Saturday, October 15, 2011

Crispy Pork Belly with Couscous and Plum Sauce

     The warm, sun-filled weather of summer has gone.  Cooler nights accompany daily rain-clouds that march through the Rogue Valley like a military invasion.  Most of our summer vegetables have been harvested, despite a few lingering tomatoes, peppers and stone fruit aching to be released from their stemmed bondage.  October in Southern Oregon makes the sleepy pear orchards come alive with the bustle of box-crates, ladders and trucks.  The harvest is a time-sensitive affair; almost overnight, the orchards are picked and the fruit is packed, resulting in the distribution of fine fruit to most of the country.
     The fruit trees on our property have received a different kind of attention.  Unfortunately, we did not enjoy very much of the fruit from our trees due to pest thievery. Birds, rats, squirrels, raccoons and deer have all eaten well this year!  However, our flowering plum tree produced a hefty yield which seemed relatively untouched.  This is a type of purple-leaf plum (or cherry plum.)  As the fruit is not wonderful raw, I decided to use it for a sauce.  I harvested approximately 2 pounds just as the fruit began to fall from the branches on its own accord.  It doesn't get any riper than that!

Ripe cherry plums.

     Crispy, braised pork belly was the first thing that came to mind after tasting the tart sweetness of the plum sauce.  Soft, fatty, savory pork belly is undoubtedly one of the finest foods, ever.  Although it is the same cut as bacon, uncured pork belly braised in fruit juice and booze will create a fork-tender feast worthy of applause.  Despite being a guilty pleasure, moderate amounts of braised pork belly can undoubtedly increase the quality of one's life.  Layers of muscle and fat give the braise a fluffy, fork tender appeal.  My sweetheart affectionately refers to it as "bacon cake," for obvious reasons.
     The belly is served on a bed of toasted pearl (Israeli) couscous tossed with fresh mint and cilantro.  The refreshing, herbal notes from the couscous form a flavor platform for the pork and plum sauce to dance upon.  The blend of equal parts mint and cilantro brings a bright Thai profile to the tiny pasta beads.  The glaze has a sour plum flavor that cuts through the fatty belly at the same time the sweetness highlights the savory meatiness.  Japanese plum wine, made from Ume plums, sweetens the sauce with a floral essence and slight vanilla taste.  Large couscous lends a bubbly, pearlescent texture to contrast the crackle of crisped skin.  Because the braise can take several hours, I cook the belly the day before serving, so it has a chance to cool for portioning (cutting warm, braised meat can result in frustrating destruction.)  Additionally, keep in mind that the belly is very rich; a smaller portion may be sufficient.
     I prefer to braise this cut with the skin attached, covering the meat below.  As the belly cooks, it begins to float in the braising liquid surfacing parts of the meat which could dry slightly.  Naturally, the skin insulates the muscle in a moisturizing layer of thick fat.  You may find that the rind is just too much fat to consume.  If so, I recommend cooking the belly with the skin still attached, removing it once the meat is cool.  There are claims that pig skin can be unhealthy because the animals secretes toxins through the skin, like humans.  This, however, would only concern customers of producers who raise animals in highly toxic conditions.  If the pork is not organic (or at least naturally raised,) I would probably avoid it altogether, personally.  Also, be sure your butcher removes the mammary glands from the belly; these glands can cause an unpleasantly piggish flavor.

Crispy Pork Belly

3 lbs pork belly (rind on)
3 cups pork stock (or chicken)
3 cups apple cider
2 cups sake
2 cups plum wine (ume)
11/2 cups coconut juice
2 Tbs cider vinegar
1 granny smith apple, seeded and quartered
1 large Spanish onion
1 bulb garlic, peeled
2 Thai chili peppers, seeds removed
1/2 Tbs black peppercorns
kosher salt

  • Place aromatics into deep braising pan, season belly liberally and place on top with the skin side up.  
  • Pour liquids into pan, cover with foil and bake at 400°F for 45 minutes, then drop the temperature to 325°F for 4 hours.
  • Allow to cool in liquid.
  • Remove carefully, wrap and chill the belly.

To serve crispy:

  • Cut 5 ounce portions, score through fat (1/4 inch.)
  • Season with salt, place fat side-down in cold pan and into 450°F oven for approximately 8 minutes (until golden brown and warmed through.)  
  • Remove and slice through scored marks.

Braised belly, scored through the rind and first layer of fat.

Plum Soy Glaze

2 lbs cherry plums (fresh, whole)
1 cup plum wine (ume)
2 tsp tamari soy sauce

  • Gently smash plums in a heavy-bottomed sauce pot, add wine and simmer for 25 minutes (stirring occasionally.)
  • Pass through large strainer.
  • Reduce to a glaze (approximately 1 cup.)
  • Add tamari and pass through fine strainer.

Thai Pearl Couscous

1 cup pearl (Israeli) couscous
1 Tbs sunflower or rice bran oil
1 tsp salt
3 cups water
2 Tbs cilantro, chopped (fresh)
2 Tbs mint, chopped (fresh)

  • Lightly toast couscous in oil, add water and salt.
  • Simmer rapidly, stirring occasionally for 20-30 minutes.
  • Allow to cool, slightly, then add fresh herbs and serve.


  1. Thanks Christian, this was inspired by the seared ahi tuna with guava-soy glaze I prepared for you on the beach years ago. Classic!

  2. John,
    Miss your writing and your recipes. Hope to hear from you soon!!!