Though I think about food all day long, I was never a pioneering or adventurous eater. As a child, I was demonstrably picky, despite (and probably because of) having two parents who were excellent cooks. My father is a chef, and my mother was a caterer. Yes, they fed us thrilling things, but I didn’t like them. Like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, I’d put on a whole show about their culinary cruelty. I’d eat their plated whatever-you-call-it, but not without a fight. By the time I was in double digits, my folks caved. I feel like my entire diet the year I turned 10 was a montage of boneless skinless chicken breasts seasoned with Mrs. Dash. It wasn’t until I was 22, and I’d moved to Oregon, land of farmer’s markets and frontier spirit, that I started to discover new foods to occupy my thoughts—foods I was too skittish to relish as a child.
“Discover” and “new” are presumptuous words. I’m using them much in the same way Lewis and Clark did when they “discovered” a “new,” already populous and civilized west. I stumbled on something many long knew was there. But, hey, it was new me, and that novel feeling fueled just enough born-again fever to inspire me to say, “Look what I’ve discovered!! I’m a genius!!” I discovered things like goat cheese, broccoli rabe, mutton shanks, fiddle ferns, jicama, and sun chokes. I discovered fruits with weird shapes and bizarre colors. And I discovered pork belly. Talk about planting a flag on already well-trod territory! Pork belly was definitely the least new of these new discoveries. After all, I’d been eating it my whole life. It was just cured, smoked, and given the less offal-invoking name, “bacon.”
I can find pork belly at any Costco now, but the farmer’s markets used to be the only place game in town. We didn’t have any good butcher shops nearby, and the most exciting pig product sold at the local Safeway were the pork rinds in the chip aisle. But 17 years ago, if I wanted pork belly, I’d have to source it from the family of 6 disturbingly polite blonde children selling butcher cuts from the chest freezer out the back of their brown van. “Do you have any recommendations for preparation?” I’d ask. They’d look to each other, confused, then to their father who was busy strumming “Wildwood Flower” on his melody harp. “You know what, I’ll figure it out, thanks.”
The best thing about pork belly is the classic preparation makes it so easy. The first time I made it, I didn’t even use a recipe. I braised it in stock, wine, honey, whole-grain mustard, shallots, salt and pepper. When I took it out of the oven 90 minutes later, the meat looked tender, but the skin left much to be desired. So I removed the lid, and popped it back in the oven for another 30 minutes. The braising liquid reduced to a velvet, and the skin crisped up to a deep-bronze, popping crackle. The had fever hit. I staked my claim on this new, already well-known land.
Pork belly is the Gateway Arch to the foodie frontier. It still feels enough like a curiosity to give a sense adventure, but its familiarity offers the necessary comfort along the ride. The first time you make it you might keep the flavors close to home, but you’ll quickly look for new ways to expand. Perhaps you might experiment with sweet and tart cooked fruits. Maybe you’ll add more texture to play with and toy with pomegranate seeds or crunchy cabbage. After the west has been fully explored, you might turn east and let it invite you in to the mind blowing effects of sesame oil, gochujang, and rice vinegar on pork belly. As your map of flavors expands, you’ll soon see that what used to be a frontier, is now your backyard. And as you itch to “discover” new-to-you flavors, Pork belly, this humble, succulent cut, is your vehicle to the world that awaits.
Pork Belly and Roasted Sweet Corn Risotto
Roast Corn Risotto:
Note: You may have unused stock in the risotto recipe. That’s okay. Just put it in a container and save for another use. Exact measurements of liquid for risotto are difficult to state in advance.
Roasted Corn Risotto