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Friday, September 3, 2010

A Visit with the Peking Pig... or Pork Belly, The Poor Man's Foie Gras!

If your circulatory system has more cholesterol than blood, then turn back now! The sign says "Abandon All Hope Ye who Enter Here!" Pork belly is a cut of meat from the under belly side of the pig or hog. Esentually, it is the same part of the pig that bacon is made from, except it has not yet been cured.  

Pigs actually have two stomachs that may weigh ten to eighteen pounds each. These bellies are usually cut into long thick sections, and are flash frozen. Once the pork bellies are frozen, they can be kept for quite a long time and still be used as a food source. There are a number of national cuisine types that utilize the pork belly after marinating and other preparation methods. This cut is enormously popular in Chinese and Korean cuisine. 

Pork belly futures have their origin with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (Where else?!), and have been actively traded on the Exchange since 1961. Pork bellies future trading is based on the projections of current supply of frozen pork bellies versus the current rate of demand for the product. The current worth of pork belly future commodities rests in who wants them and how much of the product is considered desirable at the present time. Currently, the basic trading unit for pork bellies is twenty tons of trimmed and properly frozen belly portions and segments.

The value of pork bellies will rise, sometimes at a spectacular rate, when an increased market for bacon is perceived to be on the horizon. To a degree, the demand for pork bellies increases during seasons of the year when consumers are looking for lighter meat alternatives that are quicker to prepare and do not weigh one down during the activity of the warm weather months. The demand tends to decrease during colder months, when meats other than bacon may be considered preferable. That is one reason why reserves of pork bellies may be relatively low as the final quarter of the calendar years begins and there is a slight rise in the cost of what is left.

Enough of this chatter! Let us now return to our divine swine...

In Chinese cuisine, it is usually diced, browned then slowly braised with skin (called the rind) on (called dongporou) , or sometimes marinated and cooked as a whole slab. 

Koreans cook Samgyeopsal (slices of pork belly, unmarinated and unseasoned) on a grill at table-side with garlic, often accompanied by soju (a distiled beverage, native to Korea - like slightly sweetened vodka). According to a 2006 survey by Agricultural Cooperatives in Korea, 85% of South Korean adults surveyed stated that their favorite pork part is samgyeopsal. The survey also showed that 70% of recipients eat the meat at least once a week

Uncured whole pork belly has more recently become a popular dish in Western cuisine, especially at high end restaurants. 

I was personally lured by this temptress in pigs clothing by watching a handful of cooking competitions this summer. Preparations ranged from braised to deep fried to roasted, with ethnic connections ranging from Mexico to the far East. After growing frustrated at my local grocery for not keeping it as an in the cooler item, I even considered the purchase of a whole hog, just so I could claim my own slab! Suddenly last weekend, my greedy little prayers were answered! My office mate (and top of the line Foodie) found assorted sized packages of pork bellies at a grocery store near our office! That evening on my way home I detoured to the establishment and purchased half of their stock! (2 packages- about 2¾ Lb.s) When I got home, 1 package to the freezer, one to the fridge... Now how to prepare it? Ohhhhh... This is the question! A sweet, hot marinade? A salty brine with peppers and South American flavors? NO, No, no....  I browsed the internet off and on for recipes for what seemed like days. Not only did I want to find a great recipe for myself to enjoy, I wanted to sell this idea to my wife (Queen Carbonara- High Priestess of the Burnt Fond) and a food snob wannabe, 13 year old son.  I was heartened by one web site as the writer related the story of her seven year old daughter, who requested crispy pork belly for supper for her birthday.  I finally concluded that now that I have a reasonably well priced and close source, I could try my hand at an ad hoc preparation, to gain some experience with the particular cut of meat.


Mis En Plac-  Pork Belly
(What you are going to need- get it all ready now- before you start!)

Cutting board
Roasting pan with flat rack for bottom

Sharp knife for slicing- (Note: The skin on this guy is tough... Make sure your knife is SHARP! )
Pastry or BBQ Brush
Paper towels
Hair drier (Optional)

Pork Belly  1½ Lb.
White Vinegar 2 TBL.
Kosher Salt 1 TBL.
Powdered Ginger 2 TSP.
Chinese 5 Spice Powder 2 TSP.

Start by placing the belly on your cutting board, rind side up.
With a sharp knife, make diagonal cuts about ½ an inch apart, down through the skin and deep into the layer of fat, but try to avoid cutting into the layer of meat. 

Repeat this process making a series of similar cuts going across the first set of cuts. This should leave you with a diamond pattern of slices running through the rind and fat. This is done in part to allow the fat to run over the meat as it roasts , in effect self basting.

The next step is to cover the top bottom and sides with the Kosher salt, Ginger and Chinese 5-Spice Powder. Be sure to use your finger tips to some of the salt into all of the knife cuts.
After the dry seasonings are rubbed in, use a pastry brush to coat the exterior with vinegar. The salt will help draw moisture from the meat, while the vinegar will help enhance the flavor of the other spices as it helps wash them down into the nooks, crannies and knife cuts.

Now it's time to wait. We need to let the salt do it's job. For all practical intents and purposed, we are curing the pork using salt and vinegar as opposed to nitrates. Let the pork belly rest for at least 1 hour, but it would be better if you covered it on a pie plate and let it go over night in the refrigerator.  Sigh... I can be so impatient!!! Let's light up those ovens and lets get this party started! Set them to 475° F.  After an hour take a couple of folded up paper towels and blot up all of the accumulated moisture. With your fingers, open those knife cuts and dab out any liquid still  in there. I used my wife's blow dryer to go over the meat to dry up any remaining moisture. This dryness will help make a delicious crispy crust. Onto a flat roast rack it goes (skin side up) and onto a baking dish. with shallow sides. If you don't have a flat rack to place in the bottom of your dish, get 4 sheets of aluminium foil, each about 1 foot long, and roll them into rods. Place these on the bottom of your baking dish and place the belly on top of these skin side up. Roast at this temperature for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, dial the temperature of your oven down to 400°F and continue to roast for about an hour.

While the pork belly is in the oven, you have an hour to prep and cook the rest of a family meal. I cored and cut up a large cucumber from the garden, dusted the cuts with sugar and started them soaking in a bowl of vinegar for some crude pickles. I made a pot of rice using chicken stock as the cooking liquid. I steamed some fresh green beans, then drained them and seared them in a skillet with a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil then sprinkled on a teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds and a few grinds of coarse sea salt.  A dipping sauce was made by mixing the following ingredients in a small bowl. 

  • ¼ cup of dark soy sauce,
  • 3 to 4 TBS chili sauce, 
  • 1 TSP of finely chopped garlic, 
  • a dash of Worcestershire sauce 
  • 1 TSP of sugar.  

When the meat was removed from the oven, the smell wafted through the house and there was no need to call anyone to the table.  The pork belly was so irresistible, I even started carving the meat and plating before Camera Boy-that Fiend with a flash- was able to take a picture! ("Dad! Aren't you gonna get a picture of that?! That looks really great!") 

The portion size worked out to about 6 to 7 ounces each, from a  1½ Lb pork belly. Being as rich as it is, that should be adequate. No one left the table unsatisfied. The rind was crispy to crunchy in it's texture, with the meat underneath being moist, light, tender and delicate. The rind fills the mouth with a rich, bacon like flavor, with the juices and fats enhancing that notion even more so. The seasonings delicately enhancing the tender portions of the meat yet not over powering. Surprisingly, Queen C. stated that it didn't even require additional salt, it's seasoning was balanced so well (All 3 of our children have joked about getting mom a salt lick as a Christmas present) while only a modest amount was used in the preparation. The Dipping sauce although tasty, was superfluous and only enhanced the stereotyped oriental look and feel of the dish. The sourness of the new cucumber pickles added a nice touch to the dinner as it was able to easily cut through the fatty juices in the mouth. In the future I would probably serve this meat with a side of pineapple or some other fruit with a sour note to it's flavor profile.

Hope you enjoyed this!  Please comment... If you would like to submit a recipe of your own, please email it to

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