Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Thick crunchy bacon, crisp lettuce, and garden fresh tomatoes on toasted bread with mayonnaise. What's not to love about a good BLT? Simple. Basic. Classic. Oh sure, there are countless gussied up variations. I could have cured my own bacon, baked a fine loaf of artisanal bread, or whipped up a creamy lemon-infused aioli. I didn't.

I spent a lazy weekend spinning a twist on the humble BLT.

Belly. Lettuce. Tomato.
Pork belly is a wonderful thing. Cut from the underlying belly of the pig, thick ribbons of soft white fat are layered with pinkish colored meat. It looks like a big slab of fatty uncooked bacon. In fact, when cured and smoked, pork belly becomes the bacon we all know, love, and crave. Left uncured, it can be cooked low and slow to break down the collagen before crisping up the fatty stuff. The good stuff.

Pork Belly.
I managed to track down a local source for pork belly, but they only sold it in 10 pound slabs. Even for big time pork lovers, 10 pounds seemed like overkill. I stopped by one of our local Asian markets and hit the aromatic meat/seafood/guess-the-product butcher counter. Tucked between bins of chicken feet and other things, I thought I recognized pork belly. I got the butchers attention, held up a slab, and pointed to my stomach. He approved with a simple nod. Win.

Here's the deal. Preparing pork belly takes time. A little time. Small effort. Big pay off.

Brine. To flavor and tenderize the meat, I threw together a simple brine. After simmering 6 cups of water in a stock pot, I added 1/2 cup salt, 1 cup sugar, bay leaves, fresh lovage, fresh thyme sprigs, whole black peppercorns, and dried green peppercorns. I tossed a few trays of ice cubes into the pot to cool the mix before carefully trimming the skin from the top fatty layer of the belly and submerging it into the brine. I covered the pork with plastic wrap and slid it into the refrigerator to marinate for several hours.

After 8 hours or so, I pulled the belly from the brine, scraped off the herbs, and patted the meat dry.

Braise. I heated olive oil in a large dutch oven until it was smoking hot. After scoring the fat on the pork belly, I browned it fat side down, flipped it over, and browned the other side. We adore thick cut applewood-smoked bacon. To mimic that familiar flavor profile for our twisted BLTs, I deglazed the pot with 1 cup apple cider to pick up the sticky fond. When the cider reduced to a light syrup, I added 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, 1 cup apple cider, 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, a sprinkling of chardonnay-smoked sea salt, and 4 tablespoons of pure maple syrup. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and slid it into a 325 degree oven to braise for 2 1/2 hours, basting the scored fat every 30 minutes.

After a few glasses of wine hours, I pulled the pork belly from the oven and let it rest. When it was completely cooled, I transferred it to a deep baking dish, covered it with the fatty braising stock, and covered it with plastic wrap. To compress the meat and squeeze out additional fat, I placed a small baking pan  on top of the plastic-sealed belly and weighed it down with  an aluminum foil-wrapped brick before sliding it into the refrigerator to chill overnight.  By the time I called it a night, I was covered in pork fat and smelled like a good way.

Crisp. I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and pulled the pork belly confit out of the refrigerator. After scraping the solidified fatty lid from the top of the pork, I carefully scooped the slabs of belly out of the gorgeous gelatinous  pork stock. I sliced the pork into small serving pieces and placed them fat side down in a small cast iron skillet before adding  the jiggly stock, a few split tomatoes, sprigs of fresh thyme, salt, and pepper. I roasted the belly pieces for 10 minutes, turned them over to expose the scored fat, and basted them constantly with the reduced maple-cider pork stock  until they were deeply caramelized.

Wine break.

Burnished with crackling fat, I pulled the mahogany-stained pork from the oven to rest.

BLT. After slathering Weisenberger Mills toasted cornbread croutons with mayonnaise, I nestled the candied belly bites onto the croutons and tumbled peeled green zebra cherry tomatoes to the side. I mixed the last harvest of Stonehedge Farm baby romaine with baby arugula, tossed both lettuces in a roasted Brown Berry cherry tomato poppy seed vinaigrette, and finished with scattered slivered radishes, halved Black Plum tomatoes, split Italian Ice tomatoes, and pickled apples.

Unconventional, to say the least. It's hard to cook and describe pork belly without embracing the fat. Fat. Good fat. Crisp fat. Sweet fat. Fatty fat. Embrace the fat. Fat equals flavor. Period. That being said, the fat was there without being overly there. It simply melted into the layers of pork, keeping the meat moist and tender. The charred scored tips were crisp and sweet. Candy. Salted maple-cider braised pork candy. Yep. However, like any conventional BLT, balance was key. With all the porkiness going on, it needed other stuff to make it work. While the roasted tomato vinaigrette added sweet zing, the ripe tomatoes, peppery radishes, lettuces, and pickled apples leveled the playing field with crunchy fresh acidic balance. Crazy.

Belly up

1 comment:

Christina said...

Just stumbled upon your page and became instantly enamored. I hope beyond hope that when I grow up I can be as cool as you are! Love your creative skill with food!