Pork belly, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
It’s funny that bacon is not my favorite incarnation of pork belly. Bacon tastes fantastic, but really, it’s not all that. Has anyone tasted lechon kawali (crispy pan-fried pork belly) or lechon macau ( a specialty of my grandmother which I never learned)? How about deep-fried pork belly confit? I know…I know…a lot of you are probably saying, “Come on, Veronica, do you have to promote all this heart-attack inducing fare. As if pork belly is not full of fat already, you’re even thinking of deep-frying.” Believe me folks, it’s not like you’re adding any more fat if you know how to deep-fry properly. Still not a fan of deep-frying? Grilled pork belly, simply salted, sprinkled with pepper and scented with a hint of garlic makes for an equally ecstatic meal. Whatever caloric fat you may have eliminated by grilling, I guarantee you’d make up with the amount of rice you’re bound to gobble up, specially if presented with a side of grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes and onion-vinegar dip. Pork belly also lends itself well to a hearty braise of just soy, brown sugar and star anise.
Sometime last year, I’ve encountered another clever approach to using oven-roasted pork belly.
I’m sure most of you have heard of David Chang’s famous pork belly buns. I must commend him for putting two of my favorite dishes together…Peking duck and pork belly. Peking duck is a roasted duck made famous in Beijing. The perfectly crisp skin is sliced off and served with pancakes, hoisin sauce and green onions. Chang decided to substitute the duck with pork belly, and instead of the traditional pancakes, steamed buns – an idea he got from Oriental Garden in Manhattan – was used. And the rest, they say, is history.
I’m no stranger to steamed bread. Our restaurant in the Philippines used to be famous for siopao, known here as steamed meat buns. I remember our cook, who my parents recruited from Hong Kong, would come in at 10pm in the evening and by 6 am, will have fresh steamed meat buns ready for breakfast. We had this big bamboo steamer, about 20 inches in diameter and 8 stacks high. Funny thing was, I loved the bun but didn’t care for the filling. I would peel off and eat the bread and leave the meat behind. I guess I was in my picky-eater phase then.
So having tasted pork nirvana at Momofuku, what’s to stop me from making my own?
Pork belly is an extremely versatile slab of flesh, I wonder why it’s not more available in general grocery stores. Even with local artisan butcher shops, I haven’t been so lucky. Their meat-to-fat ratio (MTFR) is usually meant for making bacon. I haven’t tried online shops but I find the best source of pork belly locally for the type of cooking I have in mind comes from Asian grocery stores. I’m not sure if the hogs they use are bred for a better MTFR typical for Chinese dishes.
I bought mine from Far East grocery store here in Richmond (I prefer to go here than Tan A because it’s more organized and you could actually get some help). I consciously picked a belly that was leaner because I wanted the hubby to enjoy this dish with me. When I asked for the skin to be taken off, the butcher looked at me derisively as if I didn’t deserve to look Asian…hahaha! Next time, dude, I’ll take the skin too. I now have found a good source for pork skin for cassoulet.
Because my pork belly was leaner than what I had at Momofuku, it barely rendered fat which caused the sugar from the sugar-salt rub to quickly turn black. Next time, I think I shall just use a disposable roasting pan. See below:
Beautifully roasted, huh? The blackened dish took 4 soakings and took a fair amount of the hubby’s elbow grease to clear up. Thought y’all would appreciate the heads-up.
I was disappointed in my buns – steamed buns, I mean. I didn’t think my dough doubled in size and I did leave it longer to rest than required. I did not proof the yeast, so I’m not sure if that was partly the problem. I also used duck fat – not sure either if that affected the outcome. The resulting buns were not as puffy and as soft as I would have liked them to be and they were too small not to mention I was 9 buns short! I’ll definitely be searching for other recipes. The process for making this was relatively simple.
I actually weighed them, 25 grams each. Coming up short led me to believe they did not rise enough. (bread bakers, does dough get heavier when it rises? If it doesn’t then I measured my ingredients wrong.)
*NOTE: I made the buns a day before the pork belly. They freeze well, so that’s an advantage to break up the time it takes to make the whole thing.
It took me a while to figure out how not to overcook them. Also the latter ones were softer which led me to believe that the house was too cold for them to rise properly. (After all it is winter!)
I would have loved the pork belly to have a better defining layer of fat, but the hubby ate five of this pork buns and this guy does not even like pork, so believe me when I say, these were fantastic! (I, myself, ate four.)
It took all my willpower not to pinch a piece off the pork belly when it was fresh out of the oven. After it had been chilled properly (makes for easier slicing), cut 1/2 inch thick pieces, warm in a saute pan, stick in a steamed bun, garnish with scallions, pickled cucumbers (recipe here) and hoisin sauce. Eat and repeat!
Roast Pork Bellyfrom Momofuku cookbook
3-pound slab skinless pork belly
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
*1/2 onion – sliced
- Nestle the belly in a roasting pan or other oven-safe vessel that holds it snugly. Mix together the salt and sugar in a small bowl and rub the mix all over the meat; discard any excess salt-and-sugar mixture. Cover the container with plastic wrap and keep in fridge for at least 6 hours but no longer than 24 hours.
- Heat the oven to 450F.
- Discard any liquid that accumulated in the container. Put the belly in the oven, fat side up, and cook for 1 hour, basting it with the rendered fat at the halfway point, until it’s an appetizing golden brown.
- Turn the oven temperature down to 250F and cook for another 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, until the belly is tender – it shouldn’t be falling apart, but it should have a a down pillow-like yield to firm finger poke. Remove the the pan from the oven and transfer the belly to a plate. Decant the fat and the meat juices from the pan and reserve for other uses. (for example saute vegetables). Allow the belly to cool slightly.
- When it is cool enough to handle, wrap the belly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and put in fridge until it’s thoroughly chilled and firm. (You can skip this step if you are pressed for time, but the only way to get neat, nice-looking slices is to chill the belly thoroughly before slicing it.)
- Cut the pork belly into 1/2-inch thick slices that are about 2 inches long. Warm them for serving in a pan over medium heat, just for a minute or two, until jiggly soft and heated through. Use at once.
makes 50 buns
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
4 1/4 cups bread flour
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons nonfat dry milk powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Rounded 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup rendered pork fat or vegetable shortening, at room temperature, plus more for shaping the buns, as needed
* I used duck fat since that was all I had
- Combine the yeast and water in the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with the dough hook. Add the flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and fat and mix on the lowest speed possible, just above a stir, for 8 to 10 minutes. The dough should gather together into a neat, not-too-tacky ball on the hook. When it does, oil a medium mixing bowl, put the dough in it, and cover the bowl with a dry kitchen towel. Put it in a turned-off oven with a pilot light or other warmish place and let rise until the dough doubles in bulk, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
- Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a clean surface. Using a bench scraper or a knife, divide the dough in half, then divide each half into 5 equal pieces. Gently roll the pieces into logs, then cut each log into 5 pieces, making 50 pieces total. They should be about the size of a ping pong ball and weigh about 25 grams, or a smidge under an ounce. Roll each piece into a ball. Cover the armada of little dough balls with a draping of plastic wrap and allow them to rest and rise for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile cut out fifty 4-inch squares of parchment paper. Coat a chopstick with whatever fat you’re working with.
- Flatten one ball with the palm of your hand, then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a 4-inch-long oval. Lay the greased chopstick across the middle of the oval and fold the oval over onto itself to form the bun shape. Withdraw the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and put the bun onto a square of parchment paper. Stick it back under the plastic wrap (or a dry kitchen towel) and form the rest of the buns. Let the buns rest for 30 to 45 minutes: they will rise a little.
- Set up a steamer on the stove. Working in batches so you don’t crowd the steamer, steam the buns on the parchment squares for 10 minutes. Remove the parchment. You can use the buns immediately (reheat them for a minute or so in the steamer if necessary) or allow to cool completely, then seal in plastic freezer bags and freeze for up to a few months. Reheat frozen buns in a stovetop steamer for 2 to 3 minutes, until puffy, soft and warmed all the way through.
* Ingredients in * are my modifications.