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.