Monday, 3 October 2011

Smoky roast belly pork with butternut squash

I just love belly pork. It's one of the tastiest cuts off the pig, it's incredibly versatile and it's dirt cheap, which is good news if you're a gourmet on a budget. I'm not but the cheaper cuts are often the most interesting. Belly pork has a wonderfully rich flavour that can handle the addition of lots of spices or herbs, but is equally good unadorned except for a seasoning of salt and pepper. The contrast between the meat and the creamy fat is also deeply pleasing on the palate, both when it's crisped to a golden hue or is still a wobbly white underneath.

If I'm cooking for friends, a 1kg slab of belly pork from the butcher will feed 4 easily, as well as providing crackling. Otherwise, I'll seek out slices - two will feed one person to the point of feeling stuffed. Supermarkets often sell packs of four slices for £2-3, a bargain. I'll cook half and freeze half for another day if I pick up one of these.

I like to roast the slices, especially on a weekend as there's more time to devote to making something special and it makes a good Sunday roast for one. I usually bake a butternut squash alongside the pork - I like the contrast of the squash's sweetness with the richness of the meat.

Two days ago, I also raided my local Asian store for fruit and veg - I love this shop as it's so much cheaper than the supermarkets and it stocks a really good range of the more exotic, unsurprisingly. I came home with four figs and three pomegranates that cost me just £2 for these, alongside some staples such as onions and parsley. Pomegranates are delicious in a salad so I rustled up a cooling side dish for the spicy belly pork.

What you need:
2 slices of belly pork
A butternut squash
Smoked paprika powder
A little chilli-flavoured oil
1 pomegranate
I small cucumber
A little sumac
Olive and lemon juice
Sea salt

What to do:
A couple of hours before you're ready to start cooking, rub the belly pork generously all over with the smoked paprika and set aside.

Deseed the pomegranate. This is really worth learning to do properly as cutting right into the fruit tends to spray the juice everywhere and it will stain everything it touches. It's a little fiddly but once you've got the hang of it, it only takes 10 minutes to get the seeds out. Fill a bowl with cold water and carefully slice the crown off the pomegranate with a sharp knife. Score through the rind at intervals from top to bottom, being careful to cut into the pith but not the seeds. Turn it upside down and leave to soak in the bowl of water for about 15 minutes. This softens the pith and internal membranes. Keeping your hands under the water, break through the skin and gently loosen the seeds from the pith, letting them fall to the bottom of the bowl. The membranes should float to the top - scoop out the debris with a spoon and discard then empty the seeds into a sieve and let them drain.

Heat the oven to 190C. Grind some sea salt over the belly pork slices and pop into a small roasting tin. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Score both halves in a criss-cross pattern and brush with the chilli oil (if you don't have any, use olive oil and then sprinkle with the lightest dusting of smoked paprika). Put everything in the oven and leave for an hour, turning the pork after half an hour.

Ten minutes before you're ready to eat, make the cucumber and pomegranate salad. This recipe originates from Lebanon and usually contains mint and feta but that is too much alongside the meat here. This recipe strips it right back to the basics. If you can, use one of the small Middle Eastern type cucumbers - they are about 5-6 inches long and the flavour is more intense than our British variety.

Slice the cucumber in half and deseed it, by running a teaspoon down the length to scoop them out. Slice it thinly and put into a bowl. Add about a third of the pomegranate seeds (the rest will stay fresh in the fridge for 2-3 days). Sprinkle with a tiny pinch of sumac. Whisk together a very light dressing of around 3 parts olive oil to 1 part lemon juice. Dress the salad.

Cook's tips:
You won't find sumac in the supermarkets. Try a deli that stocks Middle Eastern foods or order it online. It's used widely across the Middle East so if you like to cook Lebanese or Persian dishes, it's worth tracking down. It has a slightly gritty texture and a light lemony taste. Mixed with plain yoghurt it makes a delicious marinade for chicken.You can substitute a little grated lemon or lime zest for the sumac in the salad.

If your belly pork has the skin on it, score it with a Stanley knife and rub lots of salt in to make crackling, being careful not to get any spice on it.

I usually find half a butternut squash is plenty with a salad alongside, unless I'm very hungry. I keep the other half back and make soup with it.

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