Pork belly, as far as I am concerned, is one of the most interesting meats to cook. I am partial to a nice blue steak, preferably a French pavé cut served with a slab of melting Roquefort and some really good gratin dauphinois, roast chicken is easily done and so rewarding, but pork belly, as I have discovered since starting this blog, lends itself to some of the most marvellous and improbable transformations. Roast chicken and steak, gorgeous as they are, don’t really change much beyond the flavourings and side dishes, whereas pork belly is an absolute chameleon and a globetrotting one at that. Just this year I have used it to make Mexican carnitas, a Chinese-inspired twice-cooked dish and a wintry roast. All delicious and, in most instances, very low impact in terms of work. And now here’s another, from a book devoted to the unsung (though more sung these days) heroes, the lesser cousins of fillet steak and the unwanted siblings of the loin chop.
In Odd Bits (perfectly subtitled How to Cook the Rest of the Animal) by Jennifer McLagan you will find everything from tripe to testicles, via breast of lamb and bone marrow. It’s a hugely practical and unapologetic book, devoted (as per the likes of Fergus Henderson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) to teaching the likes of me not only how to cook fat and feet (hmm…) but how to buy and source them too. Although I am very very unlikely, no, let’s be honest, never going to cook any sour lung soup (ugh!) or the brains or heads of any animals (the French penchant for such things in jelly makes my stomach do awful things), I am more and more interested in bits like pork cheeks (which I spotted in Waitrose last week), lamb neck and brisket. It will take me some time, and practice, to learn how to cook them but, since they are cheap, and I am very much of the school that it is no longer acceptable to eat just the ‘nice’ bits of an animal and throw the rest away, this book is going to be a treat to use.
Having said all that, I eased myself into the delights of ‘odd bits’ by cooking with something I am familiar with and love: a slab of belly. I was intrigued by this recipe because it suggested that rillons are an easier version of rillettes. And since I love rillettes, this was an obvious place to start. Again, a bit like the dip the other day, this isn’t going to win me any fans amongst those who want a 20-minute dinner so perhaps save this one for the weekend. However, it does win points for the ratio of ease-gloriousness and for both cheapness and lack of waste: I made the rillons from a piece of belly that cost me about £3.50, then I made homemade pork scratchings from the skin (yum!) and the book inspired me to make a black pudding and apple salad. I call that a bargain in cost and inspiration, if not time. And these, well these are going to be your friends for life, and make you friends for life. Though perhaps not amongst the vegetarians…
Pork rillons (adapted from Odd Bits)
For about 12-14, depending on the size of the pieces you cut, you will need
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
sea salt, a tablespoon plus some for seasoning
garlic cloves, 4
bay leaf, 1 (she specifies fresh; I only had dried)
cold water, 120ml
pork belly, 1 kg
ground allspice or quatre épices, ¼ teaspoon
lard (I know, I know!) or, in my case, leftover duck fat from a roast, about 75g
fresh thyme, 4 decent sprigs
smoked pimentón (hot paprika), 1 tsp
white wine, 120ml
1. First, the day before you want to cook it, remove the skin from the pork belly (sprinkle it with salt and roast it later, for your very own pork scratchings) then cut the meat into large cubes (about 2cm across). You’ll end up with about 12-14 from a kilo.
2. Put the sea salt and allspice or quatre épices in a pestle and mortar or blender (or failing that in a plastic bag which you then bash with a rolling pin/heavy object). Blend/bash into a coarse powder.
3. Put the pork pieces into a bowl (one that will fit in the fridge) with the salt/spice powder, toss to coat then cover with a plate/cling film and refrigerate overnight.
4. The next day, preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan-assisted/gas 6, remove the pork from the fridge, drain away any liquid and pat the pieces dry with kitchen paper or a clean tea towel.
5. Heat a couple of tablespoons of lard/fat in a large frying pan over a medium heat and brown the pork pieces all over until dark and caramelised. You may need to do this in batches (if you cram them all in it won’t work as well).
6. Whilst the pork is cooking, peel, top and tail and crush the garlic cloves and put them in a large lidded casserole dish with the bay leaf, thyme, pimentón.
7. Add the pork to the casserole dish then strain/drain the fat from the frying pan, discarding any bits, and add the fat to the pork too. Finally, tip in the wine and water, season with black pepper and bring the whole lot to a simmer.
8. As soon as it’s simmering, put the dish (uncovered for now) into the oven for about 30 minutes.
9. After the first 30 minutes, check on the amount of liquid left in the dish (it should come to about halfway up the pork belly pieces), add some water if necessary then cover, lower the oven temperature to 150°C/130°C fan-assisted/gas 2 and cook for another 2 hours, or until the pork is really tender, stirring it a couple of times.
10. You can eat the rillons straight out of the pan as a snack, lovely with a glass of lightly chilled summer red (Saumur-Champigny would be my suggestion), in a salad (on a bed of rocket and watercress with some caramelised apples and toasted walnuts, tossed with some walnut oil) or refrigerate them in the pot once cool. They will keep for about a week but I doubt they will last you that long; if they do then you will need to transfer them to a clean container, strain the cooking fat over them, melt any remaining lard/duck fat over them so that they are completely covered in fat, cool, then refrigerate.
11. If cooking them from cold, remove them from the fridge and let them come up to room temperature (this makes it easier to get them out of the fat) then caramelise them again in a hot skillet with, if you like, a splash of brandy, until hot through and crunchy-crisp on the outside. Unforgettable.