Friday, July 18, 2008

Belly of the Beast

I find it really amusing to look at the most expensive items on restaurant menus. I still remember the days when a porterhouse or a lobster tail were off limits thanks to the price tag. It was predictable, but at least it made sense. These days, as food trends have come and gone, the food tide has turned towards less obvious dishes that are expensive for different reasons. These new wallet-busting dishes were formally not seen in restaurants because they were based on cheap cuts of meat and traditionally associated with peasant food (not to mention their long cooking times). Lamb shanks, osso bucco, and gnocchi are all examples of peasant food turned expensive restaurant fare. But now, what was once affordable food for the everyman is actually found at the bottom of the menu next to a ridiculous price.

On such cut of meat is pork belly. For my family, it was a cheap cut used to flavor stews. But in the last few years it has become the appetizer du jour. Roasted, pan-fried or braised, it now appears on the menus of restaurants across the city and all over the country. Although I love that people are embracing such a delicious, fatty piece of meat (I like to think of it as 'super-bacon'), my once beloved and super affordable pork belly is so en vogue that I can no longer afford it. That's right, due to it's popularity, the prices have sky rocketed and now I have to sneak down to the meat shops Chinatown if I want to get it.

Last weekend, however, I decided to splurge while perusing one of the meat stalls at the Union Square Greenmarket. I'd already done several rounds around the market to buy all of the veggies I needed for the week (along with a few impulse buys) so by the time I got to the meat section they were out of a lot of cuts. It was just my luck that since most people aren't familiar with how to make pork belly at home, and it's an altogether new to cut to so many people, they had plenty left for me. I bought a lovely big cut weighing in at almost a pound and a half and headed home on my merry way. The next night I decided that since I'd be chowing down on such an extravagant and fatty piece of meat, I should at the very least make something healthy on the side. Instead I went with incorporating the pork belly into a salad with grapefruit, shallots and a simple grapefruit-mustard vinaigrette. The dish turned out great, and was well worth the money spent on my formerly economical cut.

I just like to think that if it were served in a restaurant, I'd at the very least make triple what I paid for just the meat. Pork belly is so easy to make, I can't believe word hasn't spread (but thank goodness for my empty pockets that it hasn't). A simple rub and well under an hour in the oven and it's done. It doesn't need any special attention or turning, just a few pokes here and there to check the doneness. The top should be dark and super crispy, the inside a lovely layered mass of pale pink and white. Here's my final recipe:

Salad with Crispy Pork Belly and Grapefruit

For the pork belly:
1/2 a pound pork belly
1 tsp Chinese five spice
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp coriander seed, ground
1/4 tsp ground pepper

For the salad and vinaigrette:
1 head Bibb or romaine lettuce
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 ruby red grapefruits, peeled and cut into segments (reserve what's left of the grapefruit)
olive oil
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard

1. Preheat oven to 425 F degrees.

2. Score the top (fatty) side of the pork belly. Combine spices for the pork belly in a bowl and set aside. Salt the pork belly and rub with the spices on all sides. Cook in the oven on a non stick or lightly greased baking sheet or oven rack for 35-45 minutes until done.

3. Meanwhile, combine red wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a bowl. Squeeze the juice from what's left of the grapefruit into the bowl. Slowly stream in the olive oil while whisking until dressing comes together. Set aside.

4. Arrange lettuce on a platter, top with shallots and grapefruit segments and drizzle with dressing. Top with sliced pork belly (still warm) and drizzle with more dressing. Enjoy!


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