Iron Chef Morimoto’s 10-Hour Pork Belly

I’m not sure if the following recipe appears in Morimoto’s cookbook or not, but a couple months ago, when I tasted the delicious pork belly sliders at the pre-opening festivities at Morimoto Napa, I decided that I really needed to learn to more about the Iron Chef’s approach to swine. Fortunately, I have a friend and former chef-school roommate who has cooked at one of Morimoto’s East Coast restaurants, so he’s actually executed this pork belly recipe dozens of times, if not hundreds. As I found out, the recipe itself doesn’t really contain any guarded secrets or esoteric ingredients; instead, it simply relies upon patience and technique, which is often enough. To that end, Morimoto’s pork belly recipe sees 10 hours of total braising time, spread out over two days. If you wish to discuss slow food, then this is definitely it.

Three pounds of heritage pork belly: Beauty is more than skin deep.

For the 10-hour pork belly, Morimoto uses Kurobuta pork, also known as Berkshire pork here in the United States. As one might guess from its name, Berkshire pork originated in Great Britain, where the breed boasts a 300-year lineage. In more recent times, the Berkshire pig has become part of the UK’s Rare Breed Survival Trust, which aims to fight the extinction of heritage livestock (similar to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste). Although it may seem counter-intuitive to slaughter and eat a vanishing breed, this practice actually helps to support and sustain the Berkshire pig farmers, who will thus ensure that the Berkshire lineage continues. Of course, heritage meats do cost more than factory-farmed meats, but the difference in quality is unmistakable.

• • •

Welcome to your new home.

The first step in preparing Morimoto’s 10-hour pork belly is to render the fat side (skin removed). This initial step is best accomplished by starting with a cold pan and searing the belly slowly over very low heat. I actually rendered the pork belly for one full hour, turning the heat up to medium for the last five minutes in order to achieve a beautiful golden brown color (as seen in the photo below). Note that the meaty side of the belly is to remain raw for the time being.

• • •

So crisp, you could strike a match on it.

After rendering, the fat side of the belly becomes quite crispy, reminiscent of chicharones. In the photo above, you may notice that I rendered out almost one full cup of fat, which I drained before returning the belly to the pan. Once drained, I covered the pork belly with three quarts of cold water, which also included one-half cup of brown rice (the rice serves to collect some of the impurities in the pork belly, allowing for a much “cleaner” flavor at the end). I brought the braising water to a gentle simmer, then I turned the heat all the way down, allowing the belly to simmer for six hours. During this process, it’s imperative that the water simmers as gently as possible; a rolling boil, especially in the latter stages, would shred the pork belly. Also, I found that the pork belly was best simmered fat-side down, since that’s the way it tends to curl during cooking.

• • •

After six hours, and a night in the fridge. Four more hours remaining.

After six hours of low simmering, I carefully removed the pork belly, which was barely holding together by that point. Since the belly was somewhat buoyant in its braising liquid, I used a dinner plate to scoop it from the water. From there, I carefully slid the belly onto a sheet pan, then used a rubber spatula to gently scrape away any of the brown rice (on a related note, brown rice is used because it’s the least likely to dissolve during the six-hour braise). Once the belly was cleaned and manicured, I sandwiched it between another sheet pan, and pressed it flat with a couple 24-ounce cans. I refrigerated this set-up overnight, then removed it the next day and portioned the pork belly into squares, as seen above.

• • •

10 hours completed.

Up until this point, the pork belly has not been seasoned in any way. The seasoning occurs in that last four hours of braising, when the liquid consists of (a) four parts water, (b) three parts sake, (c) two parts sugar, and (d) one part soy sauce. This 4-3-2-1 ratio is often seen in Japanese cooking, and can also be used in other applications. The key, however, is that the first two hours of the braise do not involve the soy sauce component. The reasoning is, the salt in the soy sauce would inhibit the pork belly’s ability to absorb the sugar. Therefore, I combined one quart of water with three cups of sake and two cups of sugar, bringing the liquid to a boil just long enough to dissolve the sugar. I then poured this hot liquid over the pork belly, and I placed the covered pot into a 275-degree oven. After two hours in the oven, I then added one cup of soy sauce, and allowed the belly to braise for two more hours.

• • •

Belly jelly: Don’t fear gluttony, embrace it.

After the four-hour braise was complete, I carefully removed the pieces of belly and placed them in a single layer to cool (I found that a 9-by-13 baking dish worked well). I then strained the braising liquid and reduced it on the stove top by about half. I chilled this liquid, then poured it back over the belly, which I had also refrigerated. The photo above depicts the little nuggets of fat that I had initially strained from the braising liquid. I scraped these remnants from the strainer and (with very little hesitation) ate them. The melted fat was essentially pork belly marmalade, slightly sweet, but with a savory element from the soy sauce. Had there been enough to spread on breakfast toast, I would’ve done so.

• • •

Like butter.

Once refrigerated, the pork belly is pretty much ready to eat. To serve, just heat the pieces in a saute pan with a little of the braising liquid. As the belly warms, the liquid reduces to form a glaze, which can be spooned over the pork. I recommend eating this pork belly over rice, or perhaps on its own. In the photo above, I placed two pieces of belly on a toasted Kings Hawaiian bun, dressed with a little kewpie mayonnaise and some Asian coleslaw. The pork featured the tender consistency of room-temperature butter, and it was incredibly flavorful to boot. On the tenderness scale, if foie gras was a 10, then this belly would be about a nine.

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