When our charming host Andrew of SpittoonExtra announced this month's theme for "Waiter, there's something in my..." I was a bit hopeless. Pineapple doesn't feature much in my cooking, if anything, I'd enjoy it raw in a fruit salad or the way I learnt to eat fruit in Mexico: sliced, with a drizzle of lime and a generous sprinkling of chile piquín or cayenne pepper. The first thing that came to my mind was a pineapple upsidedown cake or tarte tatin, but then I figured there would be about a dozen entries with that theme.
Then something came to me in my dreams. Literally. I somehow time-travelled back to a trip to Paris, eternal city of love and food, and a visit to a phantastic restaurant that sadly is no more - La Table de Lucullus in the 17th district. It was a tiny place, a mere six or eight tables, and no menu to speak of - Nicolas, chef-owner of the place, would come round to every table personally and recite what was on offer that day. And as luck would have it, that night it was pork belly. Pork belly is not something I cook at home (until yesterday), simply because it never featured in my Mum's cooking, so I didn't have the first clue how to make it. I have had it a number of times in various restaurants - but there are only two that stick in my mind: the version done at Salt Yard (to this date, I believe), a garlicky affair with a crispy skin, the whole sitting on indulging white beans, and the version Nicolas made that night which was possibly the best way of eating a pork belly ever. I was hesitant to order it that night in Paris, but Nicolas insisted in his charming French accent that is was "verrrry tasty". And tasty it was. From that night on, whenever I think of pork belly, it is his version I remember, even some six years on.
My husband had been bugging me to try and recreate this dish forever - and here was my chance. Andrew was sort of handing me a ticket to fulfill Chris' dream, and so I jumped at the occasion. It was more difficult that I thought to get some decent pork belly - I went to the Borough Market specifically for it, as it's the place where I always turn when I need something special, something that I am unfamiliar with and therefore unable to judge its quality. But what was on offer there did not meet my expectations at all - they were all sad-looking pieces of pork belly that consisted of nothing but fat... yes, I know, the fat is important in a pork belly, but you do want some meat to go with that as well. I'd settle for half-and-half, but don't want to be paying for 5 kg of belly to get ten meagre bites of pork.
So I trod back home, disappointed at my failure to find a decent piece, and was wrecking my brain as to what else I could come up with for WTSIM that included pineapple. I was almost tempted to bail out or make a piña colada instead... but decided to gave my local butcher a try on the way back from the station (they're actually very good, people come from near and far to buy there and on the weekend, there's always a queue). And guess what? I got a brilliant piece of pork belly that cost a fraction of what I would have paid at the Borough.
I started that same night: brining the belly in a similar fashion as I had done before with pork fillet, using pineapple juice this time and stock and lots of spices: cinnamon, cloves, star anise, peppercorns, garlic. Pineapple contains enzymes that tenderise meat in a way that nothing else does, so I was sure this would be perfect. And it was. The next day I just had to stud the rack with garlic, season it a bit more and place in the oven on some slices of pineapple - slow-cooking for three or four hours and hoping for the best. It turned out phenominally good for a first try and it definitely won't be the last time I made pork belly... especially since I now know I can buy it just a few hundred meters down the road!
Spiced pork belly with caramelised pineapple
(to be honest, I forgot to weigh the piece I bought... so this recipe requires some improvisation and imagination!)
1 pork belly (skin scored)
3 cloves garlic (cut into 2 mm sticks)
4 slices pineapple (peeled & cored)
10 g butter
1-2 tbsp soft brown sugar
generous amount of coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
For the brine:
1 tbsp black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
2 tbsp coarse sea salt (sel gris de Guérande or kosher salt)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 vanilla pod
1 big cinnamon stick
1 scant tbsp cloves
1:2 ratio of vegetable stock:pineapple juice (enough to cover the pork belly in its container)
Place the pork belly in a tupperware container with a leak-proof lid. Combine the ingredients for the brine, pour over the belly and make sure it is just covered. Put on the lid and place in the fridge for overnight resting.
The day after, lift the pork from the brine, reserving 1 glass of it as well as all the seasoning.
Stud the pork with the garlic sticks all over, rub well with salt and grind some pepper over it. Spread the seasoning onto the bottom of an oven-proof roasting tin/pan, pour in the glass of brine, place the pork belly, skin-side up, in the pan and put in the oven.
Roast on the middle rack of your oven at 150 C for 2 hours, then raise the temperature to 180 C. If the skin is browning too much, lower the oven rack. Roast for another 1.5 to 2 hours.
Just before serving, melt the butter in a pan, place the pineapple slices in it and fry on both sides until starting to brown. Sprinkle the sugar over, caramelise and make sure the pineapples get evenly covered.
Serve the pork belly sliced with the pineapple pieces, pour over some of the caramelised juices, offer some potato or celeriac mash and greens of your choice on the side.