Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too.
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue..."
It's not that my brother is an unadventurous eater, quite the opposite. He's an avid slurper of icy raw bivalves, and a fan of foie gras. But the idea of "bacon" for dinner can make even the most fearless diners pause.
It shouldn't. I'm not going to claim that pork belly--sometimes called side pork, or, as mentioned, fresh bacon--is a lean dish. However, if you look at the "Still Life with Pork Belly" above, you can see that it's quite possible to find pork belly that is more lean meat than fat. Furthermore, as you brown the meat thoroughly prior to braising, a lot of the fat renders off and is poured from the pan before you continue. And then, a little goes a long way. I call for a pound of meat for two servings, which is very generous. We had leftovers (which I ate atop Chinese noodles in broth for lunch--yum) when we made it, even after the grueling final baking and market of the season, when we generally consume vast quantities. If you cut the meat portion back to twelve ounces total, I don't think anyone would go away hungry.
I didn't invent the idea of cooking pork belly like this. This rich, unctuous, economical cut of meat holds a place of great respect in Chinese, French, and other world cuisines. In the U.S., it became quite popular a few years ago among chefs interested in the "nose to tail" eating most often associated with Fergus Henderson of the St John restaurant in London. There's a bit of macho posturing to this sort of thing, to be sure. (You've probably seen or heard of those TV shows where guys go around the world eating gross stuff--previously unheard of organs, bugs, rotting things; cook's tour as freak show.) But it's also a recognition that those of us who eat meat ought to honor the animals we consume by using and appreciating the whole beast. It's the right thing to do; and, there's some very good eating to be had, low on the hog.
I most often buy my pork belly at an Asian market, because it's always in stock there. Any good local butcher should be able to get it for you. (Here in the Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Shuang Hur--University just west of Dale; Nicollet and 27th--and United Noodles are reliable sources.)
Cider-Braised Pork Belly
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
1 Tbsp soy sauce, preferably dark
a few sprigs fresh thyme
Preheat your oven to 375 F.
Heat a dutch oven or high-sided saute pan--a three-quart pan is a good size (I really love that All-Clad saucier you see in many pictures here--that's a three-quart pan). Season the pork belly well on all sides with salt and pepper. Add the teaspoon of oil (canola, grapeseed, etc.) to the pan. Add the pork and brown well on all sides over medium heat. It will take four or five minutes per side. Don't rush this stage, as a lot of the flavor in the finished dish is developed at this time.
While the pork browns, wash and chop all the vegetables. If your carrot is fresh and sweet you needn't peel it. Use all of the leek that seems tender, both white and green parts (and save the trimmings for stock). Just chop everything quite coarsely; it's going to cook for a long time and most of the vegetables will melt into the sauce.
Remove the pork from the pan and pour off most of the fat, leaving a couple of teaspoons behind. Add all the vegetables except the chopped garlic, and saute until they are lightly browned, five or six minutes. Add the chopped garlic and continue cooking for one minute.
Add some of the cider and scrape the pan bottom with a wooden spatula to deglaze (dissolve the brown stuff into the cider). Add the rest of the cider, the stock, the soy sauce, and then the pork. Here's what you're looking at:
Bring the liquid to a boil, then turn off the heat. Move the pan into the preheated oven, put on the lid, a bit ajar, and cook for 30 minutes. Turn the pork over and cook for 30 minutes more, partially covered. Turn the pork again and cook, uncovered now, for another 30 to 45 minutes, till the pork is very brown and tender--oh, and check to be sure there's still some liquid in the pan; we want the sauce quite reduced, but not all boiled away. Add a bit of water if it's getting too dry.
Here's what mine looked like after an hour-and-half:
That looks almost good enough to eat. If you want to try a little sort of "cheffy" trick, you can remove the pork from the pan and really crisp up the exterior by placing it under the broiler for a couple of minutes, or in a hot oven--I put my oven up to 425 convection and put the pork in on a baking sheet for about five minutes. (You might reasonably say that this is a clear example of gilding the lily; to which I would respond, "And...?")
We were going to serve this with polenta, but the polenta jar was empty. White corn grits (polenta by another name) stood in just fine. Noodles, rice, mashed potatoes--all would be great.
This is the sort of dish that cries out for a glass of really nice wine, and while the deep, dark richness of it might lead you immediately to a full-bodied red, don't rule out a crisp, aromatic white like an Alsatian riesling or pinot gris.
To Autumn (stanza the last)
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, though hast thy music, too--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Of sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
John Keats, 1819
Text (except the Keats) and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw