Pork belly, the cut from the pig from which we make bacon, may seem like a bit of a mundane article to feature as a ‘Foodstuffs’ post but it is actually a very versatile and useful food product and deserves a special mention here.
For a long time, pork belly was a very rare item on our local grocery store shelf here in Arctic Canada, and though more common now, I still tend to buy it in large amounts whenever I see it. My only sorrow is that I have yet to be able to buy a large piece of belly with the skin attached and instead can only purchase it pre-sliced. The advantage to having a large piece is that you can slice it in any thickness you want or, alternatively, cook the whole piece as is for further use in any number of ways.
The Chinese have a method of cooking pork belly known as 回鍋肉 (Huí Guō Ròu), which translates as ‘return to the pot pork’ but is more commonly known in English as ‘twice-cooked pork’. The basic idea is that a whole piece of pork belly, usually with the skin still present, is braised in liquid until very tender and then allowed to cool. It is then sliced and the pieces are fried in oil along with other ingredients. A Hunanese dish in which the belly is red-braised, or braised in seasoned soy sauce based liquid, was said to be a favorite of Chairman Mao, and the technique of red-braising is occasionally used as a the first step in Huí Guō Ròu.
Naturally, without access to a whole belly, or decent size pieces thereof, doing a properly traditional Huí Guō Ròu is not possible but, as it happens, you can do a passable job using the sliced belly (albeit without braising for nearly as long). As a matter of fact, even aside from doing a Chinese twice-cooked pork type of dish, I often like to pre-cook pork belly slices for later uses. The slices will keep well in the fridge, if you do this, and the other, much more important reason is that the fat rendered out by the pre-cooking is terrific for using to cook other dishes. I keep a big jar in the fridge to which I regularly add pork belly fat when I cook it. In the picture, the jar you can see holds a good three-quarters of a pint and that represents the yield from only a couple of pounds of belly.
A lot of people will react in horror at the thought of cooking in animal fat but I think that a lot of current wisdom concerning health and nutrition is a bit misguided. Certainly, to my mind, life is too short *not* to enjoy the pleasure of this treat and I especially love sautéing vegetables in a little pork belly fat to give them an exquisite richness. The trick to producing nice cooking fat is to cook the pork belly at low temperature so as to prevent the rendered fat from browning. I place the slices in a single layer in a pan and put them in an oven at no more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit. I cook for about an hour and turn the slices about halfway through. Cooking for longer will yield a bit more rendered fat but if you cook too long the slices will lose some flavor and will also start to fall apart.
As you can see, there is still quite a bit of fat left on the slices, but that is okay… you don’t want to get rid of it all. If you don’t drain off the fat you can leave the slices sitting in it in the fridge and they will keep very well. Indeed, if you salt the meat and let it sit for a day or two and then cook the pork with additional fat so that it is completely covered, you can keep it for months. This, of course, is a basic confit, and nowadays is a process used as much for the deliciousness of the results as for preservation.
In future posts I will be doing a number of experiments using pork belly … at least for as long as my current supply still lasts!