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Cracking the pork crackling code

Pork belly baked in foil with Asian spices

I FOUND myself dealing a devastating body blow to the humble pig last weekend, a very satisfactory battle victory in my years-long campaign to solve the greatest porcine riddle: how to get the meat perfectly tender and moist at the end of cooking while also having fabulously crisp crackling.

You know the story, if you’ve ever cooked a pork roast. The meat becomes cooked through – which it has to be, because rare pork makes you ill – but often dry and too compact, if the crackling is to turn out just the way you want it. But add too much moisture in order to have the meat nicely succulent yet still cooked through, and the crackling is likely to be soggy or just not crackly enough.

I’ve got it nearly right many times, and most recently I had taken the advice of One Who Knows and cooked a pork roast fat-side down for a good deal of the time, to really get the fat cooked through, then turned it for the fat to turn into crunchy crackling. It was fairly successful but I found that the crackling was still too hard. There’s a balance worth seeking of a beautiful crunch that is also quite soft, so that you don’t worry that your teeth might snap in two.

So, having bought a piece of pork belly, I decided to throw caution to the winds and approach it from an entirely new persective: foil. The theory was – and this is worth committing to memory, because it worked wonderfully – that the foil would become a mini oven within an oven, and that any liquids I used would remain at the bottom of the foil parcel, with the fat near the top of the parcel, untouched by liquids that could keep the pork soggy. In the end, the belly cooked for three hours entirely wrapped up, at which point I opened the top, turned on the grill and finished the process by crackling up that fatty side.

So here’s how to make my Asian-spiced foil-baked pork belly:

Start by dry-roasting your spices. Deseed about 10 cardamom pods, discarding the husks. Heat a flat pan on the stove top on a medium heat, then put in the cardamom seeds, two or shree star anise, a teaspoon of black mustard seeds and a teaspoon of coriander seeds, and toss over the heat for a minure or two. Don’t let them burn. Bash the roasted seeds with a mortar and pestle and return to the pan. Now add three tablespoons of palm sugar, which is much like honey that has hardened. Or, use an equivalent amount of honey. Stir to mop up all the spices, then add 3T rice vinegar, 3T premium soy sauce and a few drops of sesame oil (or include a few sesame seeds when you dry-roast the spices). Remove from the heat.

Now score the fat side of the pork belly along its length using a very sharp knife. Carefully douse all of the meaty sides of the pork belly in the basting sauce but don’t let any of the mixture touch any of the skin. Cut two large squares of foil to make a double-foil parcel. Pour the basting mixture in the middle, place the pork belly meat-side-down on this, and brush olive oil all over the fat. Salt the fat, and fold up the parcel, scrunching the foil in the middle. Place it in an oven dish and bake in the middle of a preheated oven for three hours at 170°.

After three hours, remove it and turn on the oven grill. Open the top of the foil parcel, baste the fat again with olive oil, salt again, and return it to the oven, leaving a broad gap between the meat and the grill – either on the middle rack of the oven, or one rung below that. Keep an eye on it while the fat slowly turns into crackling. This should work – it certainly did for me, and what I got was exactly what I had wanted: the meat was utterly fall-apart tender and flavourful with all of those spices permeating the flesh, and it had also made a little sauce to serve with the meat. The crackling, meanwhile, was superbly soft yet crunchy.

I served it with shredded cabbage, red and yellow peppers, spring onion and red chilli which I quickly stirfried with ginger, and mushrooms in soy. First gently simmer finely chopped fresh ginger in peanut oil, then add the cabbage and peppers and stirfy fror a minute or two, then add the chilli and a splash of rice vinegar, toss for a minute and serve.

Exotic mushrooms in peanut oil and ginger

For the mushrooms, buy a pack of those mixed exotic mushrooms that Woolies sells. I also bought a pack of shimeji mushrooms, being the tiny little ones on stalks that burst out of a common root base. (Cut them off the base, Daisy). The mixed pack contained portobellini, king oyster and shimeji mushrooms. Heat a little peanut oil, toss the mushrooms to soften, stirring continuously, then add a splash of rice vinegar and a splash of soy sauce. No need to salt them as the soy does that.

It all combines to make one of those simply satisfying dishes, and the absence of a starch offsets the fattiness of the centrepiece.

First published in Weekend Argus September 2011

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