As soon as people find out what I do the first thing they invariably always ask is ‘So what’s you signature dish then?’ My usual response to this is a heavy sigh, a slightly bored expression and a ‘well I don’t really have one, I’m always cooking different things’. But recently, I’m actually starting to think that I do have a signature dish. And I think it might be pork belly. So apologies to all those I’ve sighed at recently.
Pork belly, or belly pork as it was called before it became fashionable, was seen as being wildly uncouth about 15 years ago – I remember my family of butchers loving it, but we were about the only ones, and it was dirt-cheap. Now, it’s on just about every restaurant menu, and it’s normally not done properly at all. They don’t cook it long enough, or they try and jazz it up by removing the skin and cooking it separately until it’s that horrible, dried-out bubbly consistency that just falls apart in your mouth. Proper crackling should make you ever so slightly concerned for your teeth, but still be irresistible.
Although the price has gone up recently with its rising popularity, it’s still a lot cheaper than most other meat – a free-range belly at my local butchers is about £9.50 a kilo, and 3kg will feed up to eight people, depending on greed. It’s my go-to dish for having people over – it’s utterly low-maintenance and everyone (me included) gets absurdly excited about the crackling.
You’ll see a lot of recipes that only tell you to cook it for a couple of hours, but for me, 5 is the absolute minimum. The thing that tends to turn people off about pork belly is the quantity of fat you have to wade through to get to the meat, but long, slow cooking melts almost all of this out, and what you’re left with is meat so tender it falls off its bones, and a rich, intense sauce (I hate the word jus, but I suppose that’s what it is), that you can spoon straight from the pan.
I add flavourings according to what I’m cooking for the rest of the meal. A while ago I rubbed harissa all over the underside before cooking, and before that it was jerk seasoning. This weekend, though, I wanted to serve affogato and ricciarelli for pudding, so I decided to go down the Italian route, with sage, garlic and lemon. Another huge bonus of cooking this for friends is that it’s so rich, all you need with it is a big, sharp salad, and some potatoes chopped small, tossed with olive oil and then roasted until golden. I’m absolutely allergic to cooking side dishes last minute, so anyone who’s been for dinner at my house will probably be nodding in recognition right now. That is, unless they came for Sunday roast. I’m not a total philistine.
And a quick word on salad. While it may seem like the easy option, you can still make it fabulous – just think about what the meat needs to complement it. I did raw fennel, watercress, radish and little gem – crunch to balance the softness of the pork, heat from the radish and watercress to counteract its sweetness, and a sharp French vinaigrette to balance the richness.
My last point, and I know you already know this, but don’t you dare buy rubbish pork – quite apart from the pig having had an awful life, the meat and skin will be inferior, which means you won’t get lovely crackling and it won’t taste nearly so good. Rant over. Enjoy…
Slow-cooked pork belly with sage, lemon and garlic
This amount fed four of us with some leftovers, but could easily have fed five, and still had leftovers.
2kg piece free-range pork belly, bone-in and skin scored (your butcher will do it, unless you’re handy with a Stanley knife*)
Small bunch sage, leaves removed and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
zest 1 lemon
2tbsp olive oil
About 2/3 bottle white wine (don’t worry too much about quality – I used Stowell’s…)
1. Heat the oven to 130C (110C fan). Turn the pork belly over so it’s skin side down, and with a sharp knife cut down along each rib about half way into the flesh – no deeper. Mix the sage, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil together and season very well, then rub this all over the underside of the meat, pushing into the cuts. Line a roasting tray with foil, sit the pork belly skin side up and push the foil up around it so it forms a smaller tray. Pour the wine into this – it should come about 11/2 cm up the side of the meat. Pat the skin dry with kitchen roll, scatter sea salt over and into the scores and cook in the bottom of the oven for 5 hours. Check periodically – it will shrink quite a lot, and as it does, keep pushing the foil closer into it to protect the outside meat.
2. After this time, remove the pork from the oven and turn your oven up to as high as it will go (I normally go for about 240C). Pour off the juices that will have collected in the foil and set aside. Close the foil up around the meat so only the skin is exposed, and return it to the top of the oven, then cook for around 20-25 minutes checking to see it’s not burning, until the skin is crisp, dark golden and slightly bubbled. Remove, making sure to enjoy the sound of it audibly crackling, transfer to a board and rest for 10 minutes, then slice down along the ribs, (this is easiest if you take the crackling off first) and serve with salad and potatoes. Skim most of the fat off the cooking juices and you have a ready-made sauce. Any leftovers can be kept for 2-3 days, pulled into shreds and reheated to make an excellent sandwich.
*Truefoodie accepts no responsibility for you getting ahead of yourself and slicing your finger off with a Stanley knife