I mentioned last week that I couldn’t believe I’d been blogging as long as I had without writing properly about pork belly. It was hard to believe because we love the pig in this house, and hold a specially fond affection for its fat belly. Ah well, better late than never.
Pork belly is another one of Waitrose’s “forgotten cuts” which I find a little odd, because, correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not – that’s entirely rhetorical) but isn’t streaky bacon pork belly? You remember bacon, don’t you? I’m sure I do… But even conceding that pork belly in its uncured form is distinct from bacon and may therefore theoretically have been forgotten in its own right, I would still have to ask has nobody from Waitrose ever been to a gastro pub?
Whether it’s been forgotten or not though, is of purely academic interest. What is beyond debate is that it is a cheap cut. Presumably on account of it being largely composed of fat. Luscious, lovely fat. I can remember visiting Poland back in my callow youth and being confused and amused to see, on the barely stocked shelves of an immediately post communist butcher’s shop, a leg of ham that was composed almost entirely of snow white fat with just a whisp of pink lean meat running through it, marked at twice the price of the ham next to it which was mostly lean. Now I would understand that, although even I think Polish cuisine may take a perfectly understandable love of pork fat to a frankly indecent, not too say unhealthy extreme. My other main food related memory from that trip was the house special pizza in a very dimly lit basement pizzeria, where the big slabs of what I took to be mozzarella turned out to be lard. I’m afraid I cannot recommend substituting lard for mozzarella on a pizza, even if you have a dairy allergic girlfriend.
Anyway pork belly is cheap for the very reason it is good. Fat. Fat carries flavour, keeps lean meat juicy and makes pork belly one of the most versatile and forgiving cuts, forgotten or otherwise. The 1kg slab I brought home cost less than a fiver and served the two us for two deeply comfort foody dinners, cooked up in two entirely different ways.
First up, a straight roast, which would be instantly familiar to anyone at Waitrose if only they ever went to a gastro pub. Then a casserole of pork and beans, cooked long and slow to a soft, treacly consistency. Slow cooking particularly suits pork belly, on account of the fat which renders down and goes all sweet and sticky. A Chinese style slow braise would be another favourite round here, but that’ll have to wait for another time.
Also on account of the fat keeping the meat lubricated, roasting pork belly couldn’t be easier. The only trick lies in getting the rind to crackle, which I have to admit I find to be a bit hit or miss whatever method you follow. And there are many methods, covered more exhaustively than I could ever be bothered to here. I tend to pour a kettle of boiling water over the slashed rind, then pat it thoroughly dry with kitchen paper and rubbing in plenty of flaky sea salt, but I think the key is probably the slashing. The more cuts the better. And a good blast of heat, generally at either end of the cooking process.
So, I cut my 1kg slab of belly in half, added a few extra slashes to the half to be roasted and gave it the boiling water treatment. Along with the salt I rubbed in a good grind of black pepper and a generous sprinkling of fennel seeds, the aniseedy flavour of which compliment pork superbly. Then I put it in to a pre heated roasting tray in the oven set to around 225, for a 15 minute initial blast of heat. Meanwhile I was par-boiling some potatoes, which I then drained off and returned to the pan and gave it a good shake to bash them about a bit, get their outer surfaces nicely fluffed. When the 15 minute blast was up I turned the oven down to around 180 and added the potatoes to the tray (make sure you start off with a big enough tray to allow cooking space) with the pork and a couple of sticks of celery cut on the diagonal into two inch lengths. I don’t know why people don’t roast celery more often, it is quite delicious, with a sweet, nutty flavour that is surprisingly similar to roasted garlic. It goes particularly well with pork, and with apple too by happy coincidence – you could if you wanted do the potatoes in a separate tray and mix the celery up with apple wedges in with the pork. That would be good too. Very good. If I was doing that, though, I'd cut the celery rather smaller, say into one inch lengths, and add it and the apples about ten to fifteen minutes later in the process, as the apples need less cooking.
To accompany the roast on this occasion, and to make the most of the oven’s heat, I did a roasted ratatouille at the same time, chunky dice of aubergine and courgette, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes mixed together in another roasting tray and stirred through with plenty of salt and pepper, thyme, a few peeled but whole garlic cloves and lots of olive oil. That tray went into the oven at the same time I turned the heat down and added the potatoes, and then I left it all for about 40 minutes.
At this point the ratatouille was done, as was the meat. The crackling was still a bit pliable, and the potatoes rather pale, so I cut the rind off the meat, and put it back into the oven with the potatoes and turned the heat back up high. As high as you like. Meanwhile the meat rested on a board, covered with greaseproof paper and a tea towel to keep it warm. Another ten to fifteen minutes is plenty to crackle your crackling and get the potatoes to the desired golden brown, and in the same time the meat is rested to perfection.
All that remained, before serving up and enjoying, was to turn the oven back down again, way down low this time, as low as it will go, and whack in the casserole with tomorrow’s dinner of pork and beans in it, which I had got to the point of bubbling away on the stove top while today’s dinner was in the oven. That'll cook away while we're enjoying the roast and for a good few hours beyond, and I’ll write it up in full for my next post.