Belly up.

I live in a country—in a culture—where pork belly is sorrowfully misunderstood.  Things are changing for the better, I’ll admit, but most people still think of pork belly as sinful, fatty, an easily avoidable indulgence.  Too often, I talk to people—people who would eat a rib-eye steak when they feel like indulging but would never go so far as to eat fresh, uncured bacon (which is what pork belly is)—who are shocked to hear that I eat it, on weeknights no less. But to me, the thought that you could live your life (assuming you are an omnivore) without knowing the luxury of pork belly… well, that thought leads me to believe the whole country’s gone belly up.

Let me make my case:  Ethical meat-eating is becoming quite a hot trend—and the excuse for guiltlessness—with gluttons.  I say gluttons without any ill-feeling.  I am a glutton.  And proud of it.  The word glutton is a crucial distinction here, I think, because omnivorous, gourmet-minded gluttons are the people who desperately need to eat meat ethically.  If you are say, simply a greedy-eater—one who cares little for taste and greatly for quantity, you may do just fine with the state of the American meat industry as it is: lots of lean meat, homogeneous flavors, cheap prices.  If you are simply a gourmet, or a good eater with money, you may be able to satisfy yourself on caviar, Brie, and pomme puree.  You may not need to eat meat much, so when you do, you buy the best filet mignon or foie gras, without a thought to the cost since it is an occasion.  And if you are simply an ethical eater (as compared to an ethical meat-eater) you may not need meat at all.  You can happily live a life of smoked tofu and artisanal breads, with a clear conscience and an ample purse.

But if you are a glutton, if you desire-no-need the unctuous, savory taste of full-flavored fatty meat more often than you would like to admit (and if your wallet is, like most Americans’, a bit slimmer now than it was a few months ago), then you simply must eat meat ethically. Remember, not all ethical meat-eating is expensive.  It can actually can be quite the opposite.  Think short ribs, think offal, think… pork belly.  These uber-flavorful cuts of meat are not often found in the supermarket but are easily bought from good, ethical butchers or small markets, producers, and farmers (people who care for the animal that provided the meat and make sure that all of it will be sold and enjoyed).  Fresh pork belly, even from the most organic, most natural, most hoighty-toighty farmer would never run over $6 per pound.  And usually it is about $3.  A pound of pork belly served over rice or noodles can easily feed a family; three pounds will provide a week’s worth of dinner and lunches for the most greedily gluttonous couple (I’m speaking from experience).

It doesn’t even have to be bad for you—an average serving (3-4 ounces) of pork belly has fewer calories than a Big Mac (and will satisfy you longer.)  Yes, it’s fat, it’s cholesterol.  But, yess, it’s fat. Slippery, greasy, cover-your-rice-in-the-best-sauce-that-you’ve-ever-tasted fat. It’s certainly not rabbit food, and don’t put it on your menu for crash-dieting, but it’s food that will leave you satisfied.  Not just satisfied with dinner, but satisfied with life.  I challenge anyone not to fall in love with the person who cooks you braised pork belly.  It’s impossible.  Case closed.

I hope I don’t sound like a food snob here—trust me, I have very little patience for them.  I’ll take the black-top BBQ over a stuffy restaurant any day and I don’t think that everyone needs to learn French to know food.  But I do think that a lot of Americans have lost the fundamentals of eating meat.  If I do anything in my life, I hope it’s convincing people that while a quick-seared filet is mouth-watering and delicious, it’s not the only game in town.  You may have to go outside of the supermarket, and you may need to have three hours to kill at home while your dinner simmers away in a pot, but you will be rewarded for trying your hand at the “lowlier” cuts of meat.  Rewarded with a few extra dollars in your pocket and a full, blissfully happy belly.

Pork Belly Hot Pot

Serves 6//adapted from The River Cottage Meat Book

  • 3 pounds pork belly, rind on
  • 6 cups pork or chicken stock, or water
  • 12 green onions
  • 7 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 4 teaspoons mirin (sweet Chinese wine)
  • 3 star anise pods
  • 4 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • pinch of red pepper flakes

Bring the stock to a boil. Remove the bones from the pork belly and cut into chunks, about 1 by 2 inches.  Put them in a large pot, pour over boiling stock to cover and then bring back to a boil on the stovetop.  Simmer for 5 minutes, skimming off the scum that accumulates on the surface.  Drain.

Rinse out the pot and return the pork to it. Pour enough of the boiling stock to cover the pork again.  Cut 5 of the green onions in hald and add to the pan with the soy sauce, mirin, star anise, ginger, and red pepper flakes.  Stir well and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer very slowly for 2 hours, turning the meat occasionally, until the pork belly is very tender.

Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Stain the cooking liquid through a colander lined with cheesecloth, skimming off as much fat as you can.  Wipe out the pot and return the liquid to it.  Bring to a boil and boil hard for a few minutes.  Turn off the heat and add the pork belly back to the pot to rewarm.

Meanwhile, slice the remaining green onions.  To serve, center a scoop of cooked white rice in a bowl, ladle broth into bowl, and top with pork belly and onions.

Some tongue.

Over the past couple weeks, I haven’t been cooking anything that takes longer than 10 minutes—the pizza, many salads, a few pieces of fish—but Jim and I had something serious brewing up in our kitchen. Like, 6 days brining and then 24-hour waterbath serious. Yes, a serious, 7+ day recipe. Beef tongue.

We’ve been eating more ethically lately, buying meat from the small, local, and humane meat producers in our area. We get to see how the animals live before they are slaughtered—on big open terrains, munching on grass, or hanging by the lake. They’re happy. And I’m much happier too—the meat tastes better, I don’t feel badly eating it, and it’s healthier.

tongue3

But it’s more expensive. In my new favorite cookbook, we’re told that to eat meat ethically, you should expect that half as much meat will be twice as expensive. It’s true. This shouldn’t deter you, however, but unless you’re a bahgillionaire, you’ll have to rethink your meat-eating. Firstly, you’ve got to eat less meat. Fill your dinner plate up with substantial foods, like lentils, so that you fill up without needing a big hunkin’ steak. (Though, of course, remember to splurge on the steak every once in a while.) Secondly, you’ve got to start cooking with cheaper cuts—chuck, short-ribs, etc.—and offal.

Offal is the entrails and internal organs of the animals that make your meat. Offal’s the lump category for things like heart, liver, and tongue. Offal’s cheap. I mean, real cheap. The big ol’ tongue we bought from our fancy-pants free-range organic meat supplier was about 5 bucks—put that in perspective with the about 30 dollars we spend there on pork tenderloin. Offal’s cheap.

It’s also quite fatty too, which is all the more reason to keep your portions small. The taste of tongue is delicious—meaty but awesomely tender. I don’t really know how to describe it, other than I think it has the flavor of a steak-um. A steak-um but 10 bahgillion times better. Try it. You’ll get a delicious meal, money left in your bank, a clear conscience, and leftovers for days. Can’t beat that.

tongue5

Pickled Tongue

adapted from the River Cottage Meat Book

For the Brine:

  • 5 quarts of water
  • 1 pound light brown sugar
  • 3 pounds coarse sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon juniper berries
  • 5 cloves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 sprig of thyme

For the Brined Tongue:

  • 1 whole fresh beef tongue
  • 1 herb satchel (with thyme, oregano, celery seeds, and peppercorn)
  • 3 small carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, halved
  • 1 leek, halved crosswise and lengthwise
  • 1/2 garlic bulb, outer leaves removed

Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large stockpot and stir well over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil, allow to bubble for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let cool. Once cooled, put the tongue in a large non-metallic container (i.e. Tupperware) and cover it with the cooled brine. Put in the fridge and let brine for 6-7 days. (Or up to 10 if you tongue is over 6 pounds.)

Days later, when your tongue is (finally) ready, remove from brine and soak it in fresh water for another day, changing the water at least once. (Soak for two days if you have an over 6 pound tongue.)

When ready, remove the tongue to a dutch oven with the ingredients for the brined tongue. Cover with fresh water, bring to a simmer, then poach gently on the stovetop over low to medium-low heat for 2½ to 3 hours, or until tongue is very tender and yields easily when pierced.

Then (you’re not done yet) remove the tongue and discard the rest. Place tongue on a cutting board and peel or cut away the skin (you’ll understand what I’m talking about when you see it.) When you’re removing the skin, make sure to get rid of all of it, cutting the outer layer off pretty generously–the meat of the tongue is very tender, but the skin’s texture isn’t very pleasant.

Serve with lentils and cabbage, and a good, grainy mustard.

Serves 10 or more.

My Chinese take-out.

What do you do when you don’t have a grill but the best meat at your favorite local meat producer is the spareribs? Do you cry, lamenting your bad decision to live in an apartment where you don’t have a backyard and grill-space? Do you opt for the much-more-expensive and getting-down-right-old (but otherwise delicious) pork tenderloin that you get all the time? Do you run out of the little farm-store, spear-in-hand, straight for the cows chewing peacefully in their pastures, intent on making a kill just so you can get that sought-after and never available rib-eye steak that would be so perfectly done in the oven? No, no. Don’t be silly. It would take them at least two-weeks to dry age that steak—just take the spareribs.

I did take the spareribs and I have to admit I was pretty bummed over not having a grill until I found this recipe for Chinese Spareribs in the River Cottage Meat Book (thanks Anita for leading me to this wonderful book!) Truthfully, even after I found the recipe, I tossed and turned over making it instead of barbecued ribs. I thought about whose house with a grill I could invite myself to, I thought about making them in the oven. I was upset.

And then, as things usually go, Jim told me I was being crazy and took me out to buy the ingredients for Chinese Spareribs—he’s such a good decision-maker. And a lucky one, too, because these ribs turned out to be the most succulent, fragrant, falling-off the bone, reminiscent of but waaay better than Chinese take-out ribs. All of the ingredients, which seemed too strong when I first put them in the pot, fused together to create the flavor that everyone tries to get when making Chinese food at home. The recipe’s a keeper. The kind of recipe that you use at dinner parties for bosses when you want to get a raise or for a first date when you want to be fallen in love with or at home with your boyfriend when you want to say thank you for putting up with your crappy moods for the past six months: The best kind of recipe.

Chinese-Style Spareribs

adapted from The River Cottage Meat Book

  • 3 pounds spareribs, preferably organic grass-fed
  • 3 tablespoons sunflower oil
  • 3 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
  • 8 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 5 tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 10 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 10 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
  • 1 cup pineapple juice, preferably fresh

Cut spareribs into peices about 2-4 ribs wide. Heat oil in a large pot. Fry spareribs until browned on all sides. Add ginger and garlic and fry until they release their aromas. Add in soy sauces, sugar, vinegar, pineapple juice , and enough water to barely cover ribs. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and not letting the liquid get too low.

Remove spareribs from pot. Let the liquid simmer away until it makes a rich, syrupy broth. Put the spareribs back in the pot to re-warm them. Serve with slices of radish or spring onion.