When it comes to food and things food related, honesty is important. I love it when someone introduces me to something I’ve never heard of before; a new method of cooking, an interesting ingredient or a great recipe. Not for me is the feigned jadedness of the ‘know it all’ foodie. I believe that no matter how long we reside on this planet, there will always be something new to learn about food from each other, how to eat it and how to prepare it, and it’s in that wonder, lies the joy.
I’m also eternally fascinated by food trends. The things that come in and go out of fashion, the renaissance of certain dishes, and the foods we come to associate with each decade. Again, certain people will maintain the popular were always on their radar, before they reached the great unwashed masses, I don’t believe them. Naturally, I give the benefit of the doubt to those who grew up in different countries and cultures, but for the average Irish person, many things were never on the menu until recently. For those of us of a certain vintage who had even heard of cous cous or bulgur wheat as a child? Or how many times were you served braised lamb shanks or Osso Buco of a school night?
Pork belly is a good example. I don’t know why it wasn’t popular before as it is truly delicious. Once regarded as a fatty, cheap cut of meat favoured by the Chinese and the Spanish, today it sits proudly on many restaurant menus as a beacon of great cuisine. Today’s chefs have embraced the pork belly and are providing a great taste experience. It’s now high time we started to cook it at home a little more.
Essentially pork belly is a layer cake of taste; a layer of meat, followed by a layer of wonderfully, delicious fat (oh yes, the ‘F’ word again – and I’m not apologising for it!), then another layer of meat and yet another layer of F., A., T., and, hopefully if you cook it properly, a lovely, crispy layer on the top that crackles beautifully when you tuck in. All in all a superb textured taste, packed with flavour that went unnoticed in this part of the world for ages.
The thing is that while we weren’t cooking slabs of pork belly, it has always been here in the form of your average rasher, considered a lowlier cousin to the leaner tenderloin or chop and effectively the dowdy, plain girl at the dance. However, in the hands of a chef, the packed and flavourful pork belly becomes a supermodel and the one everyone wants to talk to. Unlike supermodels however, where the animal is from and how it is reared will impact the quality of what you get. To be fair I have had some prepared pork belly from Marks & Spencer and it wasn’t too bad. However if you want a truly elevated experience ask you local butcher for one and cook it yourself.
Be warned, pork belly isn’t a fast cook dish. Unlike many other pork cuts, pork belly can withstand long braising. It is also important to find a belly with a good balance of lean and fat. Too much of either will render the experience less than it should be; again talk to your butcher. Usually the better balance is to be found in the front belly rather than the back.
The typical method for cooking pork belly is braising. Braising is where you seal the meat quickly at the start on a high heat on the hob and finish cooking in liquid in the oven. With pork belly many chefs return it to the pan after braising to crisp it up before serving but that’s a matter of choice. To cook pork belly properly can take anything from around the 3 hour mark in the ‘faster’ recipes up to the wonderful 24hour and even 30 hour versions, obviously the slower the time the lower temperature. It will just depend on the recipe that you use. Pork belly is also ideally suited to soaking up spices, from a simple salt rub to the more exotic Asian mixes or the light heat of something inspired by the Latino influence. Again I urge you to compare the myriad of recipes and find the ones that appeal.
Finding something to accompany pork belly as a main should be carefully chosen. Personally I love the taste so I like to keep it simple. If my spices and herbs are leaning more towards the Asian side of things then a little rice is just fine. Should I pull it back towards the West then a small amount of mash, polenta or even some fried onions or, if you really want indulgence, small black pudding fritters all served with a little red onion chutney is super. However there are many diverse options, but always remember that while it can look relatively small on the plate it is a rich dish and therefore a little goes a long way. Indeed, you could always serve it as a starter and really get the meal rolling.
If you’re still unsure don’t forget you can pop into James Whelan Butchers anytime and our experienced staff will be happy to answer any questions or contact us through our website or face book page.
This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie