I cannot for the life of me remember a time without bacon. We didn’t make much of a fuss about it, we just fried it up for breakfast. I’d have an occasional BLT when the tomatoes came in. It was even a thing to crumble on a salad when you didn’t trust those odd bacon bits that came in a jar.
Truth is I trusted those weird things but never saw them as a bacon substitute. I fancied them as more a handful of salt for a late-night snack.
At some point pop culture changed to make a big deal out of bacon. Yes, just plain bacon. I get it. It’s great. But for crying out loud, there is no need to berate vegetarians for abstinence, nor is there any reason to create social media memes telling the world how much you love bacon. “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy bacon, which is pretty much the same thing.” How many of those gems have you seen?
It got so popular to declare your allegiance to bacon — in a scary world of Lipitor and blood thinners, health be damned — that the tragically hip (and oft ironically skinny) got the memo that the rest of the carnivorous free world had always maintained a love affair with the salt-cured, cold-smoked underside of the pig. Something had to change. Bacon needed a repackaging. “Let us not profess our love for the common bacon. Let us sing the praises of pork belly.”
Yes, pork belly became the supercool replacement for bacon among the culinary elite. Want to turn a $3 pack of bacon into a real moneymaker? Change the name to pork belly. Yes, bacon comes from the same ticklish spot on ol’ Wilbur. Bacon is pork belly. So what’s the difference?
Technically you could call bacon pork belly but, for clarification, there is generally a difference in preparation. Bacon refers to pork belly that has been cured and sliced, harkening back to the days before modern refrigeration, when our meats needed preservation and our oysters were only eaten raw in months that contain the letter “R.”
When we say pork belly today we think of an unmolested piece of meat, straight from the pig to our preferred method of cooking. Usually it comes as an entire slab that will be sliced after cooking. The telltale layer of fat lets you know this is nothing like a tenderloin, but it will be worth the extra statins and calories by the time all is said and done.
You could certainly slice it raw and use it for thick-cut, uncured bacon. These slices work well on the grill and can add a nice touch to a camping trip’s skillet on the open fire. Certainly you’ve heard the Italians speak of pancetta. Some prefer it braised with veggies while others love the crispy fried crackling.
It is often difficult to find the big slab of pork belly in our local grocery stores, including the ones with fancier clientele, but no one takes pork belly as seriously as Asians. Go ahead and Google some recipes. You’ll find plenty of Chinese and Korean ideas. Therefore, in Mobile, when you can’t find pork belly on your routine stops to our impressive list of giant chain stores, you must make your way to an Asian market.
That’s where we picked up this beauty. Glazed with root beer, ginger and molasses, this recipe for tacos is bad to the boneless, making me proud to be a member (maybe not a card-carrying member) of the aforementioned hip food scene. Until recent years this two-word sub for bacon was only familiar to me as a futures and commodities trading term when Mortimer and Randolph tried to dupe Winthorpe and Billy Ray Valentine in “Trading Places.” Good to know my vocabulary (and perhaps tastes) are growing.
2 cups apple juice
2 cups root beer
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 tablespoon ground ginger
Salt and pepper
The most important part of this process is scoring the top of the pork belly. With a sharp blade, make a crisscross pattern in the fatty top, taking care to not slice the meat. Reserve about 3/4 cup of the marinade for the glaze, but choose a dish in which the pork belly will be well covered. Marinate for 6 hours to overnight.
Cook the pork belly in a baking dish at 375 degrees for three hours, covered tightly in aluminum foil with enough marinade to cover the bottom half-inch of the meat. Check regularly to make sure the liquid has not evaporated, adding small doses of warm water if needed. Remove from the oven and drain off any liquid; if you’d like you could use it to supplement the glaze.
For the glaze, heat the remaining marinade in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. In a small, bowl whisk in 2 tablespoon of cornstarch into a quarter cup of water. Pour into the saucepan with mixture and stir constantly as you bring up the heat. Try not to let it boil, but the higher the temp the quicker it will thicken.
Raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Glaze the pork and return to the oven fat side up as the root beer does its magic.
We enjoyed this pork belly sliced on tacos with a mango habanero slaw we purchased at the same Asian market, and I will say I was not disappointed. On this day our pork belly did much more than our usual bacon could do.
But it’s all still bacon to me.
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