After my trip to Bar Boulud I wound up in the Whole Foods Market in The Time Warner Building. Surveying the selection I spotted some pork belly and thought what the hell, why not? Living in semi-rural New Jersey it is nearly impossible to procure this incredible ingredient. If any one is reading this and thinking to themselves, "pork belly - that sounds gross", I have a question for you, do you eat bacon?
Making bacon seemed to be the obvious root, so I opted for making something more original and interesting. Please do not take from this that making homemade bacon is boring, it is a craft I would love to master, but I just wanted to do something different.
I cured the pork belly in garlic, ginger, sage, shallot, salt, cinnamon, coriander, lemon zest, black pepper, and homemade apple/maple syrup (I reduced down apple juice until it coated the back of a spoon and then added in some maple syrup). All of these flavors together smelt stunningly savory. I let the pork belly cure for one week in my refrigerator. Some people say that if you put meat in the fridge it is not considered curing, but I would beg to differ. You still get the same flavor from the cure, but with the added bonus of a reassurance of safety. You do not want to poison your guests!
When meat gets cured a ton of chemical and physical changes take place. The salt draws out moisture from the meat (osmosis + diffusion) making it more tender and giving it a more concentrated flavor,similar to a dry age. Also, salt kills all of the disease causing microbes (the addition of nitrates are also needed), as well as break down some of the compounds in the meat by denaturing the proteins into glutamate, a common source of umami.
After a week of staring at my pork belly it was finally time to cook it! I got my Dutch Oven super hot and added in a little bit of grapeseed oil. I use grapeseed oil when cooking because it has a very high smoke point and a neutral flavor. If I used olive oil for this preparation the oil would break down and give off of an almost fishy flavor, which is very unpleasant. I seared off my pork belly developing a nice golden crust.
After the pork belly was seared I added fresh garlic, shallot, a cinnamon stick, tarragon, red wine vinegar, and homemade chicken stock infused with smoked pork neck and brought it up to a slow simmer. Once minute bubbles started to form I put my Dutch Oven, covered with parchment paper, in a 275 degree oven for five hours.
Next, I took out the pork belly from the braise and removed the bone. I strained the braising liquid and chilled it rapidly, so bacteria would not have a chance to prosper. The excess fat that rose to the top of the braising liquid I reserved for later use.
I took some of that fat and glazed it on top of my pork belly and put it in the fridge over night. The next day right before serving I placed the pork belly in a 500 degree oven to roast and get crispy. This smelt and looked incredbile!! I was so excited to dig in.
Rutabaga is one of the most underused root vegetables and I do not know why, it puzzles me. James Tracey, the chef de cuisine at Craft, says he has trouble serving it at his restaurant and it gets him a little angry because if people would just try it they would love it. Rutabaga is very similar to a turnip in flavor, but has a different color flesh.
I cut the rutabaga up into a large dice and reserved the scraps for a puree.
I took the scraps, which were relatively the same size, and blanched them in salty water until tender. I pureed them in a blender with cream, lemon, chicken stock, the pork fat, pepper, and tarragon. My blender has no where near the power of a vita prep so I was not able to get the luxurious mouth feel I was hoping for.
I used a fine mesh sieve as a "ghetto tamis" to try and improve on the texture.....
If I was going to make this puree again I would either go out and buy a vita prep and a tamis or I would put the rutabaga through a food mill first. The flavor was great and there were zero lumps, but the mouthfeel was not perfect.
Commonly when brussel sprouts are prepped the outer leaves are removed and discarded, but I saved them and used them as a garnish. In restaurant kitchens when you blanch vegetables you bring a huge pot of water with a ton of salt up to a rapid boil so when you add the vegetables in the water it does not stop boiling; this technique was made famous in "The French Laundry Cookbook" which of course was written by the culinary god Thomas Keller. The reason behing doing this it to make the vegetable as green as possible.
After removing the leaves from the water you must dunk them immediately into salted ice water to retain their freshness and brightness.
Another under-appreciated ingredient is broccoli stem. Typically it is either thrown away or cooked with the broccoli floret, which is a crime. The broccoli stems are much sweeter than the florets and have a better texture. You may not like the stem because the only time you have eaten them was when they were attached to the florets - they both cook at different rates because they are completely different! Would you cook pork belly the same way you would cook pork tenderloin? No way!
I peeled off the outer layer of the broccoli stem and cut them into matchsticks. I cooked them in the same manner as I cooked the brussel sprout leaves. These by themselves were so tasty, it was hard not to keep eating them. They would make a great healthy side dish....
I pan roasted the brussel sprouts and rutabaga with a little butter and salt. When they started to turn brown I tossed in some of my pork sauce and called it a day.
The pork belly itself was mind-blowingly delicous; it was melt in your mouth, luscious, and so flavorful. The crispy and fatty textures were sensational together, I was in heaven and so were my friends. The vegetable garnishes were tasty, but could not live up to the superior belly. If I was to make this again I would keep the belly, brussel sprout leaves, broccolli stems, and the puree. I might add some fried broccoli florets......That would be tasty!