Feast. Crispy pork belly with braised red cabbage and mashed potato.
The mash, was alright. Couple of really nice bites; buttery, smooth. No lumps. Seasoning was okay. Braised red cabbage? Sour. Overpowered. Very vinegary and boozy. I have no idea why I finished it. Perhaps it was a function of liking a balance of vegetables with my starch and meat. Balanced meals make good health. Crispy pork belly? Solid. Good. But not extraordinary. But it got me thinking…
I once watched a Gordon Ramsay tutorial on creating super moist pork belly in conjunction with a delicious caramelized, evenly layered, nicely caramelized, crispy skin. We’re talking about the whole belly of pork, not individual slices. The pork that ended up on the final dish was not lumpy or uneven, but flat as a cake. At first glance I was baffled, as I thought Ramsay just requested a ridiculously straight-cut piece of pork, finished with all the X-acto knife fixings that one could possibly imagine (I thought that only happened during woodshop). But apparently, it’s possible. From what I can recall, Ramsay rested the slice of pork belly on top of an assortment of roughly chopped herbs as well as whole garlic. A fairly ingenious idea, as doing this elevates the piece of meat so that moisture could evaporate. Thus, the meat wouldn’t just sit at the bottom of the Pyrex baking dish, steaming. After doing this, he takes the pork out, lets it rest, and then proceeds to put another Pyrex baking dish on top of the cooked pork, and subsequently places two cans of pineapple on top. The whole she-bang goes into the fridge to set. After that, the slices are served chilled.
Yes, chilled. The pork I ate The Anchor Bankside was warm, and not “flat” per se, but it definitely was a really, really neat looking cut.
So how would we create a hot pork belly dish, similar to Ramsay’s but not have the issue of having it set in the fridge?
We can break it down in two ways. In order to achieve crispy skin, one needs to expose the outer skin to radiation. Radiation in this case, would most likely (hopefully) be heat (I wouldn’t want orange radioactive pork belly). Heat, causes the Maillard reactions to proceed, and also causes water to evaporate, which, basically creates our crispy pork belly. In order for the water to evaporate, you can’t have a bit ol’ slab of Pyrex glass or a brick on top of it. If we did, tha’d be akin to boiling the pork belly topside (water evaporates, but can’t escape so it just vaporizes on the skin…no crispy skin achieved…sadface). At the same time, when proteins denature, it has the net effect of shrinking the piece of protein. Protein matrices, to my knowledge, do not have a built-in Garmin GPS, so they’re not all gonna shrink in the same direction. Thus, you’re not gonna get an even piece of meat. So one has to balance the use a heavy weight (Pyrex glass, brick, your grandmother’s 50 year-old fruitcake) to influence the final volume that the meat is eventually going to take up. Yet, at the same time, you can’t cook the meat entirely and then stick the weight over it and expect it to be in a brick shape (well technically you can, but the modifications after cooking are harder. Plus, if we did this, who would want to wait? It’d be a crime to let delicious, hot, right-out-of-the oven pork belly sit around). Thus, a better (potentially) method perhaps, is to heavy-proof the skin side of meat, cook it all the way through, and then quickly broil the skin after resting the meat. This is another possibility. This however, may leave the problem of dry pork belly (by overcooking via broiling).
So what the hell right?
To me, the science of a nice, even cut of meat, especially if there are different components, compositions, and textures, is gettin’ all of it in one bite. We have the crispy skin, created by the evaporation of water and the subsequent Maillard reactions. We have the buttery, smooth, rich fat layer. Then we have the moist protein, which is tender and juicy. Each aspect already is an orgasm in itself. Combined? Yeah, that’s why crispy pork belly exists. For the most part, I don’t like eating super-dry protein. A bit of fat (in everything mostly) helps it all go down (and increases nutrient absorption). But that’s another post all in itself.
I’m just food-hacking. Most people keep it simple. Marinate. Shove into oven. Eat. No messin’ around with this super-broiled, weightlifting pryex bullshit.
The Anchor? I guess there’s a reason she ain’t sailing anymore. But there’s potential.