Pork Belly, pickled vegetables, BBQ sugar, polenta
I will confess, I'm kinda tired of all the rah-rah bacon and oooooooo, pork belly talk in the media, on the Internet, and everywhere else. And by saying that, it's not like I'm trying to be all, "I liked bacon before bacon was cool." Not at all. I just have reading-and-talking-about-pork fatigue.
I mean, I get it: I love pork and you love pork. What's not to love about pork? Pork is great. But can we talk about something else for once? PLEASE?
This entry is supposed to be all about pork. Pork belly, actually, Alinea-style.
FINE. BE THAT WAY.
I have high standards for pork belly, in case you were wondering. (shocker) Why? The two best pork belly dishes I've ever had were at Alinea and Per Se. (yes, I'm spoiled, and I'm the first to admit it)
After my dinner at Alinea in May, I wrote this about the pork belly course:
Our next course was pork belly, served in a cucumber juice-infused lettuce cup with a variety of Thai spices and flavors, and a shot glass off to the side with a really clean and lovely (and not overpoweringly spicy-hot) distillation of Thai green chili and lemongrass. Now, I'm of the school of thought that it's really hard to screw up pork belly, but it also takes someone special to make it sing and make you go from, "oh cool, pork belly" to "HOLY MOTHER OF CHARLES NELSON REILLY THIS IS AMAZING!!!!" This course was a perfect balance of cool, heat, salt, kick, and crisp. Again, I could've eaten three or eleventy kabillion of these, too.
After my birthday dinner at Per Se in August 2008, I wrote this about the pork belly course:
* "Smoke;" All-Day Braised Hobbs Shore's Pork Belly, Heirloom Beets, and Burgundy Mustard. I knew what type of preparation was coming when I saw the crystal spheres being so gently and carefully carried into the room, but I had no idea I was in for the single best piece of pork belly I've eaten in my life. This dish, if you'll indulge me in a rather nerdy confession, almost made me cry, it was so good. The reveal that takes place when the top of the sphere is removed and the smoke rises up and into and onto your palate is such a wonderful tease, and to be able to feast on even that small morsel of pork belly that has spent a day braising to absolute perfection (along with beets and mustard that more than held their own) is nirvana.
Over the years, I've had pork belly in many, many restaurants, and I can't recall any of them ever being bad or awful or just not right. Some have been outstanding, and many of them very, very good. But those two stand out in my mind far above the rest because they stopped me in my freakin' tracks and made me wanna slap somebody. HARD. A quiet storm of delightfully hysterical deliciousness, they were.
So imagine the standard I set for myself when starting out to make this dish from the Alinea cookbook. It couldn't be just good or okay. I wanted it to be EXCELLENT. I wanted it be AWESOME. It had to bring me to my knees.
In reviewing the recipe and instructions one more time before getting started, I realized that none of these components were difficult. They all involved ingredients I was very comfortable with, and techniques I (now) know well. Still, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect and excellent and turn out a fantastic bite of food, because who wants to fail at pork belly?
I made the cure: sugar, kosher salt, smoked paprika, chipotle chili powder:
Then, I rinsed and dried the piece of pork belly I was going to cure:
Then, I packed that sucker in among the cure and rolled it tight in a ziploc bag and stored it in the fridge for two days.
After two days, it looked like this:
Because the Cryovac Fairy still hasn't shown up at my house, I've been looking into other options for vacuum-sealing my plastic bags better for cooking en sous vide. The FoodSaver is out -- it doesn't really work and pulls out too much moisture when sealing. And, while I'm getting better and better at wrapping things on my own, I wanted to try another method, so I splurged (**cough$4.25cough**heybigspender) on the Ziploc-brand hand-vacuum sous vide kit at my local Giant grocery store:
Really easy to use, and the hand pump was a no-brainer:
But, as the bag o'bacon wiled away the hours (four of them, to be exact) in the 190F-degree water, I noticed that it would rise to the top every 40-45 minutes. And, I could see that air (but luckily no water, 'cause I kept that part above the water's surface) was seeping in.
So, I just kept pumping out the air as often as I could, and hoped for the best.
While the pork belly spent time underwater, I worked on the smoked paprika tuile -- or, the BBQ Sugar portion of our program.
In a small saucepan, I heated fondant, glucose, and isomalt to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, then poured it onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet:
That doesn't look right, does it? I should've, at that point, trusted my instincts and thrown it back in the pot and taken it up another 50 degrees or so, but I didn't. I figured I'd sort it out after it had hardened. Which it didn't really do. I mean, it got hard (heh... /dirty), but it was still a little bendy. Regardless, I broke off 75g of it and threw it into my spice grinder with some sweet smoked paprika and cayenne, and set about turning it into powder:
Not sure how it happened, to be honest, but I dropped the whole thing, the contents of which went all over my pants, my shoes, the floor, the lower cupboard door knobs, the trash can pedal. EVERYWHERE. I let many, many expletives fly (because I wanted so much for this to go well), and went back to the tray of white lumpy stuff, tore off another 75g, weighed more cayenne and paprika and tried again -- this time in a little mini-food processor/chopper thingie that sat on a counter and did not require my holding it.
But even after that, it ended up looking like this (and not a fine powder):
So, I threw it into a small saucepan and figured I'd heat the crap out of it until it was melted and smooth and would harden on the Silpat:
(doing the cabbage-patch over here, complete with white-girl's overbite)
I broke it up into pieces and put it back in a now-clean mini-chopper, and let 'er rip:
Then, I put it through a fine-mesh strainer so that I'd have the finest powder in town:
I made a square stencil (by cutting a 2x2" square out of a piece of paper) and, using yet another fine-mesh strainer, sifted the fine sugary, paprika and cayenne powder onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet in eight little squares:
I put them into a 350F-degree oven for a minute. The book said to "turn the squares once" after 30 seconds, but I didn't know if that meant actually flipping them with an offset spatula (which seemed odd and not possible) or turning the tray around, which didn't really make sense to me either, so I did neither.
I did, however, keep the oven door open a crack while I counted out those 60 seconds. Not sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do.
While they cooled, I diced some red bell pepper:
I made some carrot balls and soaked them in sugar, water, and white wine vinegar:
And I made some cucumber balls, too:
The pork belly was done sous vide-ing, so I plunged it, still in the bag, in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process:
I trimmed and cut it and made 1" squares that were about 1/4"-1/2" thick:
(I saved all the rest of it in a bag, thinking I'd snack on it over the next few days. Um, yeah. I finished it that night. Oink.)
I made the polenta, and added lovely, lovely butter and mascarpone:
Then, I seared the pork belly squares over very high heat on one side only, until that one side was nearly charred:
Then, I arranged all eight pork squares on a small baking sheet, topped each one with two carrot balls, two cucumber balls, and a wee piece of red bell pepper in the center
I topped each one with one of the hardened paprika-cayenne tuille squares, then put them under the broiler, so the squares could melt down and around the pork belly and its adornments (which took all of 5 seconds) and then re-harden.
To plate, I put a blob of polenta on a spoon, topped each one with a pork belly square, and added a few leaves of marjoram:
There were eight spoons. There were eight people.
We each took one, opened our mouths, inserted a spoon, slid it out, then chewed.
It's the quietest my house has EVER been.
And, it's the most I've wanted to slap someone hard across the face over something I made. It was THAT good.
Smoky pork with a bit of heat (but not a ton); smooth, warm, delicious polenta; cool, crunchy vegetables; the sweet, smoky, salty envelopment; and, the marjoram... still now today, days after eating it, I'm having trouble summoning the right words -- any words, for that matter -- to describe how good this was. It's definitely the best thing I've made for the blog, hands-down. But even bigger than that, it really and truly is one of the best things I've ever made in my whole life.
It's times like these I wish I could have every single one of you here in my house, standing around my dining room table, taking a bite, and savoring it, so that I could say, "See... SEE!??!!?!? THIS is why I love to cook from this book. This pork belly bite is sooooo WORTH MAKING!!! TRY IT!!!!" And, I wouldn't even slap you. Well maybe I would. And you'd probably like it.
Up Next: Trout Roe, coconut, licorice, pineapple (MAJOR adaptation on this one, y'all)
Resources: Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; paprika, cayenne, and chipotle chili powder from TPSS Co-op; Cedarbrook Farm pork belly; fondant from that stinky craft store, Michaels; glucose and isomalt from L'Epicerie; bell pepper, carrot, marjoram, and cucumber from Whole Foods; Terra Midi white wine vinegar; Bob's Red Mill polenta; 365 butter; Crave Brothers mascarpone.
Music to Cook By: The Editors; The Back Room. Thanks to my Twitter compatriot EricDM1 who answered my call for new music a few weeks ago. He suggested their album "In This Light and On This Evening," which I also love, but there's something about The Back Room that is just captivating.
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