Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pork Belly Politics - Root Beer Braised Streak o' Lean

I am so sick of good cheap foods being suddenly and dramatically overpriced because celebrity chefs are (wisely, for them) finding ways to use them in their high-end restaurants.  The only exception to this is chicken liver, and I don't want to say that too loudly, because my husband and I love chicken liver.  But beef short ribs, lamb and pork shanks, pork belly, a simple beef brisket, and even the humble oxtail are being priced right out of my food budget.  If my grandmother could see the current-day price of brisket, she would roll over in her grave, but for the fact that she was cremated at her own request.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to savor absolutely sublime pork belly prepared in different ways at different venues, including Emeril's Tchoup Chop, Artist Point at Disney's Wilderness Lodge, and at an incredible Savannah treasure with the unusual name of a.lure. Served with seared foie gras and a deep-fried Krispy Kreme doughnut, that dish has made the menu of my Last Meal, which contains elements such as lobster, chocolate, and even osetra caviar.  Pork belly is a formerly super cheap cut, used in Chinese cuisine for a dish called Shanghai-style braised pork belly, red braised pork belly, crispy pork belly, and the like.  I love love LOVE it, and that means I really want to be able to cook it at home.  But I have yet to see pork belly in the meat refrigerators at Publix or BJs or Walmart, at any price.

On our way home from Georgia, we stopped at Carroll's Sausage and Country Store in Ashburn.  Besides an amazing selection of fresh and smoked sausage, I picked out a small piece of streak o' lean to experiment with.  I had never heard of streak o' lean until, years after my relocation to Florida, I happened upon My Mother's Southern Kitchen by James Villas.  He explains how his mother, like s many other southern cooks, uses streak o' lean when cooking green beans, baked beans, and leafy greens southern style.

What I found, after a little online research, is that cuts like pork belly, salt pork, and streak o' lean are all related to our American bacon, cut from the same or close to the same part of the pig.  Bacon and pork belly are actually fraternal twins. Streak o' lean is very similar to salt pork, except it has a higher meat-to-fat ratio.  Both streak o' lean and salt pork are salted, which pork belly is not.  So what I wanted was to try a little Harry Potter magic and turn the streak o' lean back into pork belly.

Prior to developing my cooking strategy, I cut off a very thin slice of the pork and fried it briefly.  There's a pretty good meat-to-fat ratio, and nice texture, but without a doubt, it was too salty to be used without a culinary intervention.  So I soaked it overnight in milk; if I was to try this again, I would soak it longer, and would change the soaking liquid a few times, much like you would do with bacalao (salt cod).  I would also switch to a salt-free seasoning, or just combine a few spices like black pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder, and sweet paprika.

I cooked this in the crockpot, but you could probably cook it, tightly covered with foil, in a slow oven as well.

Root Beer Braised Streak o' Lean

1/2 pound square chunk of streak o' lean
2 cups of whole milk (plus more for repeated soakings)
Crystal hot sauce (to taste)

2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons Emeril's Essence (spice blend)
small amount of Wondra flour
1/2 tablespoon olive or canola oil

1-12 oz. bottle A&W root beer (I had diet in the house)
Worcestershire sauce
a few drops of Crystal hot sauce

I removed the skin carefully, leaving the top fat layer intact. and then placed the pork in a ziptop bag with the milk and enough Crystal hot sauce to turn it a very pale pink.  I soaked the pork overnight, then removed it from the bag, patted it dry, and discarded the milk.

Once it was dry, I rubbed it with a spice paste made by combining the brown sugar, Emeril's Essence, and the oil.  Next, I dusted all sides of the pork with a very small amount of the Wondra Flour, and placed the pork at the bottom of a crockpot.

I poured the A&W into the crockpot around the meat, and added about two or three glugs of the Worcestershire and a few drops of the Crystal hot sauce.  Cover the crockpot and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, until the pork is meltingly tender.  Don't cook any longer than that, as the pork will become more like corned beef, which isn't bad, but also not the purpose of the recipe.

You won't need any kind of sauce to enjoy this.  Trying serving it as a lunch or appetizer with a starchy side like rice and some fresh green beans that have been steamed or cooked in a little butter.  If there are any leftovers, do not store the pork in the cooking liquid, as it retains a good part of the salt.

I liked it, and next time I can find a piece of streak o' lean, I will definitely try it again.

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