I was lucky to live in England during an exciting culinary time which saw the renaissance of traditionally cheap cuts of meat. Lamb necks and breasts, shin of beef, offal, pork and lamb shoulders and pork belly were en vogue, and pretty easy to come by at most butcher shops. On recent visits, I’ve noticed some of those cuts infiltrating grocery store meat counters as well.
I had vaguely noted that bacon was made from pork belly, but had never thought of buying a slab for roasting until I saw this delicious looking recipe by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, or as I refer to him: my man, Hugh.
Fennel and coriander together? I’m ashamed to say I momentarily doubted Hugh, but luckily for me only briefly because this combination is a match made in heaven. The sweetness of the fennel seeds and citrusy coriander perfectly augment the natural sweetness of the pork, and of course, who can resist the crunch of homemade crackling?
Here in California, I’ve found it difficult to find a thick cut of pork belly with the lower ribs still attached, which is both the cut Hugh suggests in his recipe and the cut I’ve roasted previously in England (yes, I like to gnaw on bones…). My excellent butcher tells me that, oddly enough, it’s impossible to get certain cuts of meat in various parts of the country, even on special order. However, I was able to order an entire half of a pork belly (my butcher gave me a very steep discount for taking the entire thing off his hands), and I cut it up into four large pieces for various future meals. The fattiest quarter will soon be cured as bacon.
You will need special tools for this cooking assignment. Well really, just a razor blade. The skin of the pork belly is what makes the crackling, but it’s very tough to cut. Crackling will only be crackling if it’s cut into thin strips which are easily crisped and browned. And oh yes — please order your pork belly with the skin.
1 section pork belly, lower ribs attached if possible, 3-5 lbs
2 tablespoons coconut oil, warmed and liquidy
3 tablespoons fennel seeds
3 tablespoons ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Heat your oven to 450F (230C). After a few experiments, I’ve decided direct heat from a regular oven works better for creating crackling than the warm circulating air of a convection oven, so I suggest you turn off the fan for this roast.
Using your razor blade, score the skin in long, thin strips. Allow the blade to slice the fat, but try to keep it shallow enough to avoid cutting the meat.
Using a pestle, pound the fennel seeds to break them apart and mix them with the ground coriander. Rub all over the roast, paying particular attention to the cuts you’ve made in the skin. Fat is what facilitates and transfers flavor in any dish, so spice up that top layer of fat! It will drip down into the meat while it cooks. I love a self-basting roast.
Put the roast into a roasting dish skin-side up, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then drizzle the coconut oil all over the future crackling. This will help to both crisp the crackling and keep the meat moist while it cooks. (Don’t worry if the coconut oil solidifies when it hits the cool meat.)
Slide the roast into the oven and immediately turn it down to 350F (175C). For a 5 pound roast (2.5 kg) cook it for about 2.5 hours, about 2 hours for a 4 pounder (1.8 kg) and 1.5 hours for a 3 pounder (1.3 kg). Remember that all ovens are different, so times will vary slightly.
Don’t worry about overcooking it, this roast is meant to be well done. At the end of the cooking time, whack the heat back up to 450F (230C) to finish off the crackling. It should be bubbling and completely crisp when it’s done. Crackling that doesn’t crackle will be tough and chewy, so turn up the heat and watch it bubble — but keep an eye on it to prevent burning.
When the crackling is ready, take it out of the oven and allow it to rest uncovered for 5-10 minutes. Resting allows the meat to absorb the cooking juices. After it’s rested, use a sharp knife to separate the crackling and fat layer from the meat.
Break up the cracking and serve it with slices of the juicy, flavorful meat. Serves up well alongside mashed potatoes and roasted apples, or broccoli tossed in olive oil and broiled for 15 minutes.