Sometimes things aren’t what they appear to be. When I was a child one of my favorite things was the safekeeping box, made to hold jewelry and other valuables, that looks like a book. In the National Palace Museum in Taipei resides a slab of jasper – brownish red and layered like meat – that presents an uncanny resemblance to a chunk of soy sauce-braised pork. Once, I stayed in a Barcelona hotel whose ceiling and walls were painted to resemble the sky. Imitation – to amuse or deceive – has been practiced throughout history. This also is true of food. Heston Blumenthal’s bag of tricks includes an homage to the medieval British practice of rendering meat into fruitlike shapes. In the forgotten ancient technique, pork mince, for example, might be rolled in saffron-tinted breadcrumbs to resemble an orange, though it does not taste of orange. Unlike the original, Blumenthal’s trompe l’oeil meat fruit bears an uncanny resemblance to the fruit in question, and incorporates its flavors as well.
For Thanksgiving, I largely ceded kitchen control to my husband who, as you know, enjoys making the turkey. Because I can’t help myself, though, I insisted on making the sausage for his chestnut-sausage dressing. I bought a pork shoulder and began breaking it down, taking it off the bone and cubing it to freeze briefly before grinding. As I sliced and cubed the meat, I noticed something interesting. The slab of pork in my hand – a two inch-thick chunk including the surface fat – looked almost exactly like pork belly, down to the layers, only not quite as fatty.
How strange, I thought. I will have to do something about that.
I finished cubing the remainder of the meat for the sausage and spread it on a sheet pan to freeze. Then I turned my attention to the chunk of shoulder on the cutting board. Some time, if I’m in a position to do so, I’m going to have a few words with the people who establish meat butchery guidelines for Whole Foods. I suspect they think they’re giving their customers a nicely-trimmed piece of pork with less waste (and fewer scary parts), but they slice all the fun right out of the pig when they trim off all the fat. One of the reasons for home cooks to buy pork at Whole Foods rather than, say, Safeway is to take advantage of the better quality Niman Ranch goods and avoid the scary, hyper-mass-farmed Smithfield product. Better pig-raising conditions, better meat quality. Sadly, Whole Foods takes care to trim every last scrap of fat off the pork, taking with it all the flavor and texture. Not only that, but you can’t get the good parts of the pig half the time – no belly, no leg, no cheek or jowl, rarely a bone-in butt or a fresh ham. It’s as though they didn’t get the memo that the Other White Meat slogan is passé.
Back to the cutting board. This shoulder slab could pass for belly, which, if you were just reading my tirade against Whole Foods, is not easy to find at retail outside Asian markets. I would have had a larger chunk if I’d noticed earlier, but the portion I had would have to do. I cured the pork under weights as though it were belly – in a dry brine of salt and sugar – and laid it atop thyme branches and bay. After a few days, I sealed and cooked it, sous vide, at 144F/62C, for 36 hours. The resulting product was tender and a little fatty, not quite as rich as fresh belly, but similar. Its texture and flavor was quite like braised bacon, which I make from my own house-cured pork.
To butcher the false belly, remove the bone from a pork shoulder (picnic). The butt end does not usually present the right type of fat striation for this preparation. Do not trim the surface fat. If you have a skin-on shoulder and plan to cook the meat sous vide, remove the skin using a very sharp knife but leave as much fat as you can. Look for the portion along the skin side where the fat and meat are layered. Lay the pork shoulder flat on that skin side and slice a little more than two inches above and parallel to the skin. The portion on the board is your false belly. Trim it into 2″ x 2″ cubes or long, two inch-wide, strips. The remaining pork is perfect for sausage or cubed for a pork stew.
Cure the belly:
Per 500g (1.1 lbs) meat:
25g (1 1/2 tbsp) salt (not iodized)
25g (1 1/2 tbsp) sugar
Combine the salt and sugar. Distribute evenly on the meat. Arrange meat-side down in a nonreactive pan (stainless, ceramic, or lexan) atop thyme branches and bay, tightly together. Cover and weight. Cure under refrigeration for not fewer than 24 hours but not more than four days.
Remove from cure and rinse; pat dry. Season with a pinch of espelette pepper and seal with 50g butter/500g pork in foodsafe plastic. Vacuum pack.
Place in an immersion circulator or sous vide supreme for 36 hours at 140F/60C [note – I prepared it at 144F/62C but, if I had to do it again, I would lower the temperature slightly]. The meat will be cooked to medium. Alternatively, oven braise at 220F in chicken stock with bay leaf, thyme, garlic, and one piece of rock sugar for about 4 hours. Be sure the top layer of fat remains above the liquid. Use a parchment lid as well as the pot’s lid.
Remove from the circulator and unpack. If you have time, wrap the pork in plastic wrap and place it in a container, cover with another flat container and weight. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and then square off.
Before serving, score the top layer of fat. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add duck fat, pork fat, or clarified butter. Heat the false belly, meat side-down, for a minute; turn over to skin side-down and place in the oven. Heat through. Serve with accompaniments of choice, such as bitter greens. As depicted below, the false belly is served with duck confit, judion beans braised in pork stock, fried breadcrumb, and “cassoulet” flavors.
Below is a photo of braised house-cured belly I prepared this summer, when our fennel was in bloom. Can you see the difference? The fat layers are thicker and more distinct. But if you’re looking to substitute for belly – either because you can’t find it, or because you want something a little less fatty – this false cut may serve your purposes nicely.