Thursday, November 15, 2018

Winter Warmth: Fennel-Braised Pork Belly Stew

My husband makes bacon. So we go through a fair amount of pork belly in year's time, even when we're doing 12 to 14 pounds at a time. (Our friends are often happy recipients, and between trips to the beach and summer camping with big groups, we can go through a lot.) The thing is, he likes to square off the sometimes-raggedy ends of the bellies before curing them, which means there are several odd chunks of belly that pile up in the freezer.

Browning the belly.

Rummaging through the freezer the other day, I realized we had accumulated close to three pounds of these frozen ends, including recent trimmings from some gorgeous Joyce Farms pork belly, whose regenerative agricultural practices are beyond impressive. So I began scouring through online recipes that didn't require hours of prep time or, heaven forfend, a trip to the store.

Luckily I'd picked up a couple of bulbs of fennel at the farmers' market, and when I saw a fennel-braised belly from Mario Batali on the list, I gave it a look. In typical Batali fashion (don't get me started) it was packed with loads of over-the-top spicing—three tablespoons of chopped rosemary plus three tablespoons of ground fennel seeds in the rub, then another tablespoon of ground fennel seeds in the braise. Really, Mario?

Greatly reducing the amount of ground fennel and cutting the rosemary by a third balanced out the flavors and avoided what could have been a bitter aftertaste in the braise. Oh, and the finished bacon? Spectacular, as always.

Fennel-braised Pork Belly Stew

For the rub:
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. fennel seeds, toasted and ground
3 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
2 tsp. red pepper flakes

For the braise:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 lbs. pork belly (skinless)
2 bulbs fennel
2 carrots, quartered and sliced crosswise into 1/2” pieces
1 onion, chopped in 1/2” dice
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 12-oz. bottle beer (amber or not-too-hoppy winter ale is great)
Salt to taste

To make the rub, toast fennel seeds in a small pan over medium-high heat, moving the pan back and forth to keep them moving, until they just start to color and smell wonderful. (You want to avoid any smoke, which indicates burning.) Remove from heat, cool slightly and grind in spice grinder. (We have an inexpensive electric coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices.) In a small bowl, combine with remaining rub ingredients and stir.

Cut 1/2” deep, diagonal grid into both sides of the pork belly. Cover both sides with spice rub.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in large Dutch oven until it shimmers. Add pork belly and sear on both sides. Remove to plate when well-browned. Add onions to pot and sauté until translucent, scraping up browned bits from searing the belly. Add garlic until it is warmed and fragrant. Add remaining vegetables and seared pork belly. Pour beer over the top, bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hrs. Adjust salt to taste as necessary.

If you like, you can chop the nearly-falling-apart belly into biggish chunks before serving. I served it with roasted slices of garnet yam, but next time I'm going to give Hank Shaw’s squash dumplings (without the mushrooms) a try; you could make them while the stew cooks.

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