Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pork Belly here, Pork Belly there, Pork Belly EVERYWHERE!

I may be a little behind the curve on this one, but I'm starting to notice a trend at many local restaurants. Pork belly dishes are showing up left and right on menus around town! Being someone who loves most every pork product derivative, this has intrigued me. Especially because, I'd never really heard of pork bellies outside of the old movie Trading Places . Have you seen this? Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd involuntarily trade social status, but unite in the end to combat two scheming old financial cronies who trade frozen orange juice and you guessed it, pork bellies, on the stock market.

Now prosciutto, bacon, pancetta, lardons, bacon, pork loin, pork chops, sausage, bacon, and in case I didn't mention it bacon, are all part of my regular culinary vocabulary. But pork belly was a new term to me.

First there was the question of what is it? I mean it seems self-explanatory, the belly of the pig. However, there's really more to it than that.

Fortunately, my adventurous husband decided to take this new menu item on head first while we were dining at Baltimore's Cinghiale a few months ago. He did ask the waiter for a quick description of pork belly first of course - you don't go blindly into an entree that costs $30! The waiter described it as one of his favorite things on the menu, cracklin' crispy slab of pork. In my opinion though, he left out some very important details.

A quick google search brought up this very informative article that describes the much-traded stock market commodity as "Bacon in its raw, uncured state, pork belly is the fattiest part of the mature hog, thick stripes of pure white fat and rosy meat." So basically, it's fat. A thick slab of it to be precise. In fact, it's the fattiest cut of the pig you can find. And the fanciest of restaurants in New York has embraced this cut, which was apparently already well known amongst southern cooks, according to the article! It's not surprising though that southern cooks knew what to do with a slab of pure white creamy pig fat before the rest of the country.

Despite it's revival and adoption by mainstream restaurant culture, after my husband's chewy slimy experience with pork belly I think it's one part of the pig I'll be perpetually passing on. I mean honestly, to us it was like being served the part of the meat that one usually cuts off! It was greasy, very rich and just had the chewy consistency of eating, well, fat. Even the so-called crispy parts were too rubbery for my tastes!

Our experience aside, diners must be lovin' the lard because good ole' pork belly has been creeping into local restaurant fare quite a lot recently. From ethnic to American-style restaurants, pork belly has crossed all borders.

For example, Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia features an Espresso Rubbed Pork Belly served with cheese grits and an au jus sauce. They've obviously kept the southern-style to this dish.

In Baltimore, the popular new B&O American Brasserie serves a crispy pork belly cassoulet style, flavored with sage. New Baltimore hot spot Blue Hill Tavern features a pork belly appetizer with red cabbage, apple compote and calvados syrup - it sounds like a gourmet version of Peter Brady's "Pork chops and applesauce". And an old Baltimore favorite, The Brewer's Art offers a Roasted Berkshire Pork Belly appetizer that is accompanied by a sweet potato biscuit, chestnut puree, port-soaked dried cherries and natural jus.

With all this exposure lately of pork's soft underbelly, I tried to encourage my husband to maybe give it another try - even though I myself will stay far away from it. But he said it's hard to go back to a food that never sat right the first time - and wasn't cheap to boot. So while the popularity of this pig fat is a slight mystery to us, obviously others are enjoying it. Have you tried pork belly? What is your take on this fatted pig product? Or have you ever fried up pork belly in your own kitchen? I'd love to hear your experiences.

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