Crispy, crackling nuggets of pork belly are better than traditional bread croutons, any day of the week. Pork belly “croutons” add crunch and saltiness to salad, plus they have a succulent, fatty middle that a square of stale bread can’t compete with.
But you probably don’t need to be sold on loving meat croutons over bread croutons. So let’s get right down to the recipe. How does one turn a tough slab of pork belly into gorgeous layers of thin, crispy skin, velvety fat and tender meat? It’s easier than you think. Plus, pork belly is a relatively inexpensive cut of meat and easy + inexpensive + incredible flavor = Primal happiness.
In this recipe for seared pork belly, the belly is first seasoned, braised and chilled. The process is simple, but takes about 24 hours so plan ahead. The pork belly is edible and quite tasty at this point but the last step, searing it quickly in a pan, is what really transforms pork belly into something special.
But here’s the best part. Pork belly and kale are unbelievably good together. If you identify more as a meat lover than a kale lover, this pork and kale salad will help you see kale in a new way. Fatty pork and raw kale are a delicious yin-yang combination.
Time in the Kitchen: About 24 hours to braise and chill, plus 30 minutes of hands-on cooking
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns (2.5 ml)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds (2.5 ml)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds (5 ml)
1 1/2 to 2 pounds pork belly, with skin (680 to 900 g)
2 bay leaves
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 cup water (240 ml)
2 large bunches of lacinato /Tuscan kale
1 large lemon, juice and zested
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (20 ml)
2 small shallots, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (2.5 ml)
1/3 cup olive oil, or more to taste (80 ml)
Skin-on pork belly can be found at Asian grocery stores or be special-ordered from your butcher.
Preheat the oven to 250 °F (120 °C).
Combine the peppercorns, fennel and coriander seeds in a dry sauté pan and toast over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and crush with a rolling pin or pulse a few times in a coffee grinder.
Season the pork liberally with salt (1 to 2 teaspoons/5 to 10ml) then place skin side up in a baking dish, ideally one that’s not too much bigger than the belly. Sprinkle the crushed spices, bay leaves, onion, garlic and spices over and around the belly.
Pour the cup of water in the baking dish then cover the dish tightly with foil, then a lid. This makes an extra airtight seal. If the baking dish doesn’t have a lid, then just make sure the foil is really tight.
Braise the pork belly until the meat is very tender, about 4 1/2 hours.
Take the dish out of the oven, remove the lid and foil and let the liquid cool completely. Then, transfer the dish to the refrigerator overnight.
Remove the chilled pork belly from the pot. Scrape off most of the seasonings and/or onion that are stuck to the meat. Discard the liquid the pork was braised in.
Cut the pork belly into small bite-sized squares, about 36 pieces. Taste the pork and season with salt if needed. Set aside.
Pull the kale leaves off the inner stalk (discard the stalk) then tear or cut the leaves into small pieces. Put the kale in a large bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and zest, mustard, shallot, salt and olive oil. Add more olive oil to adjust the flavor and make it less tangy, if desired.
Pour the dressing over the kale leaves and massage it into the leaves with your hands. Massaging the kale leaves helps make them tender. Set aside.
Lightly coat a sauté pan with fat (lard or coconut oil are options) and put it over medium-high heat. (Pork skin can really stick to a hot pan, which will ruin your seared pork belly. For this reason, a non-stick pan works best for searing pork belly. However, if you don’t want to use non-stick then a well-seasoned cast iron pan is the next best choice for this recipe.)
Add pieces of the pork belly to the pan in small batches, skin side down. Placing the pieces close together in the pan so they can lean up against each other will keep them from tipping over. Sear until the skin is deeply browned and crispy, then continue to sear the pork on all sides until nicely browned. Beware of hot fat splattering while you cook. If you own a splatter guard, use it!
It will probably be necessary to drain fat out of the pan between batches. If too much fat collects in the pan, the pork won’t get crispy and the hot fat will splatter like crazy.
Toss the warm pork belly “croutons” with the kale and serve.