This is a dish for lovers of meat. Not just because pork belly is a pretty full-on and flavoursome cut, but, and perhaps more so, because the prep for this dish involves getting pretty friendly with the meat before cooking it. Specifically, you have to give it a blow dry… but more on that in a second.
Someone I know who likes meat is Vien Tran. (Although I have also heard that he once suffered extreme meat sweats after eating a vegetarian hot dog). Anyway, this recipe is for him. When he is not being tricked into eating vegie-dogs, Vien can be found taking very beautiful photographs, or, as has been the case quite a bit recently, helping me in my attempts to take passable ones. It’s also thanks to Vien that I can now (kinda) use Lightroom; and, speaking as someone who still struggles with the whole drag-and-drop concept, I can tell you, that this has involved some near saintly amounts of patience on his behalf. So, thank you Vien, and I promise to one day buy a Mac and master the whole drag-and-drop thing!
But, back to blow-drying pork. ‘Why on earth?’ you might fairly ask. The answer is that is all about the crackling. Pork belly is really a dish of two halves; you want the top to be beautifully golden, crisp, and crackled, but the underside to be the exact opposite, slow-braised, with a moist, melting texture. So, this necessitates treating the different parts of the one cut very differently – put simply, the bottom must be kept wet, and the top dry - very, very dry.
I used to make this dish a fair bit (sometimes for large numbers of people), and I will admit that standing there with a hairdryer, rubbing the moisture of off the back of pork pieces can make you feel more like a piggy massage therapist than a cook, which is weird. If you are the kind of person who is a little squeamish around raw meat, I definitely don’t recommend it. The thing is though – it really does the trick for the crackliest crackling you’ve ever tasted. The things I'll do for my ‘art’…!
- 350g of thick end pork belly, (or two 175g pieces)
- 110g dried pinto beans, (soaked overnight)
- 50g pancetta – cubed
- ½ large brown onion - coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic (skin left on)
- Sea salt
- 400mls white wine
- 400mls vegetable stock
- 200mls white wine vinegar
- Olive oil
- Lemon thyme - tied into a bouquet with kitchen string, (substitute ordinary thyme if you can't find lemon thyme).
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
- Handful of baby spinach leaves
- Dash of Pedro Ximenez sherry
It is best to buy the meat for this dish from a butcher, as that way you can have a bit of a chat about it and make sure you are getting the right thing. What you want is ‘thick end’ pork belly, (from the last six ribs), as this cut can withstand a lot of cooking and will produce the best crackling. Unwrap the pork as soon as you get home after buying it - even if you are not planning on cooking it immediately, do this first bit straight away, and the pork will be better for it when you do come to cook it.
Take a careful look at the pork skin, a lot of pork belly will come pre-scored from the butcher. If your piece has not been scored, you can easily do this yourself – I find a Stanley blade is best for making even controlled scores, but you can use a knife.
To score the pork belly, you should cut through the fat layer, but not right down to the flesh itself – contact between the meat juices and skin could introduce moisture and stop the all-important crackling layer from forming. Make cuts at about 1cm intervals, first scoring in one direction, and then the other, to form a cross-hatch (criss-cross) pattern across the whole skin layer.
Rub the scored skin of the pork belly with a generous amount sea salt, taking care to work this between the cuts you’ve just made. Now, grab a hairdryer and get to work!
On a high setting, blow dry the pork skin, working systematically over the whole surface until the scores begin to open and the pork is completely dry. This can take a little while, e.g. at least 5 minutes, but, on the plus side, at least the pork won’t try to chat with you about its up-coming holiday or on-going boyfriend issues as you work! Once dry, wrap up nicely in a clean dry (tea) towel, (I told you it all gets a bit weird) and leave to sit uncovered in the fridge until ready to cook.
Meanwhile, place the pre-soaked pinto beans in a large pot and cover with fresh water such that this reaches 3-4cms above the height of the beans. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 1½-2hrs, until the water is mostly absorbed and the beans are soft. Strain the beans and set aside until you are ready to cook the pork.
Pre-heat the oven to very hot - 220˚C (or 240˚C if your oven goes this high), basically, the hotter the better!
Massage just a little more salt into the pork skin, and get that hairdryer back out. Just a quick session should suffice this time to remove any additional water that the salt may have drawn out while the pork was in the fridge. When the pork skin is very dry, turn over and season the underside with salt and pepper.
Place the pork on a wire rack, and position the rack atop an oven dish to catch any drips. When the oven has reached temperature, pop the whole thing inside. Roast the pork for at least 30 minutes, removing from the oven once a convincing crackling has begun to form (look for a golden colour and a bubbly appearance). It is also worth having a window open at this stage, as the hot oven will create some smoke.
Now, lower the temperature of the oven to 160˚C. Using a pair of tongs, place the pork in an ovenproof casserole dish with a lid, and arrange the beans, onions, thyme-bouquet, bay leaves, garlic cloves and pancetta around it. Drizzle some olive oil over the beans and introduce the wine, vinegar, and stock, taking care not to splash any liquid at all on the crackled pork skin.
Return to the oven and cook, lid on, for 2hrs, (or longer if the underside of your particular pork belly has not reached a soft ‘pulled pork’ texture after two. (Reduce the oven temperature to 120˚C for any excess cooking time required). Check on liquid levels and stir the beans a couple of times during the 2hrs. Top up with a bit of water if the beans look as though they may be about to dry out at any point.
When the pork is sufficiently tender, take the casserole dish out the oven. Raise the temperature of the oven back up to 220˚C, and then remove the pork belly from the casserole and place it back on the wire rack from earlier. Once the oven has reached temperature, pop the wire rack back in the oven to give the crackling one last crisping! This should take between 15-20mins, but keep a close eye, as it would be a pity for it to burn at this late stage.
Meanwhile, place the casserole dish over a medium-low heat on the stove-top. Remove the thyme bouquet, discarding this, but leave the bay leaves if you wish to garnish with these (as pictured above). Also remove the garlic cloves, squeezing out the roasted garlic onto a plate. Mash this with a fork and, when smooth, return it to the beans and mix through. At this point, add the sweet smoked paprika, and do a quick seasoning check – how are the levels of spice, salt, pepper and acidity (vinegar)? Rebalance accordingly. I quite like for this dish to have a bit of a vinegary tang (it helps cut through the fattiness of the pork), but precision adjustments are largely a matter of personal taste, so this bit is up to you!
When the pork is looking beautifully crisped, and you are almost ready to serve, add the baby spinach leaves to the beans and stir through until these soften. Last of all, (and best of all), splash in a shot of Pedro Ximenez sherry to sweeten, and continue to cook for a further 3 minutes.
To serve, remove the pork from the oven, leaving it to rest briefly (5 minutes or so), before carving into two servings. Finally, arrange the beans into a lovely soft bed for the pork, (you have already massaged it, given it a blow dry, wrapped it up all cosy in a towel, and let it have a little relaxation time, after all). A tragic (but very tasty) end to piggy’s day at the spa.