Thursday, September 30, 2010

Herb-rubbed slow-cooked roast pork

When it's your birthday, it's sometimes a good idea to announce that you're gonna cook the birthday dinner yourself. This is especially true when you don't trust anybody else to cook something that you aren't going to find objectionable one way or the other. If you let someone else cook the dinner, you open yourself up to multiple disappointments. The chief one is "I know that you like X and specifically asked to have X for your birthday dinner, and indeed begged me to make X, but I thought just for a change you might like Y, which I have never cooked before but thought in my very deluded mind that you might enjoy, even though it is not what you explicitly requested, and even though I sort of fucked it up. But I am your friend/relative/parent, and I hoped you wouldn't mind."

No, it's better to do it yourself. Which is how I came to be cooking roast belly of pork, potatoes and cabbage on the afternoon of my birthday, because literally nobody else I know cooks belly pork. I love belly pork, partly because it it's a very forgiving cut of pig, not to mention a cheap one (it's nearly impossible to overcook, whereas a regular pork chop is easy to turn into a rubbery puck of sadness) but mostly because it fulfils the dream of roast pork - something that's succulent and delicate at the same time. Why potatoes? Because if the theme is roast pork, you just need roast potatoes, unless you're going Chinese, which I wasn't. Why cabbage? Because the lusciousness of roast pork belly needs a fairly austere green vegetable to balance it and cabbage is about as austere as it gets.

So I bought two lovely pieces of pork belly from Austen Davies' stall at the farmers' market. I had to feed six adults plus one child: my mum, my mum's sister, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my lovely wife plus myself, plus of course the kid. Each of the pieces of pork were too small to feed all those people, but both together didn't fit in my roasting tin. Solution? To cut the smaller one down its length and stick it in the pan next to the other one. A side-effect of this would be that there would be more lovely crusty outside to the pork than there would normally have been.

Roast pork, roast potatoes and cabbage

1 piece of pork belly with skin, preferably on the bone, the thicker the better, c. 1.5-2kg

roasting potatoes (I used Desirees and will admit to missing Ireland, where it's much easier to get Roosters)

1 large white cabbage

bay leaves

juniper berries

caraway seeds

sea salt

black peppercorns

olive oil


a glass of white wine

vegetable stock made with Marigold stock powder

1. Preheat the oven to 220C (200C if you have a fan oven.) Crush a generous pinch of sea salt, a good few black peppercorns, two or three dried bay leaves and about four juniper berries together in your mortar and pestle. Keep pounding till it's a medium-coarse powder. You don't want bits of bay leaf and chunks of berry turning up on your fork. You want to rub this on the outside of the meat to make a delicious crust, so keep pounding away until a perfect stranger who doesn't know what's in the mortar couldn't tell what it is from a casual glance. So, not dust, just a coarse powder.

2. Okay. This is roast pork. You want crackling, right? Crackling is fun. Let's assume that you forgot to ask the butcher to cut off but keep the skin for you, so the skin is still attached. We will now cut through the whole crackling problem with a very sharp knife. You will need to be careful, you will need to be patient and you will need to not cut your hand off.

The skin on the roast pork will probably be more loose at one end than at the other. Go for the loose end. Lift the skin up and slide the blade of a very sharp knife underneath, and then work the blade under the skin, cutting away the connective tissue and pulling the skin gently but firmly upwards as you go, so that you cut the skin off in one piece.

3. Rub the meat all over with the salt/pepper/herb mix, and when it's been rubbed in, place the meat in a roasting tin and place the loose skin on top of it, skin-side-up. If you have any excess rub, it would be a good idea to rub some onto the skin at this point. If you don't, just rub a little salt into it - and I mean a little, preferably Maldon sea salt or your preferred good sea salt, crushed. It'll help give flavour to the crackling.

4. Now, leave the meat to sit for a good half an hour while you get the veg ready.

5. Half-fill a large saucepan with water and salt it lightly. Peel as many spuds as you want (I usually estimate about two per person - like most things, they shrink in the cooking), cut each medium-sized one into two pieces and each large one into at least three. Roast potatoes do not like to be perfectly smooth spheroids. Edges and corners helps them become crispy. Do not hesitate to hack off the end of a potato if it has dodgy-looking bits in it. Rinse the spuds before you put them in the water - it washes off the starch, which you don't want. Place spuds in cold water. Turn the water on for the spuds and cover the pan.

7. Your pork has now been sitting in the kitchen for about half an hour, and because you salted the skin, the skin is probably starting to exude a little moisture. Dab this off with a bit of kitchen towel, as crackling is less likely to happen when the skin is damp. Stick the pork in the oven. This is the bit where I usually lean down and watch through the door as it starts to sweat. I don't know why I do that.

8. You are now cooking your spuds in water. What the hey, some of you ask, aren't we making roast potatoes? Nigella Lawson, who I respect greatly, has a very good rule for roast potatoes: you need to cook them for longer than you think, at a hotter temperature than you think. Therefore, you need to start cooking them at the same time as, if not before, the meat. To get them crispy, they need to be fluffy when they hit the pan of hot fat or oil in the oven. To get them fluffy, you have to parboil them first. Let them come to the boil and take the lid off when the water boils, otherwise it'll boil over. Let them cook until they are tender enough that you can fairly easily stick a fork into them. (Don't try to test them by sticking a sharp knife into them. You can stick a sharp knife fairly easily into anything, so it will give you a false positive for tenderness. A fork is more reliable.)

9. Pour some olive oil, or your preferred fat (please, not butter or margarine - the former will burn and the latter is bad for you) into the bottom of a baking dish and stick it in the oven. You need to let this get hot before putting the parboiled potatoes in it, and that will take a good ten minutes. After your pork has been cooking for about 25 minutes, turn the oven heat down to about 150C. This will sort-of slow-cook the pork (it's actually too hot for real slow cooking, but it gives you time to do other things).

10. When your potatoes are tender drain them, leave them for a couple of minutes to dry off a bit, and then give them a quick glug of olive oil and transfer them to the baking dish to roast.

11. Congratulations. Most of the work is done. Sit down. Have a glass of wine. You can leave your pork and potatoes in the oven for a good hour and a half while you read a book, get ready for the party, chat to your guests about reality TV or Richard Dawkins or whatever floats your boat. Apart from the next bit.

12. Forty minutes before showtime, wash the cabbage, chop it into shreds and wash the saucepan that you cooked the spuds in, if you haven't already. As soon as it's clean, you will recycle this saucepan to cook the cabbage in. See how I save you washing up? When it's clean, half-fill it with water, put the water on to boil and cover it.

13. Twenty minutes before showtime, take the pork out of the oven and let it rest. The next bit is crucial: right after you've taken the pork out, whack the heat up in the oven to about 220C, take the skin off the pork (it'll probably look like it's almost but not quite crackling) and lay it on top of the spuds.

14. Next, blanch the cabbage in the boiling water for just a few minutes. There are two ways to cook cabbage; one way is to do it for about three hours, the other way is to do it for about five minutes. Every other way leads to nasty cabbage.

15. When the cabbage is blanched (like, two minutes in boiling water), take it out and cool it down in cold water. Rinse the saucepan. When you're ready to serve up, heat some butter in the saucepan, plus a few crushed caraway seeds. Finish off the cabbage by sautéing it lightly in the butter. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the top if you're feeling frisky.

16. Deglaze the sticky brown goo in the roasting tin with the white wine and veg stock that you made at some point, scraping up the goo with a wooden spoon so that it dissolves into the liquid. Let this boil so that it becomes a piquant jus for your pork. Your crackling should have puffed up nicely in the twenty minutes that it was away from the pork, sitting on top of the potatoes. If not - call me and we'll discuss it.

17. Cut the pork into thick slices and serve with a good piece of crackling, a few roast potatoes, a helping of cabbage and some jus from the pan. As you can see from the picture at the top, the potatoes weren't as crispy and golden as they might have been. But the pork made up for it. Oh yeah.

This particular meal was helped enormously by the fact that the meat was really, really good - flavourful and incredibly cheap. Two large slabs of it cost me £8 each. I dunno how they make a profit on that but I am very smug that half of one of those pieces is still nestling raw in my freezer, waiting for me to do things to it.

You wouldn't want to eat this every day. But for a birthday, it works.


  1. really look yummy :)

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