There's nothing like a piece of perfectly prepared braised pork belly. With crisp golden fat on the outside and impossibly tender meat within, it manages to be sexy and comforting at the same time.
In the Northern U.S., we don't use that much uncured pork belly, although 20-ton units of the stuff are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Mostly we salt it or smoke it and call it bacon. In other countries, such as Canada, they make a much leaner "bacon" using different cuts. I confess a passionate attachment to the "streaky kind" we make here. It's one of the few remaining things that makes me swell with nationalistic pride.
Anyway...This weekend, I decided to try my hand at preparing a hunk o' belly for the very first time. As usual, I decided to improvise. The dish turned out really, really well, so I thought I'd share. I apologize for the lack of photos...When it comes to whipping out my camera before my fork, I seem to have a mental block.
Cider-Braised Pork Belly with Winter Vegetables
Equipment: Heavy duty metal pan with a lid (I used the Viking sauté pan with cover).
1 hunk of pork belly
1 large onion, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1 Star anise
1 two-inch cinnamon stick
Carrots and cabbage (or other winter veggies), chopped
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat oil in pan until hot, but not smoking. Pat the pork belly dry and season with salt and pepper. Beginning with the fattiest part, sear pork belly on all four sides until browned. Decrease heat, move the meat to one side, and add the chopped onions and shallots. Use the liquid that is released to stir up some of the browned bits of meat and fat (called "fond") stuck to the pan. Add the star anise, cinnamon and cloves.
Continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the onions and shallots are caramelized.
Deglaze the pan with a splash of cider vinegar, then add apple cider until it comes about a third of the way up the piece of pork. Cover pan and place in oven.
Cook for 1 1/2 hours, turning the pork and stirring the mixture every half-hour. If the cider seems to be in danger of drying up (this should only happen if the cover doesn't fit correctly) add a bit more.
Add chopped carrots and cabbage to the pan, stir, replace the lid and return the pan to the oven.
When the vegetables are tender, remove the pan from oven. Turn the oven to broil and place the meat on a broiler-proof dish. Season the vegetables and cider sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables to a serving dish and set in a warm place, leaving the cider sauce in the pan. Place the pan on a burner over medium-low heat and simmer to reduce the sauce. At the same time, broil the meat on all sides until the fat sizzles and turns a deeper shade of brown. Take care that it doesn't burn.
To serve, make a bed of vegetables on each plate, add slices of pork belly, and drizzle with sauce.