Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Braised Pork Belly: A Good Start

I never thought that I would start a blog myself. I've never kept a journal, especially such a public one. One that's so open to scrutiny. But over the past two years a whole new world has opened up to me. The world of food blogs. I have been so inspired by the beautiful food and prose of many of the blogs out there. I certainly have my favorites. One's where if I were sitting next to them in elementary school, I would pass them a note asking them to be my friend. A quote from one of the blogs I follow read something like "If you want to keep what you have, you need to give it away." I think that is a beautiful sentiment and one that I would like to contribute to.

I have a couple of goals with this blog. I hope that I can provide some inspirati
on to others as I have been inspired over the past couple of years. And I hope that this blog will force me to be more diligent about chronicling the food that I make. And force me to actually write down recipes!

I recently planned and prepared a winemaker's dinner at a local cafe
. The cafe is closed in the evenings, and the owner, is open to hosting other events after normal hours. I realized that this would be a great opportunity for me to host a sort of underground supper club, without the fear of fines. As with all of the food I make, I wanted to highlight ingredients at their peak. And in keeping with the local, sustainable mantra of the modern food movement, I decided that this would be a great way to involve local winemakers. We have around 17 wineries in the East Bay, and one is just a block away from my day job in biotech. So Periscope Cellars was the first winery that I partnered with for my series of winemaker dinners. To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect from a winery in a warehouse in Emeryville. But after tasting, I was pleasantly surprised and excited to plan a meal around their wines. It took me about 3 weeks to get a menu set because designing a menu to be both seasonal and complementary to the wines proved quite challenging. In the end I was quite happy with the menu and the event. I had a lot of positive feedback. And my husband's band played which always sets a great tone for a party!

The dinner menu:

Pecan Crusted Pork Belly with Pomegranate Mole and Pomegranate Salsa
This was the stand out dish of the evening. And I think the pomegranate salsa is what set it off. The pork is incredibly rich and tender. The mole is a bit sweet, a bit tangy and a bit spicy. The crunchy, juicy pomegranate seeds lighten the dish and bring it all together.
For the Pork Belly:
(adapted from the Balthazar Cookbook)

2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole star anise
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
3 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of sage
6 garlic cloves peeled and crushed
1 slab of fresh pork belly, about 5 pounds
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 celery stalks chopped
3 carrots chopped
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart stock (I prefer this one)

For the crust:
1/2 cup honey
3/4 cup chopped pecans
1 whole star anise

To cure the pork belly: toast the spices. Put the first 5 ingredients in a dry skillet over medium flame for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan almost constantly. Put the toasted spices in a bag or wrap in cheesecloth and smash them with a mallet or the back of a frying pan.

Combine half of the toasted spices with the salt, sugar, bay leaves, thyme, sage and garlic. Cut the pork slab along the grain into a couple of manageable pieces and put into a ziplock bag with the cure mixture or put into a bowl or roasting dish large enough to accommodate the pork and the cure mixture. Make sure the pork is completely coated with the cure. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours. Put the remaining half of the spices in cheesecloth and tie into a sachet with twine.

The next day, remove the pork and rinse away the salt cure.

Preheat the oven to 325F.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottom saute pan over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute for about 10 minutes, until it begins to caramelize. Add the celery and carrots and cook for 5 minutes. Add the wine and scrape up any caramelized bits stuck to the pan and boil about 3 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Transfer this mixture to a roasting pan large enough to hold the pork and set the pork on top of the vegetables with the rind side up. The liquid should be at about the same level as the top of the pork. You may need to add a bit more broth or water. Add the sachet of spices to the liquid. Place in the oven and roast for about 2 hours. The meat will be meltingly tender when done. You should be able to pull it apart with a fork. You can use the pork at this point or put the roasting pan in the refrigerator overnight. If you want to strain the braising liquid to create a sauce, I suggest the refrigeration step to make the fat removal easier. There will be a lot of it!

Portion the pork belly into 6 squares and cut the rind and most of the fat from the top. If the pork was refrigerated overnight, put the pieces on a rimmed baking sheet and heat in a 350F oven for about 20 minutes to heat through. Meanwhile, prepare the pecan crust.

Bring honey to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add nuts and star anise; boil until honey is reduced to thick syrup, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. Spoon honey-nut mixture onto the top of the pork. Place the pork under the broiler for about 5 minutes to caramelize and set the crust.

Serve the pork with the mole sauce and pomegranate salsa below or make a sauce from the strained braising liquid.

For the Mole:
(adapted from Modern Mexican Flavors)
I love this book. It has beautiful photographs and as the title suggests, a very modern approach to Mexican food. I got the idea for the pomegranate mole from a tamarind mole in the book that is served with duck breast which was by the way, fantastic.
This recipe makes 3 cups of mole, but you will only need about a 1/2 cup. The rest freezes well and is great with chicken, pork, beef or duck, with enchiladas or tamales.

1/4 cup unsalted peanuts
1/4 cup whole blanched almonds
1/4 cup pecans
5 animal crackers
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
canola oil
1 yellow-black plantain peeled and cut into large cubes
2 dried pasilla chiles
2 dried mulato chiles
2 dried ancho chiles
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups stock
1 1/2 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate

1 1/2 cups stock
1/4-1/2 cup pomegranate molasses

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spread the peanuts, almonds, and pecans on a sheet pan and toast in the oven until slightly colored and fragrant. Transfer to a bowl. Toast the animal crackers in the oven, about 3 minutes. Transfer to the bowl. Toast the sesame seeds in a small dry skillet and transfer to the bowl.

Heat about 2 inches of oil in a nonstick skillet and fry the plantain pieces until lightly browned and crisped. Drain on paper towels.

Clean the dried chiles, removing the stems, seeds, and membranes. In a dry medium pan, toast the chiles over medium high heat, pressing them against the bottom of the pan with a spatula, until slightly colored, 30-45 seconds per side. Add enough water to almost cover the chiles and boil until the chiles are softened, about 5 minutes. Pour into a blender along with the cinnamon stick, cloves, cumin, salt and pepper. Puree until smooth and pour through a sieve into a medium saucepan.

Place the toasted nuts and sesame seeds in the blender. Pour in a little of the stock and puree until the nuts are finely ground, adding a little more stock as needed. Add the animal crackers and plantain pieces and puree. Pour the nut mixture through a sieve into the pan with the chiles. Simmer until thickened to the consistency of a thick peas soup, about 30 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently with a rubber spatula.

Stir in the chocolate and heat over low heat, stirring, until melted and smooth.

For the pomegranate mole: Combine 1/2 cup of the mole with about 1 1/2 cups of stock and the pomegranate molasses. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Season with salt and adjust the pomegranate molasses to suit your taste.

For the Pomegranate Salsa:
(adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

3 tablespoons finely diced shallots
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1 tablespoon sliced Italian parsley
kosher salt and pepper

Place the shallots, lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl, and let sit 5 minutes.

Whisk in the pomegranate molasses and then the olive oil. Stir in the pomegranate seeds and the parsley. Taste for balance and seasoning.