I had a couple of pounds of pork belly that I wanted to roast and decided the best route to a balanced health-karma ledger would be to serve it with lentils so to Google I went. (Sorry, Chris Kimball but Cook’s Illustrated doesn’t have a pork belly recipe—or at least I don’t think you do because the flawed cooksillustrated.com search feature returns every recipe with pork in it when I search for “pork belly” and I tired of scanning the results after the third page.) This recipe from the upscale British retailer, Waitrose seemed like a good one so I chose to adapt from it.
The recipe at its base is: 1. Season meat, 2. Place vegetables in baking dish and meat on veg and the whole thing goes in a hot oven for a bit, 3. Reduce oven temperature, 4. Add lentils and wine, and 5. Serve. The only management necessary is some monkeying with the oven temperature and the addition of the lentils an hour before you want to eat.
Once cooked the pig skin or “crackling” really has a unique texture for meat that is much closer to crunchy than crispy. The huge textural contrast between the cooked skin and the meltingly soft meat underneath it, means that carefully scoring the skin before it cooks is essential. I (non-scientifically) estimate that the textural contrast is five times what it is between tomato skin and its flesh so imagine that trying to cut through the crackling and belly once cooked would also be five times as difficult. Aim to make each piece of crackling about the size of two postage stamps (say an inch and a half square). Unlike ham or a roast loin of pork you needn’t worry about cutting into the first meat layer below the sub-cutaneous fat because, frankly, if a little moisture drains out during cooking there is plenty of fat here to replace it.
At the table I tore each small piece of crackling from the rest of the meat, flipped it over and added a bit of salt to the fatty side. This is an amazing eating experience–between the texture and the intense taste of pork that even fennel seed manages to only barely soften–and I can’t believe its the first time I’ve tried cooking it.
The lentils were the perfect base for this dish. They reasonate with onion, thyme, bay, and, of course, “porky” goodness. The white wine provided just enough acidic sharpness to complement these hearty flavours, though at a warmer time of the year I think I would add a healthy squeeze of lemon or splash of cider vinegar. Blanched and briefly sauteed rapini adds a welcome dose of green to the plate and also has the bitterness to contrast with the pork’s richness.
Even the next day reheated, leftover lentils amazed me by how much flavour they delivered. For such a long (and variable) cooking time du Puy (a.k.a. “french”) lentils are a must because they hold their individual shape much better. If just for the leftovers alone I have increased the amount of lentils in my adaptation of the recipe.
My Jewish friends follow kosher dietary laws to varying degrees; one good friend will eat BLTs during Passover only if matzoh stands in for bread. Kosher is not for me but I have always joked that oysters, cheeseburgers, and bacon were the three strongest reasons I could never join them. Now I definitely have a fourth.
Pork Belly and Lentils with Legs
Adapted from the Waitrose recipe for Slow-Roasted Pork Belly With Fennel Seeds And Lentils. Serves 5 – 6.
- 700 grams (about 1.5 lb) pork belly, skin-on and any side ribs removed
- 225 grams lentils
- 3 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 3 medium carrots (or equivalent in baby carrots), coarsely chopped
- 4 – 5 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- small bunch fresh thyme
- 1 TB fennel seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 250 ml (1 cup) white wine
- 250 ml (1 cup) chicken broth
- kosher salt
- freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.
Score the skin on the belly with a very sharp knife. Work in a diamond pattern and try to create pieces of skin that will be large bite-size.
Using a mortar and pestle grind the fennel seeds until crushed and somewhat powdery. Spread this and a healthy pinch of kosher salt, and a few grinds of black pepper all over the pork belly. Take care to get the seasoning right into the gashes scored into the skin.
Strew the thyme, onions, garlic, and carrots in the bottom of a low-sided casserole dish. The idea is that as well as flavouring the lentils these vegetables will act as a rack and elevate the pork off the bottom of the dish. They will do this best–and avoid burning themselves–if they are pretty tightly-squeezed together under the pork belly. Put the casserole dish into the oven.
After twenty minutes of roasting, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees F. The timing on the next stage is pretty variable–I only roasted the pork belly for another hour before adding the lentils and it was well-cooked, still a little toothsome and a lot of the fat had melted out but the original recipe calls for two hours. The important thing is that the lentils probably shouldn’t be in the oven for more than an hour so let’s say: About an hour before you want to eat (and between 1 and 2 hours after lowering the oven temperature to 300) remove the dish from the oven. Using tongs, move the pork belly to a plate and (while retaining the vegetables in the dish) pour off any liquid. Separate what meat juices you can from the fat–in my case it was ninety-five percent fat.
Pour the lentils, bay leaves, chicken broth, separated meat juices, white wine, and a pinch of salt into the dish and stir. Replace the pork belly on top of the lentils, increase the oven temperature to 325 degrees F and return the dish to the oven. Roast for about an hour; if you think about stir the lentils once or twice and try not to splash the pork skin.
Remove from the oven and let rest for five minutes. On a cutting board and following the lines scored in the skin cut the pork belly into serving size pieces, return to the dish and serve with rapini or other strongly-flavoured greens.