Monday, June 21, 2010

Buta no Kakuni (Japanese Braised Pork Belly)

Pork belly is far and away Alex's favorite meat.  If there is pork belly on a menu I know that he will zero in on and it, and unless the cooking method is completely outlandish, he will want to order it.  It's just his thing.  And I admit that I really enjoy pork belly in all kinds of dishes - Momofuku's steamed buns (or Tangled Vine's pork montaditos), the watermelon pickle and crispy pork at Fatty Crab, and the siu yuk (crispy Cantonese pork belly) served in Chinatown to name a few.  But because pork belly takes so incredibly long to cook and isn't readily available in your average grocery store or butcher, we have never made it at home.  Instead it has remained a restaurant only indulgence.  But I got a little overexcited on one of my recent shopping trips in Chinatown and came home with a pound of pork belly that has been languishing away in the freezer.  So it was time to suck it up and make something deliciously fatty with it.  This dish (and pork belly in general) is kind of a gut buster, so I wouldn't recommend making or eating it very often, unless of course you are trying to seriously clog your arteries and pack on more than a few pounds.

Alex and I spent awhile online Googling recipes and randomly both came up with different recipes for buta no kakuni (Japanese braised pork belly).  It sounded delicious, and pretty easy, so why not?  All of the recipes I came across online had some standard ingredients (sugar, ginger, star anise, soy sauce).  And then some mixed it up a bit and added in leeks, hard-boiled eggs, and sake.  One or two of the recipes served the pork belly with a spicy mustard paste.  So I went through all of the various recipes and came up with my own to use the ingredients we had in the fridge.  Somehow the pork wasn't quite as rich and flavorful as I had thought it would be after the 3 hour braise.  It needs some sort of spice or something to jazz it up a bit.  That might be because I was expecting a flavor profile more like a traditional Chinese red braised pork aka hongshao rou (which is a dish that I love that uses similar ingredients and a similar cooking method), but who knows?  We didn't have any of the Japanese mustard that the dish is sometimes served with, so we tried topping it with sesame oil, shichimi togarashi, and wasabi paste.  The pork belly was good, but there's something missing.  It might take another attempt to figure out just what was missing, but I will figure it out now that I know how simple pork belly is to make!  Or maybe I will try and make myself some hongshao rou instead...

Recipe after the jump!

Japanese Braised Pork Belly (Buta no kakuni)

1 1/2 lb. pork belly, chopped into 1 to 2-inch cubes
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds (leaving the skin on is fine)
2 leek, whites and pale green parts, chopped into 1-inch sections
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sake
2 pieces star anise
4 eggs
3 scallions, finely chopped

Heat a large Le Creuset (or other heavy bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid) over medium-high heat.  Add pork belly and cook on all sides until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Don't add any oil to saute the pork belly - the pork will render out a ton of fat.  Scrape the pork to one side of the pot.  Add the ginger and leeks and saute very briefly until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Push the aromatics over to another side of the pot.  Add the sugar and stir.  The sugar will begin to caramelize.  Toss the pork in the just caramelized sugar so that it gets nicely coated.  Be careful not to burn the sugar.  Add enough water to the pot so that the pork is just submerged.  Add the soy sauce, sake, and star anise.  Adjust the heat to low, cover, and allow your pork to simmer for 2-3 hours, or until pork is fork tender and falls apart easily. Check on your pork during the braising process to make sure that the pork is still submerged in the braising liquid.  If not, add more water until pork is fully covered.

While the pork is cooking, hard boil your eggs.  Everyone has their own method for hard-boiled eggs, but I generally put my eggs in a sauce pan covered with 1-inch of cold water.  Bring water to boil, cover pan,  and remove from burner.  Let eggs stand covered for 15 minutes.  Drain immediately.  Rinse the cooked eggs under cool water (sometimes I put them in a bowl of ice water for a minute to speed the cooling process), and remove the shells.  Add your eggs to the pot of simmering pork belly for about 5 to 10 minutes so the outside absorbs some of the braising liquid. 

Serve pork belly and hard-boiled eggs over steamed white rice.  Drizzle with a little of the braising liquid and garnish with scallions.  Serve immediately.

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