Some time ago, back in the good old days when we had cable, I remember watching an episode of "The Heat" on FoodTV in which the head chef guy (Mark McEwan?) made a couple of his up-and-coming young chefs duke it out with pork belly, and they all screwed up. Ever since then, I've figured it was one of those things, like foie gras mousse, that probably shouldn't be attempted at home.
But then I saw some. A little package, maybe a pound and a bit, in the freezer/discount bin at Red Barn (which carries only Hertel's pork, which is fairly decent as far as ethics go, and local). Unable to resist, I bought it. And it sat in the freezer for many long months, taunting me every time I went looking for that last little baggie of chicken stock that I knew was in there somewhere.
Then several weeks ago, while my mom was visiting and I was on the second day of a wretched horrible virus and had no appetite whatsoever, it came to pass that my mother and I went to Vista 18 for dinner (only because we had theatre tickets for later that evening, and my participation in THAT was only because my neighbour Inge was starring in the production... I felt like crap and would much preferred to have been home on the couch, but we'd had this evening planned for months.) I barely felt up to an appetizer, but fortunately on the appy menu there was a dish consisting of beer-braised pork belly, creamed sauerkraut and purple potato perogis. Even with a fever, sore throat and no appetite, that sounded good. And it was, although I suspect - even more now in retrospect - that the pork may have been just day or so past its prime. But the way it was prepared was a revelation. It was braised, yes - but then it had been sliced and fried, so it was all crispy, but still tender, but chewy. Anyway, I managed to finish the whole dish and we stumbled off to the theatre where I dozed fitfully through much of the first act.
This morning, I had had enough of the pork belly taunting me from the recesses of the freezer, and I figured I *probably* knew how to cook it properly, so I took it out of the freezer. Later this afternoon, after the pork belly had spent the day thawing in a most un-foodsafe manner on the counter, I sliced some onion, smooshed all the remaining cloves of garlic, sliced up the slightly battered ginger in the fridge, dumped that in a saucepan with two different kinds of beer (because one bottle didn't have enough in it) and some soy sauce and honey. I warmed that up while I examined the pork belly and found the rind still on. It would be a waste, I reasoned, to leave the rind on to possibly be ruined by my experimental cooking, so I took it off, salted it, and threw it in the toaster oven. It emerged 20 minutes later as crackling, which I devoured. (The husband and child were away; I didn't think they needed to know about this bit.)
I nestled the pork belly into the cooking liquid (which came up about 1/2 way on the meat), and braised it for 2 hours, then transferred the meat to a cutting board. I turned the heat up under the liquid to reduce it, tasted it and found the beer I'd used had been too bitter and I'd forgotten to add vinegar at the start to mitigate that, so I added some vinegar, then poured some of the result into a measuring cup, and added some more soy sauce, more honey, and a glug of hoisin.
Then I attempted to slice the meat into 1/2 cm slices, and found my knives needed sharpening. I ended up with some slightly ragged slices, 5 or 6 in all. I heated some grapeseed/sesame oil in a saute pan and seared the slices until they were brown and crisp on both sides, pulled them off, brushed them liberally with the liquid concoction, and stuck them in the toaster oven to keep warm while I finished the blanched kale off with some hoisin, sesame oil and vinegar.
It was STELLAR. Perfect. Will do again in a heartbeat. SO good. I never thought I'd say this, but pork belly is wasted on bacon. Wait, not completely wasted. I can't imagine life without bacon. But bacon is perhaps not the zenith of what pork belly can aspire to.
Altogether it was a lovely meal. I wish I'd bought a bigger bit of belly, but I'm deluding myself if I think that would have meant leftovers.