It has taken some time, lots of trial and error, but I think I've settled onto a "favorite" pork belly recipe and it comes to me (and now to you) by way of the Mission Street Food cookbook. For the unfamiliar, Mission Street Food was started in the Mission district of San Francisco by Anthony Myint and his wife, Karen Leibowitz. Founders of the now popular "pop-up" concept, Anthony and Karen rented a beat-up taco truck and began selling Anthony's unique and tasty sandwiches. It wasn't long before the truck had to be deserted and they found themselves looking for a place to hang their hats. This now sit-down restaurant broke the mold on traditional means of starting a restaurant and we are all the benefactors of that moment in culinary history.
There have been additions to the staff (Danny Bowien anyone?) and new locations (Danny in New York, anyone?) and Anthony and Karen have moved on to start ever-evolving new food movements (he is the founder of Mission Street Food, Mission Chinese Food, Mission Cantina, Mission Burger, Lt. Waffle, and Commonwealth Restaurant - whew!). Most notable, though, is Anthony's unique vision and creation of a charitable restaurant business.
Please, if you cook, you must have his cookbook in your cookbook. The first half takes you along with Anthony and Karen in the early days of the taco truck endeavor through their established location (at the time the first edition of the cookbook was published) on Thursday nights at the Lung Shan Chinese restaurant. The second half is comprised of the menu items that put them on the map. It's a fantastic story that is inspirational as well as tasty.
I love the fact that while pork belly was trending hugely back when MSF got their start, it's still trending. This is lucky for me, because it's taken me quite a long time to find a recipe that reminds me of the good stuff I find in my favorite restaurants - and I'm able to duplicate it reliably. Trust me, I've been through a lot of belly, and somehow, I always manage to overcook it. That's really saying something, because two of my favorite chefs have mentioned that it's really difficult to overcook this cut of meat.
They have yet to meet me ... :)
I've attempted my chef idol David Chang's pork belly recipe (for his remarkable buns as well as ramen) many times. No disrespect to him - I'm sure I'm not understanding something in his recipe - but my belly comes out too salty and too dry. I've read countless blog posts on successful home cooks replicating his meltingly tender, quivering belly, so I know it's possible ... just apparently not for me.
Before you pass me a tissue (sniff), I should say I've cooked many other recipes from the Momofuku cookbook which have been spot-on. See my recent post for his Spicy Pork Sausage and Rice Cake recipe here, his "naked fried chicken" recipe here, or his Ramen-broth recipe here. I'm addicted to all things Chang and that's never going to change.
I just can't replicate his pork belly.
Needing inspiration as well as a good read, I reached for my Mission Street Food cookbook several weeks ago and was reminded, pleasantly, that Anthony included a recipe for his pork belly and was anxious to try it. Both recipes take about the same time to accomplish, but they differ in the brining and cooking methods: first there is an overnight "brine", but Anthony's brine is liquid (water+salt+sugar) while David's is an overnight nap in the fridge after a salt and sugar rub-down. Day two involves roasting the pork belly sans liquid for Chang's pork belly, and braising in a master stock for Myint's pork belly - but not before scoring the skin in a cross-hatch pattern and getting a good sear on it. This produces a gloriously crispy skin on the belly that I really enjoy. Day three is about letting the cooked meat sit overnight so it's easier to produce clean slices for sammies and ramen.
I liked the fact that Anthony's method used a lot of liquid, both in the brine and as a braise, as I was forever over-cooking my pork belly. I liked the fact that Anthony's method called for a lower cooking temperature and a longer cooking time. Perhaps it is the fault of my overly-hot oven (it's a cheapie charlie - I'm accepting donations for a kick-ass professional stove if anyone's interested). Perhaps I will never attain (but continually strive!) for David Chang's magic. I'm okay with that now. Now that I've got this method that produces for me.
It's all going to be OK.
The MSF cookbook does not divulge Anthony's recipe for his braising stock (he's such a tease). He makes recommendations on what can be used, and what he likes to use (a Master Stock that he keeps using and re-using). I've included my notes and thoughts on that below.
In addition to using the belly for ramen, I wanted to recreate Anthony's signature sandwich (found in the cookbook) as well: the PB&J, which stands for pork belly with pickled jicama, jalapeno and cilantro aioli. In the cookbook, he also provides his recipe for his signature flatbreads. They look extremely time-consuming but amazing. I'll admit I was tuckered out after the brining and braising, so I grabbed some flatbread at the market. I won't look cross-ways at you if you do the same.
I hope you'll give this melt-in-your-mouth pork belly recipe a try.
Mission Street Food's Pork Belly
Serves: several sandwiches + several bowls of ramen
- 4 lbs pork belly side (skin optional)
- 1 quart water
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
Brining spices of your choice (I used a brine composed of water, kosher salt, sugar, a handful of fennel seeds, star anise, coriander seeds and a bay leaf. You can include whatever spices that strike your fancy.)
Braising Ingredients (Heidi's)
I used around 32 ounces of organic apple juice and enough water to cover the pork from there. You can use any type of liquid you want here - Anthony recommends a good master sauces/stock which he does not include in his cookbook, but there are plenty of resources to find a good recipe. You could use chicken stock and wine or water if you like - again, Anthony does not recommend that. I like the flavor of apples and oranges with pork, so I went with that. I felt using chicken stock would make the pork too salty after the sugar and salt brine, so I stuck with water as an addition after the juice so the pork belly was covered in liquid.
- Score the fat side of the belly with 1/8"-deep slashes every 1/2". Repeat in the opposite direction to form a grid-pattern.
- Cut the slab of pork belly into pieces that will fit in your biggest frying pan.
- Combine the salt, sugar, spices, and water to make the brine.
- Submerge the bellies in the brain in a large container (or large ziplock bags, though a container is better). Weigh them down with plates and refrigerate overnight.
- Remove the bellies from the brine and pat dry. Heat a big nonstick or stainless-steel pan over medium-high.
- Sear the bellies in 1/8" to 1/4" of pork fat to ensure even browning (you want enough fat to penetrate the scored crevices). There's little danger of overcooking at this point, since the meat is super fatty. Start with the fat side down, because it's less prone to sticking. Carefully lower it into the pan. It will sizzle and pop like crazy so be super careful.
- Once the fat side is browned, flip and brown the meaty side for 2-4 minutes. (Searing renders some of the fat and raises the overall level of umami. If you're in a real time crunch, you could skip the searing, but you could also just skip lunch and spend the time searing your pork belly properly. It's all about priorities - well said, Anthony!)
- Place the meat in a roasting pan or dutch oven large enough to hold it all, and cover with braising liquid of your choice.
- Cover with parchment paper and then two layers of foil. Place in a 300-degree oven. (Without parchment, the foil might stick to your meat when the fatty bellies float upward in the braising liquid. The second piece of foil makes for a better seal around the edges since the foil crushes onto itself, providing more of a purchase than the smooth hard edge of your roasting vessel.) Depending on how thick your belly is, you can braise in the oven for 4-6 hours at 280-300 degrees. My oven cooks hot so I had it at 280-degrees and checked it around the 3-hour mark. It was spot on.
- Pork belly is hard to overcook using this method (even I can agree with this now!), so you can use a higher temp if you absolutely need to - but I wouldn't. The bellies are done when the meat is shreddable and the fat is melty and easily smashed with tongs. Cool overnight, then squeegee the braising liquid off the bellies and back into the pan before portioning the meat.
- Portion the meat into 1 1/4" - 1 1/2" squares (bigger for the smaller parts of the belly). You can deep-fry the pieces to re-heat so they get super crunchy on the outside (and stay meltingly tender inside). I simply re-heated my pieces for sandwiches in a hot skillet. If I used the pork belly for ramen, I just reheated the pieces in my ramen broth.
Ingredients for Marinated Jicama
- 1 large jicama
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 4 teaspoons fish sauce
- pinch of sugar
- Slice the skin off the exterior of the jicama. Cut it into 1/4" slices, then into 1/4" batons or small dice. Combine with the remaining ingredients.
- Refrigerate in a plastic bag for at least 30 minutes, or as long as overnight.
Ingredients for Pickled Jalapeno
- 1 pound red jalapenos
- 1 1/2 cups light-colored vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
Slice the jalapenos into 1/2"-thick coins. Combine the sugar, water and vinegar. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Pour over the jalapenos and allow them to cool thoroughly. Store in the refrigerator.
Recipe for Cilantro Aioli
- 2 bunches cilantro
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- two-finger pinch of salt
- 2 cups mayonnaise or homemade aioli
- Puree oil, garlic, and salt, the nadd cilantro (stems and all if you have a good blender).
- Alternate between the high and low setting on your blender. Plunge vigorously.
- Fold the resulting cilantro puree into fresh mayonnaise.