Eric Akis: Pork belly, with a French flair

Eric Akis

A Times Colonist reader, Suzy, asked if I had a really good recipe for pork belly. She bought some on sale, because she had heard about them the past few years, but wasn’t sure how to prepare it.

In the 20-plus years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve offered a lot of pork recipes, but one missing from my repertoire is a preparation for pork belly. So I told Suzy I would cook one up and I’m featuring it today.

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When Suzy says she’s been hearing about pork belly, she’s talking about numerous eateries, from fine dining restaurants to diners, offering it on their menus the past number of years. In recent years, TV celebrity chefs have also been preparing and raving about it on their programs.

As its name suggests, pork belly is a cut from the belly of the animal. It’s streaked with layers of meat and fat and in Canada is most often used to make bacon.

Pork belly, also called side pork, has long been popular in other cuisines, such as Latinx, African American and Asian, where turning it into bacon is not a focus. They’re instead flavouring, marinating, braising, steaming, stewing and/or roasting it and serving pieces on their own. They’re also incorporating pork belly into other dishes, such as noodle- and rice-based ones, soups, savoury buns and tacos, to name just a few.

Many North American chefs in more mainstream restaurants began to realize that pork belly could be used for much more than bacon about 10 years ago. According to a story on the National Hog Farmer website (nationalhogfarmer.com), in 2005 fewer than one per cent of American restaurants offered pork belly.

By 2016, that number had risen to seven per cent. Its popularity really expanded after 2010, when chefs all over began using pork belly in all sort of ways, from appetizers to entrées.

No matter how you flavour and serve it, the goal of most pork belly recipes is the same: You want to render out as much fat from the pork belly as you can, while cooking the meat until it’s mouthwateringly tender and the skin is delectably crispy.

How those goals are achieved can vary greatly from recipe to recipe. I took a fairly simple approach, starting by letting my piece of pork belly dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight, which makes the skin crispier when cooked.

I then cut my pork belly into two portions and scored the skin with a sharp knife. The pieces of pork belly were then set, skin-side-up, in an ovenproof skillet along with onions, stock and wine.

The pork was then cooked, uncovered, in a moderate oven until the meat was very tender.

It was then removed from the skillet and the liquid and other ingredients in the pan were strained and later turned into a tasty mustard sauce to serve with the pork.

The pieces of pork were then set back in the skillet and roasted in a much hotter oven a while longer, until the skin was very crispy. The end result was two quite succulent portions of pork belly you could serve for dinner with such sides as mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.

Crispy Roasted Pork Belly with Herbes de Provence and Mustard Sauce

Two succulent portions of pork belly decadently flavoured and sauced in a French-style way.

Preparation time: 25 minutes, plus refrigerator drying time
Cooking time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Makes: two servings

1 (600- to 700-gram) skin-on (not rolled), fresh piece of pork belly (see Note 1)

• flaked sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 to 1 tsp herbes de Provence (see Note 2)

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 medium to large onion, halved and sliced

2 large garlic cloves, sliced

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or broth (divided)

1/2 cup white wine (see Eric’s options)

1 tsp cornstarch

1 Tbsp Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp sour cream or whipping cream

Remove any moisture on the pork belly with paper towel. Cut pork belly crosswise in half. Set the two pieces of pork belly on a plate, skin side up. Set plate in the refrigerator and let pork belly sit and dry there, uncovered, at least eight hours or preferably overnight (see Eric’s options).

Preheat oven to 300 F. With a very sharp knife, diagonally score the skin on each piece of pork belly in a diamond pattern at half-inch intervals, being careful not cut into the meat below. Now season pork belly with salt and pepper, making sure some of it gets into the crevices you scored in the skin. Also sprinkle and season the pork with the herbes de Provence and smoked paprika.

Spread the onions and garlic into a 10-inch wide cast iron or other ovenproof skillet. Add bay leaves to the skillet. Set and rest the pieces of pork belly, skin-side-up, on top onions. Pour one cup of the stock (or broth) and wine into the skillet, ensuring it does not touch the skin on the pork.

Roast pork, uncovered, in the middle of the oven two and half hours, or until meat is quite tender. Lift pork out of the skillet and set on a plate. Turn oven to 450 F.

Set a fine sieve over a 2-cup measuring cup or other tall, not overly wide vessel. Pour the onion mixture and liquid in the skillet into the sieve. Push on the onions with the back of a ladle to extract as much liquid as you can from them. Discard onions. Let liquid in the measuring cup (or other vessel) sit while you finish cooking the pork.

Set pork back in the emptied skillet, skin-side-up. When oven is at 450 F, roast it for another 20 minutes, or until skin is very crispy. Set pork back on the plate, tent with foil and let rest while you make the sauce.

To do so, drain fat from the skillet and set on the stovetop. With a small ladle or spoon, skim off the fat that has settled on top of the liquid in the measuring cup (or other vessel) and discard it.

Add remaining 1/2 cup of stock (or broth) and cornstarch to the liquid in the measuring cup (or other vessel) and whisk to combine. Pour this mixture into the skillet, set over medium, medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Whisk in the mustard and sour cream (or whipping cream), return to a simmer, and simmer one minute. Taste and season sauce with salt and pepper.

Set a piece of pork belly on each of two dinner plates and serve with the sauce.

Note 1: You’ll find pieces of fresh pork belly, also called side pork, at some supermarkets and butcher shops. I bought it at Fairway Market’s Shelbourne Street location. But it’s best to call ahead where you shop to ensure they have it. Choose pieces of pork belly that have a good amount of meat streaking through it. If it’s really, really fatty, it won’t work well in this recipe.

Note 2: Herbes de Provence is a French-style blend of dried herbs sold in the bottled herb and spice aisle of most supermarkets.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have time to dry the pork belly in the refrigerator, skip that step. The skin will still get desirably crispy as it roasts, just a little less so. If you don’t wish to use wine, simply replace with 1/2 cup more chicken stock (or broth)

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Times Colonist Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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