Recipe for smoked, grilled pork belly porchetta-style

You know that quip that Irish coffee is the only food to contain the four basic food groups? Sugar, fat, caffeine and alcohol.

Well, to many minds, the sole two elements that comprise pork belly are all an eater needs: It’s 50 percent meat and 50 percent fat. That’s it.

We know pork belly in its sliced (possibly smoked, possibly cured) form as bacon. It remains our most Pavlovian food.

It is possible, however, to know pork belly as some others (such as the Italians or Koreans) know it, not sliced as bacon but in its entirety, as a large slab, cooked into all of its chin-dripping, salty succulency as, for instance, a roast porchetta.

I thought to take a porchetta recipe and adapt it to our American Memorial Day holiday, to smoke and grill it over the course of several hours, the way we might long-cook other cuts of meat: a beef brisket, say, or pork shoulder or ribs.

Many things nicely grace pork belly. Each piece or slice is almost exactly the same, half fat, half meat. (No dark meat chicken thigh to cower in favor before a white breast.) Unlike an expensive steak, it’s close to indestructible. Yes, you must cook it for a very long time but you nearly cannot overcook it. And it is fairly inexpensive, around $10 a pound, tops.

Smoked and Grilled Pork Belly, Porchetta-style

You may order pork belly in one piece from your butcher. Also, many Latino, Korean and some other Asian markets stock it on hand. Serves 6 or more.

Ingredients

  • 1 5-pound square of pork belly, skin on
  • 1/4 cup moderately fruity extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup medium-coarse sea or kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves (or 1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves, or mix of the two)
  • 1/4 cup fennel fronds
  • 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • Zest of 1 large or 2 small lemons

Directions

  • Make a paste of all the ingredients except the pork, either using a food processor or a mortar and pestle (or a molcajete). Set aside to flavor itself for an hour.
  • Wash the pork belly and dry with paper towels. Trim it of any excess fat on the non-skin side. Lay the pork with the skin side up and gently but thoroughly score the skin into 1-inch wide strips, using a very sharp knife or (the better implement) a single-edged razor, being cautious to cut through the skin and just into the fat only, not getting as far as any meat or muscle. Then make 1 perpendicular cut midway the entire width of the slab.
  • Slather the flavoring paste all over the pork, on both sides, pushing some of the paste into the slits made with the knife or razor. Either roll it up and place in a thick zippered plastic bag, or cover it with plastic wrap on a non-reactive plate, and place in the refrigerator overnight or for at least 10 hours. If feasible, you might turn and massage it once or twice.
  • When ready to cook, allow the pork to come to room temperature and remove most of the flavoring paste, either by shaking it free or brushing it off. Prepare a grill that has a cover and that allows for both direct as well as indirect cooking.
  • The first phase of the cooking will take about 6 hours and should be conducted at a temperature inside the grill between 250-275 degrees. Smoke and slowly cook the pork belly using the indirect method (that is, with the heat under but off to the side of the meat), skin side up the entire time. You might find useful a metal grill basket in which to place the pork. Also, because a fair amount of fat will melt away, something under the pork to catch that. Some grills also may require you to add a few pieces of charcoal every hour or so in order to maintain the heat.
  • When the thickest part of the belly reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees (be sure to insert the probe at an angle), remove the pork belly and keep it warm.
  • The second stage of the cooking requires far less time but much greater heat, upwards of 475 degrees.
  • Construct a fire using the direct method, that is, with the heat under the grate and the meat. (If using flame or charcoal, you may need to scrape down your grill grate and build another fire.) Crisp both sides of the pork belly by grilling each side for 5 minutes apiece, beginning with the skin side down, then the other side. Because dripping fat will cause flare-ups that will char either side and render it bitter, cover the grill during both sears.
  • Remove the belly to a cutting board and let it rest, uncovered, for 15 minutes. You may slice the belly as you wish: into long thick slices the length of the slab (slicing along the original scoring, for example), or into cubes or chunks. The skin and edges may have crisped into cracklings or burnt-ends and will be fought over.
  • Serve with grilled vegetables or any number of other side foods.

With a sticky-sweet glaze: Omit the flavoring paste and instead season liberally and marinate overnight with a high-salt dry rub or adobo of your choosing. Follow all other directions. Just before the two final high-heat sears, slather onto both sides a glaze made from 1/2 cup each soy sauce and honey.

As samgyeopsal (Korean grilled pork belly): Omit the recipe’s flavoring paste. Use instead a paste made of 1/4 cup soy sauce or tamari, 3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean cooking paste made of red chiles, fermented soybeans and rice flour), 6 cloves of garlic, 2 tablespoons black pepper, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon miso paste and 1/4 cups chopped scallions (white and light green parts only). Follow all other directions.

With hoisin, lime, ginger and chile glaze: Omit the flavoring paste and instead season liberally and marinate overnight with a high-salt dry rub or adobo of your choosing. Follow all other directions. Just before the two final high-heat sears, slather onto both sides a glaze made from 1/2 cup hoisin sauce, 2 tablespoons each fresh lime juice and Thai sweet chile paste (or sambal) and 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger.

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