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The surest way to a bacon lover's heart? Pork belly

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Originally published: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chef Jesse Griffiths has been known to eat pork belly for breakfast.

Before you read the words "pork belly" and scrunch your nose, know this: If you eat bacon, you are already eating pork belly, which isn't the stomach but the layer of meat on the underside of a pig.

For meat fanatics like Griffiths, Jeffrey's chef Deegan McClung and food blogger Ryan Adams, pork belly is the pot of gold at the end of the magical pig rainbow. "It's just such a wonderful, wonderful cut of meat," says Adams, who writes the blog Nose to Tail at Home (www.nosetotailathome.com) and prefers homemade bacon for breakfast.

We all know about American-style bacon, which is just cured pork belly, but uncured pork belly has become a chef's favorite in recent years. Braised or roasted, the succulent, fork-tender dish is on just about every forward-thinking fine dining menu in Austin, including Jeffrey's, where McClung serves it crispy with white anchovy potato salad. It's a sought-after ingredient that causes chefs to talk smack on Twitter, like this tweet last week from Alamo Drafthouse and Highball chef Trish Eichelberger: "Chef (James) Holmes from Olivia is mad I bought all the pork belly from Richardson Farms. You know what they say about early birds and pork bellies."

"It's got the perfect amount of fat-to-meat ratio," McClung says, the so-called five layers of heaven: fat, meat, fat, meat, fat. (A warning for calorie-counters: Like bacon, pork belly is best consumed in moderation.)

Fat is what gives pork belly so much flavor. Chef Wolfgang Murber, co-owner of Fabi and Rosi restaurant, braises pork belly in duck fat, a method that he says would shock even his German mother, then slices the pork belly thin and crisps it in a skillet before serving on a bed of spinach, apples, walnuts and blue cheese. "Fat enhances taste a lot," he says, and pork belly is inexpensive, which makes it easier to experiment with.

Griffiths says fat is also the reason pork belly is so forgiving to cook. "It's hard to overcook," he says at his commercial kitchen one morning last week, having just finished a juicy square of pork belly for breakfast.

"Pork belly can be used in an infinite amount of ways," says Adams, who is one of many bacon-crazed cooks curing pork belly at home, which requires special ingredients and time.

Bacon, pancetta, cracklings and salt pork come from pork belly, which you can buy ($1.69 to $3.99 per pound, often sold with the skin still on) at butcher shops such as Longhorn Meat Market and Asian markets such as MT Supermarket. (Call ahead to stores such as Central Market and Whole Foods Market to make sure they have them in stock.)

Pork bellies, like sugar, cocoa and frozen concentrated orange juice, are also traded on the commodities market, but diners aren't likely thinking about the market value of pork belly when they are pulling apart a crispy-on-top, moist-on-bottom piece of meat, which is fairly easy to re-create at home.

Griffiths says his favorite way to cook pork belly is a combination of roasting and braising, which softens the meat and allows the skin to get crispy. If you want to really do it right, start a few days ahead of time, he says. Season the meat with salt and pepper and let it rest in the fridge for a day. Score the skin, which is perfectly edible when cooked properly, and place the pork belly skin side up in a roasting pan with enough stock to come halfway up the side of the meat. (The liquid can be any combination of stock, apple cider, red or white wine and spices such as star anise, sage, bay leaves, rosemary and thyme. See his recipe for cider-braised pork belly below for details.) Cook it, uncovered, in an oven at 300 degrees for several hours. Griffiths says you could even leave it overnight in an oven at 225 degrees to produce an exceptionally tender meat.

After the pork belly has been braised, pour the braising liquid in a tall container and let it cool. Remove the layer of fat that forms at the top and pour the rest of the liquid back on the pork belly. Let it marinate in the fridge overnight, and reheat in an oven or over a low flame before serving.

Adams says he likes to brine a pork belly for a few days before braising it over onions. He then crisps the skin under a broiler.

After cooking a 10- to-13 pound pork belly, you're bound to have leftovers, which can be made into pork belly tacos or a juicier BLT sandwich. You can slice the pork belly and grill it, add it to jambalaya, gumbo, Asian noodles or fried rice or even cut it into small squares to add to a pot of beans or soup.

Handling 10 pounds of pork belly isn't easy, and the rich pork flavor might take some getting used to.

Adams says people forget what real pork tastes like. "You get so used to prepackaged meat that has been injected with brine and water to make it last longer," he says. "The flavor gets lost."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Apple Cider-Braised Pork Belly

24 ounces pork belly (see note)

Salt, to taste

2 white onions, sliced

2 Jonagold apples, sliced

4 bay leaves

2 cloves

Black pepper

1 quart fresh apple cider

Turn the pork belly fat side up, and score 1/4-inch deep in a crosshatch pattern with a box cutter or sharp, thin-bladed knife. Salt to taste and refrigerate for 4 hours or up to one day.

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Trim a 2-inch strip of fat from the belly and, in an oven-proof pan that will hold the belly snugly, melt the fat over a medium flame. Add the onions, apples, bay leaves, cloves and black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Add the apple cider and bring to a boil. Add the pork belly, fat-side up, and cook, uncovered, in the oven for 4 or 5 hours, or until a knife meets no resistance and the belly is tender and crisp on top.

Remove the belly, apples and onions from the pan, discarding the cloves and bay. Pour the braising liquid into a tall container and refrigerate. Carefully pour off the rendered fat from the liquid as it rises to the top and return the remaining liquid to the pan. Add the belly, apples and onions back to the pan and gently reheat or refrigerate for later serving. Serve with mashed sweet potatoes. Serves 4.

Note: Griffiths prefers pork belly from Richardson Farms near Rockdale, which sells beef, pork and chicken at several area farmers' markets. You can order online at www.richardsonfarms.com.

— Jesse Griffiths, Dai Due Supper Club

Milk-Braised Pork Belly

5 pounds pork belly

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 cup carrots, diced

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1 cup onions, minced

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 cups chicken stock

1 cup goat milk (or cow's whole milk)

1 Tbsp. Spanish paprika

1 Tbsp. sea salt

4 sprigs of thyme

2 springs of rosemary

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Score the top layer of fat and skin, if still attached, of the pork belly in a crosshatch pattern. Heat olive oil in a large braising pan until hot and sear both sides of the meat. Remove pork belly from pan, then add carrots, garlic and onions in pan and saute until soft. Deglaze pan with white wine, then add chicken stock and goat milk and bring to a simmer. Add paprika, sea salt, thyme and rosemary and simmer for five minutes. Remove rosemary and thyme and place pork belly back in pan with braising liquid. Cover and cook in oven for four hours.

— Deegan McClung, Jeffrey's executive chef