Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pork Belly Smack Down--Happy July 4th!

Happy, happy July 4th! I hope you all had a safe holiday. I'm currently rubbing refrigerated aloe all over myself while I try to rehabilitate my liver, so ours was clearly a good time.

But about the cooking competition: this holiday, my sister and I chose pork belly as our cook-to-the-death ingredient, much to my husband's delight. Up to this point, I'd never cooked pork belly (which is basically a big slab of bacon before it's cured and cut). I went to the Asian market the Wednesday before the lake trip to get a small portion of pork belly to experiment on (again to my husband's delight). It was a total, epic disaster. I tried a couple of different variations of marinating it and scoring the skin and then proceeded to cook them all beyond recognition (poor husband was not so delighted). Charred crackling, anyone? So I was good and truly nervous. I sat down and looked through all my cookbooks, trying to find a different method of preparation. Sadly, all my favorite cookbooks let me down. Is everyone but me just born knowing how to cook a damn pork belly?!?

I was also thinking about the balance of the overall dish. Everyone likes a good mix of creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty, and acidic in a composed dish. I wandered out on Wednesday to water my silly garden while I was thinking this over, and then I spied several green heirloom tomatoes. Aha! I knew then that I wanted to do a fried green tomato, but with a kick.
So I made up a brine of water, apple cider vinegar, rice wine, brown sugar, sea salt, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds. I put everything in a large saucepan and stirred it until the salt and brown sugar melted. I let it cool almost completely before I poured it over my sliced tomatoes so as to not cook them. They still needed to be fairly firm on Friday so I could bread and fry them. I had no idea if this whole pickled fried green tomato thing would work.
But it did! When the rest of the meal was nearly ready, I drained the tomatoes, coated them in flour, dipped them in milk, and then dredged them in a breadcrumb/cornmeal/flour combination before frying them in clarified butter.

But back to the pork belly. After Wednesday's abysmal failure, I had no clue what to do. Thursday rolled around, and it was time to get my groceries, get packed, and head to the lake. I still had no clue how to fix (don't laugh at my vernacular here) a good pork belly! The girl child and I went to Hirsch's Meat Market (a great local butcher shop near Parker and Alma in Plano, if you're a Dallas-ite), along with every other person in DFW who was looking to stock up on meat for the holiday. However, while I stood around for half an hour, waiting for my number to be called, I saw it! The perfect glaze (confirmed by the gentleman in front of me who purchased 25 pounds of ribs, three pounds of liver, and six pounds of tongue. I decided he was a legit source).
Right on. We were in business. So here's how the belly went down. I didn't score the tough skin layered over the fat because that just made a mess, but I did puncture it several times with a sharp knife after I seasoned it with salt and pepper so some of the fat could render out. I heated the biggest pan I could find (as I had a five-pound slab of pork belly) to about medium high, and hefted it, skin side down, into the hot pan to sear and render. Into another deep pan (oven safe with a lid), I poured one quart of chicken stock and added some pepper as well as a handful of fresh thyme and rosemary from the herb garden. While the broth warmed on a medium-low heat, I pulled off the belly when it was dark golden brown. With a great show of strength (see me flexing as I had to use two giant grill forks to move this ridiculous piece of meat?), I wrestled the giant belly into the broth, skin side up, and put it in a 325 degree oven to cook for a little over an hour. When both the fat and meat below were nice and soft, I glazed the skin side with my glaze and took it out to the grill for a last good sear to crisp up the skin. (You could also do this under the broiler). Let it rest for about 10 minutes or so before serving.
While the pork belly was cooking, I made some cheesy mashed potatoes. Nothing fancy. I just peeled and cut five baking potatoes, put them in a big pot of cold water, and brought it to a gentle boil until I could easily pierce them with a fork. Drain and put them back over the heat, shaking the pot, to burn off any excess water that will make your potatoes watery. I added about 4 T. of butter, 1T of sea salt, 2/3 cup heavy cream, 1/3 cup milk, and 1/2 cup chunked up cheddar cheese. As I added these ingredients, I tasted a lot to see if I liked the level of creamy/salty/cheesy. Keep in mind that the pork belly and tomato will have an element of salt as well, so don't over salt.

To really appreciate the final product, you had to get a bite with potatoes, pork belly, and tomato all together. It actually worked out really well, much my shock.

My fabulous competitor, my sister, made pulled pork belly tacos (with an agave nectar glaze) served with grilled pineapple and poblano peppers. YUM! Her dish was way prettier than mine.
By a very narrow margin, I won our fourth of July competition, which was a delightful mess. We (my spouse, sister and BIL, mom, daughter, and about ten friends) all spent the day at the lake (on the beach, not the boat. I hate taking the boat out on holiday weekends) eating bratwursts, drinking beer, and floating. We trooped into the house crazy hungry, sunburnt to a crisp, with sand in all our crevices, and proceeded to cook for two hours. Madness. But fun madness. I'm very grateful to live in a place where I can spend the day on the water with friends and family. Happy birthday, America! Or, as my friend Bloody Gaga says, 'Murica. And she says it while wearing a trucker hat with 'Murica airbrushed on it, gold hot pants, and while embracing an Elvis impersonator who smells of Axe, but that is another story....

Recipes follow the break here...

Pickled Fried Green Tomatoes
For brine:
  • 2-4 green heirloom tomatoes, sliced thickly
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1/3 cup rice wine (optional; you could also sub in cooking sherry)
  • 1 1/2 T sea salt
  • 1 1/2-2 cups brown sugar (taste as it dissolves until you get the brine to your desired sweetness)
  • 5-7 whole peppercorns
  • 1 T mustard seeds
  • 1 T fennel seeds
  • 1 t red pepper flakes
  • 1 t cayenne pepper
For frying
  • 4 T ghee (clarified butter) for frying
  • 3 T flour (for initial coating)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 T. flour (to mix with corn meal and breadcrumbs for second coating)
  • 3 T. corn meal
  • 4 T. Italian seasoned breadcrumbs (I buy the Progresso brand, but if I have a lot of time and I'm feeling really industrious, I will toast several pieces of bread and run them through the food processor with salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme, lots of garlic powder, and garlic flakes)
Make sure you have a clean glass jar to brine your tomatoes in. Don't use plastic. Heat all the brine ingredients to a gentle simmer, stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Taste it frequently to get it to your desired level of sweet/spicy. Take it off the heat and let it cool completely before pouring it over the tomatoes or your tomatoes will cook and be soggy when you fry them. Place in the refrigerator overnight or for two days at the most.

When you're ready to fry the tomatoes, drain them and set aside. Set up three bowls or deepish plates--one for just flour, one for the milk, an one for the rest of the frying ingredients (except the butter). Put the butter in a cast-iron skillet. Start dredging your tomatoes. First in flour, then in milk, and then in the final mixture. The initial coating of flour makes the rest stick better. Get your skillet to just a little more than medium heat. Fry until golden brown on both sides (you want to fry them faster rather than slower so your tomatoes remain firm rather than mushy).

Spicy glazed Pork Belly
  • 5 lb pork belly slab (This will make about nine good servings.)
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning
  • One quart chicken or veggie stock
  • handful of fresh thyme
  • handful of fresh rosemary
  • Glaze (like the one pictured above, or make your own!)
You will need a giant pot/pan with a lid that can hold your pork belly and go i
n the oven.

First, heat a giant pan to med-high heat.  Season your pork belly and puncture the skin several times (just through to the fat--not all the way to the meat). Lay the pork belly into your heated skillet skin side down. Let it sear to a deep golden brown. Heat the broth and herbs while you're searing. Put both (make sure the pork belly is skin side up) into the oven-safe pan with the lid on it and put it in 325 degree oven for an hour. At an hour, check it with a fork to see if the fat and meat are both tender. If yes, put a layer of glaze on and either go sear the skin side on a hot grill or under the broiler. If no, keep cooking and checking every twenty minutes. After you've crisped up the skin on the grill or under the broiler, add another layer of glaze and let it rest. Cut into squares and serve.

Cheesy Mashed Potatoes
  • 4-5 baking potatoes 
  •  4 T butter
  • 1 T sea salt
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/2 grated or chopped cheddar cheese

Peel and cut the baking potatoes into relatively even slices and  put them in a big pot of cold water. Bring it to a gentle boil until you can easily pierce the cooked potatoes with a fork. Drain and put them back over the heat, shaking the pot, to burn off any excess water that will make your potatoes soggy. Mash them up a bit with a potato masher, and then add butter, sea salt, heavy cream, milk, and cheddar cheese. Keep using your potato masher or use a hand mixer on a lowish speed to combine. Taste the potatoes often and adjust ingredients as you wish. I really like mashed potatoes with smoked Gouda as well, but I didn't want them to overpower the pork in this dish.