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Published March 07, 2008, 12:00 AM

Meltingly tender on the inside and crisp on the outside, pork belly is simply divine

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Meat in the middle. Soul on the edge. Pork belly inspires thoughts like that for me. Maybe it’s just the fat rushing to my brain.

By: By Kathleen Purvis, McClatchy Newspapers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Meat in the middle. Soul on the edge.

Pork belly inspires thoughts like that for me.

Maybe it’s just the fat rushing to my brain.

But when I introduce someone to pork belly — to soft meat surrounded by fat that is meltingly tender on the inside and crisp on the outside — what I usually hear (through the moans) is, “that is to die for.”

“Yes,” I reply cheerfully. “And with that in your arteries, it won’t be long.”

CRISP PORK BELLY

ON CHEDDAR CRACKERS

Makes 8 to 10 servings. From Joseph Bonaparte of the Art Institute of Charlotte.

2 to 3 pounds fresh pork belly

4 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon minced fresh gingerroot

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves

1 onion, peeled and sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 stalk celery, sliced

About 3 to 4 cups apple juice or fres h apple cider

1 to 2 cups chicken stock or water

Strawberry jam

Cheddar-mustard crackers (see recipe)

MIX the salt, sugar, pepper, ginger, garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage. Rub all over the pork belly, coating it well. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 3 days.

PREHEAT the oven to 250 degrees F. Unwrap the pork and rinse off the seasoning mix, then dry with paper towels.

PLACE the sliced onions, carrots and celery in a roasting pan large enough to hold the pork. Add enough apple juice or cider to come halfway up the pork. Add enough stock or water to come half of the way up the meat. Cover the meat with parchment paper, then cover the pan tightly with heavy duty foil and a lid.

PLACE in the oven and cook about 6 hours, or until very tender. Line a jellyroll pan or cookie sheet with parchment paper. Carefully remove the pork belly from the cooking liquid, lifting from the bottom with a couple of spatulas so it doesn’t fall apart. Place it on the paper-lined pan, and place another sheet of parchment on top. Place another pan on top, then weigh it down with several pounds (such as heavy cans).

REFRIGERATE overnight. (The cooking liquid can be strained and used for another recipe, such as soup.) Remove from refrigerator, remove weights and peel off the paper. (Can be made to this point up to 4 days ahead. Refrigerate until ready to serve.)

SLICE the firm pork belly into 1-by-2-inch cubes. Place in a skillet over medium-high heat and sear, turning carefully with tongs, until browned and crisped on all sides. Serve on a cheddar cracker with a dab of jam.

Observer-tested recipe

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