Chef Time!

Chef Time!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

This post is dedicated to those who appreciate a mighty good brew, meltingly tender pork belly, and the finer points of braising…


Braising is an invaluable technique. Whichever Cook of Antiquity discovered this method has my eternal gratitude.
Generally, braising involves cooking tough pieces of meat immersed in liquid until the gelatin and fibers are broken down so that the meat is tantalizingly tender.  The cooking time is long and the temperature low. The meat is completely cooked through, which is why your waiter might give you a quizzical look when you ask for your Osso Buco medium-rare.  Lamb shanks, oxtail, duck legs, shortribs, beef cheeks and rabbit legs make fabulous dishes (sorry, Thumper). And of course, there is pork belly, Ruler of the Universe

Braised Pork Belly

I became obsessed, in my usual way, with the pig and it’s many merits. I experimented, fiddling with dry cures, de-glazing liquids, and so forth. I think I reached the zenith of my pork-insanity the night I cooked pork belly two different ways.
Well, I finally got my recipe just where I want it.  All in all the process took about two days to cure and four hours to cook, but the result was oh-so-worth-it. For the beer I used Sapporo Reserve, a Japanese malt beer rich in flavor without being heavy. It may seem like an odd choice for such a Western dish, but I tell ya, it rocked.  For the accoutrements: tossed some cooked egg noodles in butter and garlic, sautĂ©ed some Swiss chard, and pour an ice cold glass of the aforementioned brew.  I know, I know, egg noodles aren’t the most glamorous of starches, but they are tasty. Mashed potatoes or soft polenta would’ve done just as nicely, but I thought I’d be considerate to my lazy side just this once…
Now, a few points:
The size of the pot matters: Not too large, not too small.  Try to use a pot that will fit all the pieces of meat comfortably, without over-crowding.  This helps ensure good searing and also that the meat is completely covered by liquid when braising begins.  And, use a pot that has a tight-fitting lid, we don’t want all the liquid to evaporate out.  Use plastic wrap and/or parchment paper if you have to.
Homemade chicken stock is best: I’m not saying this to be a pretentious chicken stock punk, I’m saying its better because homemade stock tends to have a higher gelatin content than anything I’ve ever bought at the store.  The liquid in the end will have a higher viscosity, which is better for making the sauce.  If one must use store-bought, then the sauce can be thickened through other ways e.g. using cornstarch or some other thickener.
Burning will kill your braise: If any part of the meat or Mirepoix gets burned, switch over to a fresh pot and discard any burnt bits.  A braise can be most unforgiving in this aspect, if anything gets burnt even in the slightest, the food will taste horribly bitter, and there’s no nifty resolution to this problem.

Beer Braised Pork Belly

For the pork:
2 pounds pork belly, preferably skin on, approximately 2 inches wide and 4-5 inches in length
For the dry cure:
3 tbsp. whole black peppercorn, freshly ground
2 tbsp. whole cloves, freshly ground
2 cinnamon sticks, freshly ground (I used a coffee grinder)
5 tbsp. dark brown sugar
3 tbsp. coarse sea salt

Mix the cure ingredients together.
Rinse the pork and dry with paper towels.  Season the pieces of pork on all sides and pack into a plastic container (there will be a lot of dry cure mix left, save in an airtight container).  Allow the pork to cure, covered and refrigerated, for two days.  After curing is done, rinse the pork under cold water to remove seasoning.  Pat dry.  You are now ready to braise.

For the braise:
1 ½ tbsp. oil
As needed, salt and freshly ground black pepper
The pork belly, cured, rinsed and dried
2 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
2 ea. Stalks of celery, roughly chopped
2 ea. Medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 ¾ c. Sapporo Reserve beer (can use beer of preference)
6 c. chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350.
Heat a heavy, medium-sized pot over medium-high heat.  Season the pork belly with salt and pepper.  Add the oil to the pot, and sear the pork pieces on each side to a deep, golden brown.  Remove the pork to a plate, and pour out any excess fat, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the pot.
Add the mirepoix to the pot, and cook until the vegetables begin to soften and slightly caramelize, stirring occasionally.  (If you think there’s a danger of burning the fond in the pot, add a half teaspoon of water and scrape the fond away so that nothing burns).
Add the bay leaf, thyme and beer.  Bring to a simmer, and reduce by half.
Return the pork to the pot.  Add in chicken stock.  Bring to a simmer, skimming off any visible scum and fat.  Cover with a tight lid and place into the oven on the center rack.  Cook until fork tender, about 3 hours.
When the pork is done, place the pot back on a burner and shut off the oven.  Transfer the pieces of pork to another pot or container and cover to keep warm.  Remove mirepoix and herbs with a sieve or slotted spoon.  Discard mirepoix and herbs.
Bring the liquid to a simmer.  Skim off any scum and fat.  Reduce until desired consistency and flavor, season if needed. *  Place meat back into the sauce and serve as part of a meal.
Any leftover meat can be cooled and stored in the cooking liquid (ideally the meat is completely covered as it will last longer and prevent drying out).  Heat in the liquid to eat.

*  I reduced mine by nearly half.  The flavor was intense and needed no additional seasoning.  The consistency was just viscous enough to lightly coat the pork.

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