According to all the top chef TV shows, deconstructions are passé. The judges always seem to diss them, but their contestants still do ’em… and so do I. It’s an interesting exercise to break down a common (or uncommon) favorite, and see how all its components work when they’re presented together on the plate in a different way. According to all the top food blogs (a pantheon to which I hope someday to rise), pork belly is IN; and not a day too soon, if you ask me. All things pork are a siren call to my senses, and my tongue yearns for it like a satellite caught in the irresistible gravitational pull of a delicious cosmic event. Pork belly is bacon in its natural state — uncured, unsmoked, unsalted: just luscious Wilbur fat striated with marvelous Miss Piggy meat which, when roasted right, is covered with crispy crunchy come-n’-get-it cracklin’. We’d eaten well already this weekend, so even though I wanted the pure fat pork belly promises, I really wanted a light dinner, too; er, but, since I’m me, I wanted cream and sweet and savor and sass and sublimity as well. What’s the point of eating, otherwise? Savenor’s had some super large, super fresh scallops, and a basket full of yummy silky Yukon Gold baby potatoes, and several bunches of fresh snipped chives, along with a perfectly portioned 1 lb slab of very clean pork belly… and suddenly, it all came together.
My idea was a chowder, where shellfish, smoked ham, potato, and cream come together with other flavors to make the scrumptious warm savory of a wholesome seafood stew. I really thought the tender sinews of sea scallops would compliment the similarly textured flesh of a pig’s belly; that the mollusks’ briny sweetness would offset the pork’s earthy richness, and that these two proteins would stand in for the traditional clams and bacon. To round out the simulation, I figured substituting a thick, creamy potato puree for the typical chowder base, and adding some roasted carrot bits and, in some fashion, chives, would bring the dish home. Here’s what I came up with:
Seared Scallops with Potato Puree, Carrot Cubes, Blistered Pork Belly and Chive Oil
1 lb fresh pork belly
1 star anise
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbs ground ginger
1 tbs allspice
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp juniper berries
1 tbs white peppercorns
1 tbs sea salt
1 tbs crushed black pepper
1 lb Yukon Gold potatoes
1/2 c – 1 c heavy cream
3/4 stick butter, divided
4 extra large sea scallops (~ 1/2 lb total)
1 bunch carrots
1 tsp crushed thyme
1 bunch fresh snipped chives (about 1/3 cup chopped)
1/3 cup EVOO
2 tsps lemon juice (I used some of the citrus currently home-preserving some Meyers lemons in my fridge)
I start with the ingredients for my dry rub, placing them all into my mortar and pestle.
Right — all of my ingredients. I forgot the white peppercorns on the first time around, so after I ground up all the star anise, ginger, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon to a nice fine powder, I added my wee pallid pellets, and ground them all up, too.
My pork belly; I try not to think about … well, this cut of meat in relation to, um, MY belly. ‘Nuff said; just know that my mind’s wanderlust is twisted and obscure, and… right, ’nuff said. Anyway, you can see that the price isn’t prohibitive – whereas the fat content (all that lovely white stuff among the pink flesh) is extremely high.
See? All the smooth, buttery white is melting fat, and the wee strips of pink represent the only sweet meat this slab of midriff has to offer. To my eyes, this is the swell of an Odalisque’s inviting white belly; the seductive mounds of Maja’s tender tummy; the luxurious folds of flesh Luncheon(ing) in the Grass. This is the idealized Botticellian belly that, in times during which my miniaturized voluptuousness mayhaps would have turned heads, such mature development of softness and latent energy was desirable and en vogue. (To most others these days, it is CALORIES. P’shaw, I say! Life’s too short…)
I looked through many posts (starting with FoodGawker, then Googling, then Epicurious, then – heck, lots more choices), and found TONS of ways to make crispy skinned pork belly with meltingly tender meat. The Vietnamese refer to it as Thit Heo Quay; the Chinese (I think) call it Siu Yok or Sieu Yoke; the Filipino style is Lechon Kawali; and my peeps love their Chicharron. Some recipes call for marinating the meat with fermented bean paste and spices overnight before roasting; some call for it to be brined then boiled then dried then roasted; some for it to be boiled then dried then fried; and all sorts of recipes in between. I, er, sort of threw myself into random mode, and cherry picked my procedures based on my impulses, my ingredients, and my equipment. So I started by flipping my slab meat side up, cutting deeply into it, but NOT through the bottom-most layer of fatskin, about 1″ apart. I then rubbed salt and my spice rub into all the meat *very* generously.
I leave the skin-side bare…
Although you can barely (if at all) see it, I used two forks to stab my pork skin thoroughly. I read in many recipes that this works better than scoring, and helps ensure an evenly crackled crust.
Using my kosher salt, I rub down the entire pockmarked surface of my belly’s skin. I set this into my fridge for 2 hours uncovered (or, you can put it into a ventilated ziplock bag, and put it into your fridge overnight, taking it out an hour before roasting to bring it back to room temp). I preheated my oven to 475°, then placed my belly, skin side up, on a rack, over a pan, into my stove, and walked away for 20 minutes.
After which time, my belly has begun to crisp and cook, and the house has begun to smell — well, like smoke. All the spitting fat is making quite a mess (sorry, Clayton), but its such a seductive mess…! I lower my heat to 350°, and let my roast cook for another hour.
I’ve peeled my pound of gold from the Yukon…
… and dropped it into a pot of salted, boiling water. It will take about 20 minutes of roiling boiling for these to cook to ready.
I trim my small bunch of organic carrots and roll them in EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, and dried thyme. I place this pan in my oven, under my roasting pork, for 20 minutes, or until tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork.
Like so. Cover with foil to keep warm.
It’s the one hour mark, and I check my pork belly. It is deeply dark roasted, its meat easily shredded with a fork, and its skin hollowly echoes when I tap it with the side of my knife. But it’s not dark enough, so I baste it with the clear fats that have collected in the bottom pan, stick it back into the oven, and turn up the heat to broil for 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, I’ve drained my potatoes, leaving a little of the cooking liquid in the pan, and have mashed them thoroughly.
This is 2 tbs butter, cold and cubed.
I add it, one cube at a time, plus one tablespoon heavy cream at a time, to my spuds, which I’ve set over a low burner and which I’m stirring vigorously with a whisk. I add all my cream and butter, whisking well, salting and peppering until it tastes perfect, and until everything is fully incorporated, and the texture of my potatoes is smooth and creamy.
I’ve also cut down my carrots into tiny little cubes. My idea is, that were I to have made my chowder, I would have minced my carrots and some onions to sauté in butter before adding my cream and potatoes, so a small dice of sweet roasted carrots will capture the sweet vegetable flavor they bring.
After 10 final minutes under my top broiler, I pull out my pork belly to see blackened charred skin and a full pan of clear fat drippings. I reserve the latter, and don’t fret about the former; most of the recipes I’ve read today indicate that you WANT the skin to be this burned, to ensure that you’ve cooked this outer fatty layer enough to get that crunch you really want. If it doesn’t blacken, it might be chewy instead of crispy.
The solution to over-blackened skin? A serrated knife. I just scraped off all the black crap from my dry, cracklin’, toasted skin; it was easy peasy. When I’m ready, I use my Chinese cleaver to chop – not slice or cut, since my skin is so cracking – my pork into small squares. 1/2 way through shattering pork crisps across my kitchen, I realized that if I chopped through the meat side, with the skin side down, I’d get the perfect pieces I wanted, without the mess.
The final ingredient: plump, juicy, dry sea scallops, each weighing about 1/8 of a pound. NICE. I dry these babies, then sprinkle them with kosher salt. These cook quickly, and you have to pay attention, so be sure you’re ready to plate before you put them on the heat.
I’ve got a small saucepan set with a tablespoon of butter (no, I didn’t clarify it; I rather wanted the milk solids browned and sticking to my shellfish) and a tablespoon of EVOO over high heat. When the fats are just about to smoke, I set my scallops into the pan and let them sizzle for 2 minutes, or until I see the cooked worked halfway up the disc of flesh.
Once my mollusks have turned a healthy crisp golden brown on the edges, I use my tongs to flip them. Beautiful.
I’ve taken 1 bunch of chives, chopped it into about 1/3 cup, and whirred it with my hand blender with an equal amount of EVOO, 1 tsp of salt, and 2 teaspoons lemon juice (or, in my case, the juice from some Meyer lemons I’ve been preserving for a week or so) to make a chive oil. I spoon up my potato puree, stud it with a couple scallops and a few chunks of crispy roasted pork belly, then scatter my carrots and squirt a few drops of my chive oil. My plate is a steaming warm mound of silky smooth fluffy potato puree; the carrots have actually cooled somewhat, and their sweet toothiness contrasts perfectly with the spuds and fresh green snap of the chive oil. My scallops and pork are tender to the fork, with the added bonus of crispy chichurron to add texture for my tongue. A surprisingly light, fresh, sweet, flavorful, and fantastic meal – elegant and homestyle, gourmet and damn-good, all at once. Literary deconstruction isn’t really my thing, but from an gastronomic perspective, it is a tantalizing approach to food. Each bite was delicious alone; but each forkful, laden with layered bites of each component of the plate, was sublime in concert. Baby, it’s cold outside, but it is warm and wonderful at my dinner table, and I wish I could share it with each of you.