Pork belly and cabbage

There are two things in the kitchen that I take too very seriously. First, there’s spaghetti carbonara — made with guanciale, always, copious black pepper, real parmigiano-reggianno cheese, and never, ever a sauce made from cooked eggs. The carbonara is prepared — sans egg — then put in the “carbonara bowl.” You add the eggs and stir them in, without scrambling, just cooking them ever-so-slightly. It won’t resemble a cream sauce. It will be silky beyond measure. There’s just no other way.

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Second, there’s pork belly. I’m not as fanatical about pork belly as I am about carbonara. I don’t subscribe to totalitarian directions. A good pork belly braise, to me, is the opposite of strict. Feeling my way through the recipe, I prepare pork belly in the little of this, little of that method, thinking about the elements of flavor, adding pinches, sniffing, and dipping my finger in the braising liquid to get a good taste.

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I’ve never had great luck following pork belly recipes, probably because the pork belly itself is such an important factor. Too much fat and you better be careful to sear and render it enough. Too little fat and the whole thing may turn dry as a bone. For an Asian-style braise, you’ll need to add a bit more of those “kick” ingredients — vinegar, orange — to work with an overly fatty belly. If there’s not enough fat, you’ll want to save a lot of the dripping in the pan after you’ve seared the belly. Or you could just find a belly with equal amounts fat and meat, and then you’ll be fine, indeed. 

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Usually I serve pork belly over plain white rice, but this time I made a cabbage too. Spicy, of course. I sliced the cabbage thin and put it in a braising pot with some duck fat (my go-to fat for cabbage braising) and brown rice-wine vinegar, adding a few hits of sriracha once it was nice and tender. The result was just as sexy and handsome as that boiled kale I professed love for this winter, but a bit more, ahem, bow-chicka-wowow.

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Which was a good thing, because pork belly usually needs some heat. The belly was seared to hell, then braised with a bunch of scallion tops, shavings from half an orange, star anise, dark soy sauce, and chicken stock. I let it bubble away for a few hours, before slicing it into little squares along the crosshatch. Squares that I served atop the cabbage and covered in scallion slices and cilantro sprigs, and a few dashes of soy sauce. People, they were perfect bites.

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The weather may be too hot this weekend for a pork belly braise now (80 degrees in NJ lately). Unless, of course, you’re too very serious about your pork belly…

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Pork Belly Braise with Red Cabbage

For the pork belly:

1 piece of pork belly, about 1 pound, with about 50 percent fat and 50 perfect meat, scored
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 bunch of scallions, green parts only, coarsely chopped (reserve the white part of the scallions for garnish)
2 whole star anise
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thickly sliced
peel from 1/2 orange
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1/4 cup Shaoxing wine
water to almost cover

For the cabbage:

1 small to medium head of red cabbage
2 teaspoons duck fat
1 cup Shao-Xing rice wine
1 cup water
sriracha
salt, pepper

In a dutch oven that fits the pork belly snugly, melt sugar into oil over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until sugar turns a deep brown color. Put the scored pork belly in the pot, fat side down, and brown on all sides, caramelizing, about 20 minutes. Transfer the pork belly to a plate.

Take some of the drippings out of the pan, or leave it all in, depending on how much has accumulated, and then add the scallion greens, ginger, star anise, and orange into the pot.  Cook for a few minutes and then add the wine and soy sauce.  Fill the pot up with enough water to come up the sides and almost completely cover the pork belly.  Cover the pot and cook over low heat, so that the broth is just simmering, for about 2 hours.  Uncover the pot and cook for another hour or hour and a half.  Remove the pork belly and cut into squares, following the scoring marks.  Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve and discard solids.  You can boil the broth if it’s too thin, otherwise serve it as is.

Meanwhile, prepare the cabbage.  Slice cabbage as thinly as you can. Add duck fat to a large pot over medium heat.  Add cabbage and cook for a few minutes.  Add wine and water and cook until the cabbage is completely tender, about 1 hour.  Add sriracha, starting with a few drops, then adding more until it is as hot as you like it (a little hotter, even, since it’s going to be mixed with rice and pork belly.) Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm until the pork belly is ready.

Serve the pork belly in big bowls with white rice and cabbage, pouring some broth into the bowls.  Garnish with scallions and cilantro, and pass around sriracha at the table.

Old-fashioned meatloaf.

I still have a peck’s worth of peaches on my counter.  The temperature shot up today and we’ve got the air conditioner rumbling on low.  I sun-tanned this morning.  And ate an ice-cream for lunch.

But despite all that, I’m officially in fall mode.  There’s no going back after you’ve had a few mid-September rains and some cool weather, and the thought of butternut squash soup and apple pies and long, slow braises all enter your head.  I may even be swimming in the bay next weekend if this hot weather keeps up, but I’ll be doing so in fall mode; smores will be required afterward.

To enter fall-mode properly, I made meatloaf.  Not a fancy one, like this French loaf I’ve been eyeing, or one with un-meatloafy ingredients, chiles or what-have-you.  No, I made an old-fashioned meatloaf, with good ol’ Heinz ketchup, store-bought breadcrumbs, and locally smoked bacon.  Because you see, when I say old-fashioned, I mean it.  There was a butcher shop involved.  And ground beef made from the cattle that graze out back.  The vegetables were from the local farmer markets, the eggs from our friends Carla and Harry; only the ketchup and breadcrumbs were, well, nationally produced (is that what we call things that aren’t local?).

Obviously not everyone can buy all local ingredients to make a meatloaf, but getting good meat (preferably from a butcher) will certainly make your meatloaf taste better.  A few things to look for:  you want meat that is not ground to bits but looks like thick, loopy strings of meat.  You want to see bits of white fat throughout.  If possible, try to buy it from a butcher (you can try to find a local butcher here) so you see the meat in the butcher’s case instead of having to buy it pre-wrapped.  The color should either be purple or bright red.  If it’s bright red outside but gray inside, that means that it’s not as fresh as can be, but okay in a pinch.  If it looks gray and dull all over, don’t buy it—it’s about to spoil. If you can’t find good ground meat, buy chuck and ask the butcher to grind it up for you, or bring it home to do yourself.

When it comes to topping, I’m a line-of-ketchup-down-the-middle type of gal, but we had some perfectly smoked bacon and I guarantee that if you do too, it’s impossible not to use it.  I didn’t miss the ketchup at all and I think the bacon kept everything extra juicy.  And we had bacon on the side, a serious plus.

On the side went fingerling potatoes, turnips, and carrots, braised in chicken stock, browned butter, and a pinch of cinnamon.  And boy, oh boy, it declared fall.  Root vegetables will do that.  Cinnamon, too.

If you’d like to celebrate the beginning of fall with this meatloaf, I really hope you’ll make the veggies alongside.  The carrots speak to the subtle tomato sweetness in the meatloaf.  The turnips are both sweet and starchy.  And potatoes and meatloaf are eternal partners; one cannot exist without the other.  And I’m beginning to believe that fall cannot exist without meatloaf.


Old-fashioned Meatloaf

adapted from Gourmet

2 cups finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 celery rib, chopped fine
1 carrot, chopped fine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup ketchup plus additional as an accompaniment if desired
2 pounds ground chuck
scant 1 cup store-bought bread crumbs
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley leaves

4-6 slices bacon

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large heavy skillet cook onion, garlic, celery, and carrot in butter over moderate heat, stirring, 5 minutes. Cook vegetables, covered, stirring occasionally, until carrot it tender, about 5 minutes more. Stir in salt and pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and 1/3 cup of ketchup and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

In a large bowl combine well vegetables, meats, bread crumbs, eggs, and parsley. In a shallow baking pan form mixture into 1 10-by 5-inch oval loaf and lay bacon slices over the top.

Bake meat loaf in oven 1 hour, or until a meat thermometer inserted in center registers 155°F.

Printable Recipe

Braised Carrots, Turnips, and Potatoes with Cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 pounds potatoes, washed and halved
chicken stock
salt, pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound baby turnips, peeled and halved
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into thick coins

In a large skillet, heat butter and olive oil over medium-high heat until the butter foams and begins to brown.  Add potatoes and saute for one minute.  Add chicken stock to reach halfway up the potatoes.  Add 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and cinnamon.  Bring to a boil and cover.  Cook for 5 minutes, then add the turnips and carrots.

Cook, covered, for another 15-20 minutes.  Uncover and continue to cook until the liquid boils down and the vegetables caramelize and brown, stirring gently throughout, so that most pieces brown without breaking apart.  Serve with a sprinkling of chives.

Printable Recipe