Sunday, January 20, 2013

Home-cured Pork Belly & Navy Beans

This is what I call proper 'pork & beans'. 

The recipe is actually inspired by a French bistro classic called petit salĂ© aux lentilles (lentils with lightly cured pork) which I have blogged about in the past. The French have a real penchant for comfort dishes - often as a reaction to their environment. For example, in the rural regions of central France there is a cold north-west wind called the Mistral that seasonally screams down from the Alps. When it gathers strength and roars into the valleys, the locals make haste for their cozy cottages and fill up on restoring one-pot suppers.  Or perhaps think of the windswept, grey Atlantic buffeting the shores of Brittany - a place for which a warming pottage and a glass of red plonk are more valuable than gold. 

And so, given the horrific winter gales bending the trees over in my yard, I took a page from the French play book and built a roaring fire in the hearth and considered some serious comfort food for my plate. To me there is nothing more comforting than a belly of pork. Fergus Henderson, the famed English chef who reveres pork belly for it's not quite meat and not quite fat quality, describes it thusly,

"Pork belly is a wonderful thing. It's onomatopoeic, belly is like it sounds---reassuring, steadying, and splendid to cook due to its fatty nature. It's not a cut of meat to rush: with that, a certain calm is imbued in the belly."

If you've never eaten braised pork belly, you will have to abandon your North American aversion to animal fat. Although our modern grocery stores sell bacon that comes from the bellys of commodity pork, the way it is processed results in something that tastes of salt and smoke and is crispy. Braised pork belly is nothing like this at all. 

We in this continent are so accustomed to lean and bland pork tenderloin and insipid, rind-removed pork chops, that the texture of slowly braised pork belly may be a bit off-putting at first. This is hearty peasant food - the fat not only brings flavour, it lubricates the stew, it feeds your soul and one shouldn't worry about the calories: this is to be eaten in small quantities, periodically when the cold weather calls for it. One must go outside and chop some wood or do some other work that requires exertion and gets you breathing hard in the misty cold, this way, one can really appreciate pork belly. Now combine the richness of that pork belly with the dour and earthy lentil, and you have a winner. 

With my dinner plans sorted, a nervy rush out into the weather to my local butcher rewarded me with a two pound hunk of a sow's fatty belly. Lentils were my first choice of accompaniment given the aforementioned classic dish, more over, Chef Henderson has an excellent interpretation of the recipe I was meaning to try. And yet, I was thinking about that trashy and guilty pleasure in a tin - pork and beans. I loved it as a kid. Why  not make it from scratch? So before running out in the storm to find the meat I got a cup or so of dry navy beans in a large bowl of lightly salted water. This would need to soak for about seven hours. With that in mind, you'll need to start this dish in the morning because there is not only the soaking of the beans, but there is also a curing process for the pork - this takes time. This is all well and good considering you certainly won't think of going out in that gale. Stay inside, stay warm and take your time on this one. It's worth it.

The finished dish, rather messily festooned with sharp Dijon mustard

Navy beans with lightly cured pork belly

1 cup of dried navy beans
2 pound hunk of fresh pork belly, rind on
1 cup of kosher salt
4 sprigs of thyme
2 carrots chopped chunkily
1 large white onion
1 small red onion, chopped chunkily
1 tbs of tomato paste
1 tsp of smoked paprika
a bunch of chopped fresh parsley 

If you're going to eat this dish for dinner, start in the morning. Get your beans into a large bowl filled with fresh cold water (enough to cover them by several inches). Sprinkle a little salt in there (Heston Blumenthal has a theory that the salt will prevent the beans from splitting in the water - it sort of works). The beans will need to soak in the water for at least seven hours. Your pork belly will require at least four hours of curing. So to consider your timing - seven hours bean soak, four hours pork cure, and at least two and half hours for braising - that's a full day - definitely a weekend dish.

Anyway, get yourself a non-reactive vessel that is large enough to contain your pork and layer the bottom of it in some kosher salt. Then get your belly in there and dump the remainder of the salt over the belly and start massaging in the salt. Get it into every nook and cranny. Then pull of a good amount of thyme from the branches and work that into the salty pork. Cover with cling film and get it into the fridge for four hours. Now you're free to relax by the fire for the better part of the day; water and salt are doing all the work.

(Note: a more professional approach to curing would also require a small amount of so-called 'mixed cure' or 'curing salt' otherwise known as salt petre, otherwise known as calcium nitrate. This rather harsh chemical has only one role to play and that is to keep your pork pink like bacon or ham. Without it, your pork will ultimately cook brown like a pork chop. As much as I find the pink colour of cured pork very appetizing to look at, this is just a family dinner and the flavour will not be affected one iota. It's up to you, but read the instructions carefully before using, the stuff is potent.) 

Once the pork has finished curing, take it out of the vessel and thoroughly rinse away the salt. Put it aside on a rack to dry a little bit - say fifteen minutes. Then get the pork belly into a large heavy bottomed dutch oven or pot and cover it with fresh water. Add a few bay leaves, a sprig or two of thyme and a few peppercorns. Bring it to a gentle boil and regularly skim the foam and scum. The skimming period will take about half hour. By then the worst of the scum will be gone. At this point, add your white onion. Simply slice into quarters, leave the skin on and dump it in the broth. Also, get your paprika and tomato paste in. Dial it back to a spirited simmer and walk away for an hour an a half or so. After this amount of time, remove the thyme, bay leaves and the white onion with the skin and add your beans, carrots and red onion. Allow for another hour of gentle simmering to soften the beans and vegetables. You will probably have more water than you need. When the beans start to soften, you can strain some of the liquid off so that you have less a soup and more a stew. There are lots of variables here, so instinct is important in this regard. The finished product should be free flowing but also very thick and unctuous. Eventually, remove the pork. Slice into thick strips. Get the beans in a bowl, drape the meat over top, and sprinkle generously with parsley. This goes great with Dijon mustard and plenty of black pepper. Fresh bread is the requisite accompaniment. 

Post script: If you try this dish and it seems too fatty to you, simply set the bits of fat aside as you would the gristle on a steak - a most civilized approach to an awkward situation. No need to get anxious - there is plenty of luxurious meat in pork belly to chew on.  However, if you've been chopping wood, even that great hunk of solid pork fat will go down a treat.

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