I know, this is a bit groundhog-day: Just the other week I put a whole turkey in the oven, this week it is a piece of pork belly – carniporn galore. But somehow, especially this time of the year, the old-fashioned business of having a roast in the oven and having the aromas permeate the kitchen (or the whole house for that matter) seems to provide a sense of coziness and succor that I need and crave. Turning wintertime from gloomy and glacial to glowing and gleeful is all about being generous with spices to me, as in the case of this pork belly.
Although I mostly like to make my own spice mixtures (as you may have guessed by the number of appearances my mortar has made here), for this recipe I use a ready-made Chinese five-spice powder. It is the classic and captivating composition of cloves, star anise, sichuan pepper, cinnamon and fennel seeds mostly common in northern China. The caramelly and somehow licoricy aromas of the molasses in raw, unrefined whole cane sugar echo the anisy flavors of the spice beautifully. Some heat and magic is provided by cambodian red kampot pepper, a new treasure in my spice collection. It has a pungent spiciness with hints of incense sticks and dried red fruit.
There are about 1001 ways to season and stories to tell with pork belly. Since starting with Chinese five-spice promises a rather conventional route ahead (pork belly is one of the cheaper cuts of meat so much loved and perfected especially in Asian cuisines), I thought I’d take this a little further along the spice route to Africa, and add some deep dark bitter cocoa to the mysteriousness of the five spice. The alternating layers of meat and fat in pork belly are very reminiscent of layered nougat to me anyway – so going in a chocolatey direction seemed only appropriate. Although there is a lot going on in terms of sugar and spice here (yes, there IS coke in the recipe), you will not end up with a pig that has wallowed in a candy shop slash Thai massage parlor. Actually, the result is just a succulent and buttery pork belly with crispy crackling and a subtle yet staggering scent.
I like to celebrate the richness (aka fattiness) of this cut and not have a lot of sauce with it. It just doesn’t need it. I rather turn the roasting liqueur into a kind of “laquer” by adding some dark chocolate and butter.
Crispy Scented Pork Belly
Active time: 15 minutes, marinating: the more time the better, cooking: about 2 hours, resting: >= 10 minutes.
1.3 kg pork belly w/o bones
1.5 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
1 tsp red kampot peppercorns
1/2 tsp dark cocoa powder
1 tbsp (slightly heaped) whole cane sugar
2 tsp salt
for roasting and finishing
some brown butter
1 medium sized onion
250 ml coke (or ginger beer, apple cider, …)
1 pc dark chocolate
a dash of malt vinegar
1 Mix whole cane sugar, salt, five-spice powder, cocoa and ground red pepper. Using your sharpest Ninja-knife – or as I do – a carpet cutter (I keep for exclusive kitchen use), score the skin of the pork belly in whatever pattern you fancy. Make sure you cut through the skin and into the fat, but not into the meat.
2 Rub the whole piece of belly with the spice mixture, including the skin, and make sure to push the mixture into the incisions you made before. The meat would be fine to go into the oven as it is. But letting it sit and take in the scents from the sugar, cocoa and the spices makes a huge difference. In addition, the salt and sugar provide a sort of cure on the outer layer of the roast (similar to what happens to graved lax) which intensifies the caramelization by the heat in the oven later. I suggest you let it sit at room temperature for up to 2 hrs, covered (not in cling) in the fridge if you marinate it longer, even over night. In that case, take the pork belly out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature before you put it in the oven. If you like to use a roast thermometer (as I have added one to my collection of kitchen gimmicks recently, I did, of course), put it in a central meat-layer of the pork belly, min 5 cm in.
3 Preheat the oven to 200°C top and bottom heat. Place the pork belly on a rack over a roasting tin (I use a cake rack), roughly chop up the onion, strew it in the roasting tin, pour in the coke (or whatever liquid you like to use) and bake it for 20 minutes on the middle shelf. Next, turn down the heat to 160°C and roast the pork belly for about 2 hrs until the meat is tender (check with a sharp knife) and it is nice and brown. Your eventual roast thermometer will show about 80°C.
4 To crisp up the skin, crank up the heat to whatever your oven can produce or set it to grill function. Generously spread some melted brown butter over the skin and scatter with coarse sea salt. Roast for another 5-10 minutes and watch it carefully. When the skin is puffed up and golden, take the pork belly out of the oven, cover with aluminum foil and let it rest. Meanwhile, put the juices from the roasting tin in a small saucepan, add a piece of cold butter and a piece of dark chocolate, and let everything melt together giving it a little swirl now and then. Add a dash of vinegar and salt to taste. Cut the pork belly in thin slices or cubes and serve with the lacquer.