn, too – another ‘small’ plate place in my very own Hackney, although given that that’s Columbia Road, Hackney, that doesn’t necessarily make it any less cutting edge fashionable than Soho - and my guess is that it’d be a good bet to become one of the signature gastro pub dishes of the teenies.
First roast your pork, as discussed here before.
While the pork is roasting, do your beans. First soften some red onion (half a big one or a whole small one, sliced) in a heavy bottomed, lidded pan, in olive oil, with plenty of garlic (two big cloves, finely sliced) and maybe just a hint of chilli. Be generous with the olive oil. Add the beans (ideally fresh, but tinned are fine if fresh is not available. Or dried, soaked over the night before), add enough good flavoured stock (probably preferably, but not necessarily, chicken) to half cover. Simmer gently for just about ten minutes if using canned beans (which means you can do the whole thing not even while the pork is roasting, but while it’s resting after having come out of the oven), or until the beans are cooked to your preference if using fresh or rehydrated (I like mine to still retain quite a nutty bite, there’s nothing technically wrong with you if you like them cooked to mush. Well, maybe a little). When ready to serve stir through a generous handful of very roughly chopped, or torn, flat leaf parsley.
Serve, as I did, with rosemary roast potatoes cooked alongside the meat, or, if you want the meal to be lighter and more summery, then perhaps with just a crisp, fresh, leafy salad. But keep it simple.
If you are lucky enough to have access to fresh borlotti beans in sufficient quantities, you might even want to dispense with the roast pork altogether, and make the beans the feature item in their own right. Because as well as being perhaps the world’s most beautiful foodstuff, they are also fantastically delicious, and quite substantial enough to stand up for themselves, either as a starter or a light lunch. In which case, I’d tend to add some bacon, lardon or pancetta to the pan ahead of the onion, and definitely cook the beans al dente. Serve with a simple salad of leaves, with at least a few peppery ones like rocket.
Casseroled with red onions and peppers
This is all about the marinade, which would be great if for nothing else but the fact that it makes it really, really easy to do. As it happens it makes it really, really tasty, too. It’s essentially an occidental, Spanishy version of the oriental style dish I’ve described here before.
Cut your pork belly into big chunks, and put it in a non reactive dish or plastic bowl or container. Mash up a couple of good chunky cloves of garlic and half a thumb’s length of fresh red chilli (this is the one task I use a garlic press for, or you can use the flat of a heavy bladed knife and salt on your board, if you want to get all cheffy) and rub them into the meat. Pound up a star anise and a good handful of black peppercorns with a pinch of sea salt with a pestle and mortar and rub that in too. Feel free to add or substitute fennel or aniseed for the star anise – or indeed coriander or cumin or anything else that takes your fancy, but I really do feel that the aniseedy part of the flavour spectrum is where you want to be with your pork, particularly in the summer months. There’s a brightness to those flavours that really lifts and lightens, cutting through the meats fattiness. Finally pour over a good slug of olive oil, and vinegar. Use a good sherry or cider vinegar, either will do, and be generous with it. At least a couple of tablespoons. Don’t worry about making your meat vinegary – you won’t, and even if you did, your vinegar should be tasty enough for that not to be a bad thing. You really want to be using a vinegar you can happily drink from an espresso cup without pulling a face. If you’re not, invest in some. It’s a small outlay that goes a long way.
Then put your marinading meat in the fridge and leave it there for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.
When you’re ready to cook, heat up a suitably sized lidded casserole on the stove top and gently brown your meat. While that’s happening cut a red pepper and a red onion into chunky wedges and when your happy with the colour of your meat, throw these into the pot. Cook on the stove top until the onion and pepper are just starting to soften, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven (pour over any remaining marinade before you do so - you don't want to waste any of that good flavour). The longer you’ve got, the lower the temperature you can cook it at, the better. About 150 for two hours is okay, 130 for three is better. Or you can do it in stages – I prepared mine in advance and put it in to the oven for the cool phase of the belly roast above – so about 45 minutes, starting hot but cooling to 150, then set it aside for a couple of days before putting it back in and bringing it gently up to 130 for another couple of hours. The thing to bear in mind that at every stage from the marinating onwards, the flavours will only get better the more time you give them.
When we finally got round to eating it we served it with basmati rice studded with nigella seed. That’s the spice, nothing to do with that Nigella, let alone her seed (I daren’t allow myself to imagine). I do find rice needs something added to give it a bit of added flavour, otherwise it just seems a little featureless to me. Maybe that’s just down to my Irish heritage, and a genetically imprinted pro-potato agenda… A sprinkling of nigella, which has a flavour vaguely reminiscent of the smell of frying onions, tossed into the pan with the rice makes all the difference.
My top tip for cooking rice, apart the addition of nigella seed, is let Becca do it, because she has a real knack for getting it perfectly light and fluffy every time, but, for what it’s worth, assuming you’re prepared to accept advice on cooking rice from a self confessed potato partisan, here are some more universally applicable tips:
1. Choose basmati. It really is worth the extra.
2. Don’t cook too much of it - this is where I tend to go wrong, but get it right and it helps to balance out the extra you’ve spent on the basmati. A traditional British tea mug (half a pint), filled up to where you’d fill it with tea, is just about spot on for two. I have a tendency to drink tea by the gallon of a morning, so favour big mugs, overfilled, which may help to explain my tendency to overdo the quantity of rice.
3. Rinse the rice briefly to remove excess starch. Just run it under the cold tap in a sieve, gently shaking it for half a minute or so - if you remember. I normally forget, but to be honest, if you are using basmati, it doesn’t make much odds. That’s one of basmati’s great advantages.
4. Put the rice in a pan (preferably one with a glass lid), with a sprinkling of nigella seeds, or a preserved lemon, cut into halves, and just a pinch of salt.
5. Boil the kettle and fill the mug you measured out your rice in to the brim this time, pour that over the rice, then add a splash (maybe another quarter mug) more.
6. Swill the pan so the rice spreads itself evenly over the base, cover with a lid and put it on the heat. Bring to a gentle boil and keep it there until the all the water has been absorbed/evaporated. At this point it should be done. Check it. If it’s still a little nutty, add a splash more water from the kettle and put the lid back on and cook till that’s gone too. If it’s good, stir it vigorously with a fork to fluff it, and serve.