We've long admired our friend, and author of An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler's pursuit of "cooking with economy and grace." Tamar has a great talent for using a handful of ingredients to chart a fluid course of delicious meals, with no clear beginning and no clear end.
This reminds us of one of our Food52 friends, who has a similar knack for conjuring up countless dishes from one set of ingredients. AntoniaJames has been member of Food52 since the beginning, sharing not just her many recipes (175, to be exact -- and several of which have won recipe contests), but also her extensive knowledge of food and cooking, with the rest of the community.
When we were mapping out our Summer Food Fights, we realized that a challenge featuring these two inspired cooks was a no-brainer. We'd assign them the same ingredient (a 5-6 pound pork belly) and ask them to chronicle their separate adventures with it. Happily, they were both up to the challenge -- the Everlasting Pork Belly Challenge was on!
Without further ado, we now present to you:
AntoniaJames' journal of the Everlasting Piece of Pork Belly
June 6: Pork belly! Well, this really will be a challenge, as I’ve never bought or worked with pork belly before, or even read much about it. But I’m game. These DIY instructions and this Hotline thread have inspired me. This is going to be fun.
June 7: I haven’t been able to leave the office before the stores close, so today I continued to plan, mapping out my timetables, shopping checklists, etc. I called around to several butcher shops and was surprised to learn that pork belly is not as readily available as I expected.
June 10: A day of many firsts. Having finally purchased curing salt and four pounds of pork belly, I started curing two pounds of the belly. I removed the skin from a slab I'm using for bacon to make cracklings, which I’ve also never done before. I used monkeymom’s roasting method for the other two pounds, adding extra garlic and some carrots and onions toward the end. We enjoyed it for dinner this evening.
The roast released a lot of fat, which I saved. A sizeable chunk of skin did not crisp up due to my imperfect rolling, so I popped it back in the oven. The cracklings crisped up nicely, releasing more fat, which I poured off before deglazing my roasting pan with water. Everything went into labeled glass jars.
June 11: I used my slow cooker to render the solid fat under the skin cut from the slab I used for bacon. There’s meat buried in that fat, so when the fat was completely rendered -- after about 8 hours -- I was left with half a cup of chewy, flavorful carnitas. I reserved most of the fat, added fresh herbs and garlic, and cranked it up to high for another hour. I deglazed and added it all to a pot of cranberry beans I’d been cooking. Meanwhile, I crisped the pork skin in a quick oven, saving the rendered fat.
June 12: Gaah! My curing bacon oozed all over the meat drawer in my fridge. Oh well -- live and learn.
I chopped up the center part of the roast and added it to two containers of the cranberry beans. Into one of these I also put some onion and celery from the pork belly roasting pan. Both went into the freezer. I froze the rest of the leftover roast pork in a light “sauce” I made by warming some of the rendered fat and braising liquid. The carnitas went into the rest of the cooked beans.
June 17: Alas, my bacon seems not to have cured sufficiently, so I rubbed in more salt, as recommended.
To summarize, here’s what the roasted pork belly has produced, to date:
• Cracklings, which went into (1) omelets with fresh herbs and leftover vegetables (including onions cooked with the roast); (2) German-style potato salad with a touch of bacon fat in the dressing; and (3) jars for future use!
• Thirschfeld's Shredded Pork and Celery Lo Mein, which I made for dinner tonight using leftover roast pork belly, and served with Chinese greens sautéed in peanut oil and a dab of rendered pork fat.
• These Biscochitos. They call for lard, so I decided to make them with the separately rendered pork fat. They turned out really well, with no discernible pork flavor and the most sublime texture. (I’ll never forget these, because Matt Cain pitched the first perfect game in the Giants franchise’s history that night, and I was there.)
• Phulka roti: We wrapped some of the pork-studded cranberry beans into the roti with leftover roast chicken, fresh salsa and avocado one night, and then into wraps with leftover roast pork for lunch the next day. And there’s still fat in jars in the fridge and roast pork in boxes in the freezer.
June 19: I finally roasted my cured bacon. Outstanding! As I looked over my planning notes, it became quite clear that I’ll have to make relatively little bacon go a long way. No matter: this stuff is so intensely flavored, one doesn’t need much.
June 20: Ah, omelets. I never tire of them! For breakfast, I filled one with leftover summer squash and the crispy bits left from when I rendered fat from the uneven ends of my bacon last night.
June 22: Impressed with the meaty bits produced while rendering the fat under the pork belly skin, I tried the same thing with chunks of my bacon. Eureka! Slow cooking good-sized lardons creates intensely flavored, crisp-but-chewy “bacon carnitas!"
June 26: Note to self: Always keep a good supply of bacon vinaigrette on hand. I adapted this one; instead of scallions I used parsley, which makes it brighter as well as more versatile. As part of this challenge I’ve used bacon vinaigrette: (1) on a creamy cauliflower soup; (2) spooned over an omelet stuffed with fresh herbs and parmigiano; (3) tossed with arugula, tomato and avocado; (4) tossed with cooled cooked cauliflower; and (5) to top the fish and corn chowder we had for dinner the other night.
June 27: Here are some of the other ways I’ve used my first-ever homemade bacon:
• Bits of fried bacon went into (1) an arugula and cherry tomato salad (with a touch of bacon drippings in the dressing); (2) my Bacony Gratin, using only one slice, but adding more bacon fat to the crumbs; (3) on a BLT with a bright avocado, preserved lemon and grains of paradise spread; and (4) tossed with cooked cauliflower, diced celery and shallot, herbs and red wine vinaigrette (a new summer favorite!). And we enjoyed slices of the homemade bacon alongside pancakes full of blueberries just picked from our bushes out front.
• I also used the super-flavorful bacon fat: (1) for frying eggs, which I topped with dukkah; (2) in a classic creamed spinach (which I served with Merrill’s Farro Risotto, leftover grilled chicken and a salad); (3) to sauté red chard; and (4) in a memorable bacon aioli, slathered on a hard cooked egg. (The leftover aioli made a wonderful vinaigrette.)
• The bacon carnitas have been a revelation. I’ve used them: (1) with a roasted spatchcocked chicken with mushrooms, onion, ground coriander and white wine, to make one of my best pan sauces ever (I saved a bit of that sauce to use in this Indonesian-inspired sauce, served with leftover chicken); (2) in a red wine-braised brisket (some of the leftover sauce flavored a bean soup made with roast pork, and another spoonful I drizzled over an omelet to create what can best be described as pure luxury); (3) in Bacon and Shiso Fried Rice; and (4) in kedgeree made with leftover plain farro, a hard-cooked egg, a big spoonful of smoked mackerel bits, coriander, parsley and lemon.
June 28: I like those carnitas so much, I decided to use my remaining two pounds of pork belly to make another batch of bacon, instead of braising it as I'd planned. I finally was able to buy the meat, which I cured right away using mrswheelbarrow’s “savory cure.” The fragrant curing paste promises great things to come.
For dinner, I sprinkled the last of my bacon carnitas on a pizza with arugula, sautéed leeks, and odd bits of cheese. Then, having rendered the fat from the skin cut from the second slab before curing, I quickly crisped the skin on foil on the hot pizza stone in a 500 degree oven. Meanwhile, the bits of meat left from the rendered fat turned to fragrant brown pork carnitas in my slow cooker.
July 4: My cure seems to be doing well, but it needs at least another day. As I’ve waited this past week, I’ve worked through some of the various jars of rendered pork belly and bacon fat. For example, I cooked minced onions and celery in a large spoonful of pork fat to start a sauce for meatballs. Inspired by a Roy de Groot recipe for dandelion greens with crispy salt pork, I tossed a few cracklings into a simple arugula salad with a splash of tarragon vinegar. Today, I used some bacon fat to make these cookies, which are surprisingly crisp and light.
July 5: I roasted my just-cured bacon this afternoon. In the skillet I used to roast it, I sweated thin slices of onion with a few sprigs of fresh thyme; I deglazed with a bit of water and put everything in a jar in the fridge for another day. Then I adapted an M.F.K. Fisher recipe for crackling muffins in How to Cook a Wolf, adding a fistful of coarsely chopped fresh herbs and greasing the tin with the last of the fat from my bacon carnitas. We slathered the muffins with homemade blueberry butter.
July 6: Three glorious slices of my second batch of bacon took center stage in a classic quiche Lorraine (i.e., with no cheese -- just heavy cream, bacon, eggs and a touch of nutmeg). The verdict on the bacon? “Excellent!!”
I also made “salume carnitas” in my slow cooker. They’re utterly amazing.
July 9: I wasted no time making more bacon carnitas, using about 1/3 of the bacon left after making the quiche. I’ve used them: (1) tossed with leftover green beans, home-marinated artichoke hearts and leftover grilled shrimp in a light vinaigrette; (2) in drop biscuits with Gorgonzola (adapting the Cheese Scallion Drop Biscuit recipe from the 2004 Gourmet Cookbook); (3) in a Cobb salad with leftover grilled chicken; and (4) chopped, to garnish a vivid red salad made with beets, tomatoes and strawberries.
The challenge officially ends today, but I still have quite a bit left with which to work. I’ll use the remaining half pound of bacon to make more bacon carnitas, to use in bacon and brown sugar biscuits, to flavor a Gruyere and caramelized onion tart, and to chop and sprinkle on various dishes. The rendered fat and pan drippings in my fridge I’ll use for seasoning beans and onions, and for adding to herbed biscuits and savory pie crusts. Before too long, the last bit of frozen roast pork will go into a Cubano for Mr. T’s lunch. The bacon fat I’ll use in sautéed greens, to flavor aromatics and croutons, and for browning meat for soups and stews. I’ll make at least one large batch of bacon vinaigrette. And I still must try thirschfeld’s bacon fat popcorn!
Of course, I plan to make more bacon, and to try several of the braised pork belly recipes that I collected but did not use for this challenge. And so the adventure will continue. ;o)
Leave kudos and comments for AntoniaJames in the comments section below, and check out Tamar's pork belly challenge journal here!