We’ve been down this road, the pork belly road, before. Actually, we’ve been down many roads. Many roads converged in these woods, is what I’m saying. Good roads. Listen. Shut up. We are going to make gooey braised pork belly tacos, and we are going to find our way there via dead reckoning. Strap in.
What happened is, I had a pork belly. Sometimes my local grocer stocks very good, very reasonably-priced Berkshire slab pork bellies, and when I walk near them my eyes go soft, my face slackens, and I black out. When I come to I am lying in my grocery cart covered in pork bellies. Impossible to walk past those pork bellies.
So, I had the pork belly. What I wanted was sticky, lacquered-up Shanghai-style braised pork belly, but what I also wanted were tacos. And since I am not Hedonism-bot’s spastic blond-tipped nephew, this presented a challenge: how to cram rich, gooey Shanghai-esque pork belly into a taco without resorting to arbitrary, blasphemous fusion excess.
The answer ultimately lay in the rough vicinity of carne adovada, a bold and spicy foodstuff hailing from mysterious New Mexico: tender morsels of meat draped in a rich, spicy adobo-ish ketchup-ish sauce, perfect for dynamite taco filling. We’re only gonna be in the neighborhood of carne adovada, here, because unlike typical recipes, we’re not using cubed pork shoulder, we’re using the most delectable and unholy of pork products, the pork belly. This would require a little kitchen agility, a little merging of cooking techniques, but a desperate man will go to great lengths for good tacos. And I did. And it worked. I am here today to tell you this braised pork belly concoction is better than any other pork belly I have ever made. Join me on this journey, won’t you?
Here’s what you’ll need: a pork belly; some alcohol; some aromatics; some stock; a can of chipotle peppers in adobo; some molasses; a lime; some vinegar.
To reiterate: I pulled this recipe out of my ass. It is half (or so) a straight-up carne adovada preparation, and half (or so) a Shanghai-braised pork belly preparation, because what I wanted was gooey braised pork belly, but what I wanted to do with the gooey braised pork belly was stuff it into a charred corn tortilla and slam it into my face so violently that half my arm would go down with it. I suppose I could’ve just made some Shanghai-braised pork belly and stuffed it into a charred corn tortilla, perhaps with some Horsey sauce and an incidental slick of pomade, thenceforth to Flavortown™, but the only conceivable following step would’ve been self-murder.
This mixing of recipes will not matter to you in the slightest, unless you are the sort of person to mew and bleat about cooking steps that deviate from a traditional path. If you are that sort of person, I humbly recommend cramming it up your cram-hole until after you’ve tasted the damn pork, for crying out loud.
So, ahem, yes, get yourself a pork belly. You want your pork belly in slab form, so that it can be cut into chunks. Once you’ve got your slab of pork belly, take it home, unpack it, rinse it off, dry it off, lay it out on a cutting board, and use a sharp knife to cut it into big cubes. The cubes we’re looking for will be about the size of a standard ice cube, if standard ice cubes were, in fact, cubical. Inch-and-a-half cubes, roughly.
Whoa, damn, those are pretty big pork cubes, we’re putting those into tacos? No, actually, we are not. We’re giving those a good braising, which will soften and cook off a fair amount of fat, so that our final cubes will be only slightly larger than dice. Which will make them perfect for the taco-ing to come.
Now. If your only previous experience of homemade pork belly was roasting the sonofabitches, you may be troubled by this next part: drop your pork belly cubes into a wok or sturdy pot, cover them with cold water, and bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. What this boiling is going to do is leach a lot of gunk out of your pork belly, much like what happens in the first 10 minutes of stock-making, when the surface of your stock looks like someone barfed on it.
Now. None of that gunk is poisonous. And it is extraordinarily unlikely that you will notice a flavor difference if you skip this step altogether. But! Gunk that would be invisible in a roasted pork belly recipe will be all over the surface of your braising liquid—like silky sea foam—if you don’t get it out of there early, and that would be deeply unpleasant. And, besides, this is a quick, mostly harmless boil that will do very little, texture- or flavor-wise, to the finished product. So, suck it up, choke back your tears, and boil your pork belly cubes for six to eight minutes, then dump them into a strainer and rinse them off in cold water. Also, rinse out and de-gunk the cooking vessel. Breathe deeply. Put two fingers from your right hand across the artery in your left wrist. Feel the pulse? You lived through it. Whew. Close one!
While your pork cubes cool, we’re going to prep some aromatics. An easy combination is whatever medium onion you’ve got lying around, and a couple cloves of garlic. If you’re a super-cool kitchen dude, go ahead and lay a thick french cut into that onion, and gently smash the garlic. French cutting will make the onion pieces easier to extract later on. If you’re not a super-cool kitchen dude, and your idea of French-cut onions is the box of crunchy onion strings they put on green bean casserole, go ahead and roughly chop the onion, and gently (GENTLY!) smash the garlic.
Now comes the braising. Slide the cooled pork cubes and the aromatics into the rinsed-out cooking vessel, then cover them with stock, so that there’s half an inch or so of liquid over the top of the pork. I’m going to confess something, here: I identified a quantity of chicken stock in my refrigerator as fresh enough for use in this cooking project. It very much was not. When I opened the vessel to confirm the freshness of the stock, the smell that leapt out at me was that of some Lovecraftian abomination from the deep. Several hours later, after the paramedics had peeled me off the floor and a HAZMAT team had removed the chicken stock to the Marshall Islands and hit it with every nuke in the arsenal, I realized the only alternative at my ready disposal was, sadly, tap water. And so I covered my pork and aromatics with, yes, tap water.
And it was fine! The finished product was absolutely fine. If you don’t have stock, if you don’t want to make stock, if you don’t want to buy stock, your water-braised finished product will be totally fine and delicious. It will be more delicious if you use stock, but the deliciousness will be bonus deliciousness. Extra credit deliciousness. If you’ve got stock of any kind—chicken stock, beef stock, pork stock, vegetable stock, mushroom stock, definitely not fish stock—go ahead and use it. It won’t be worse than water. Now, raise the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid, once again, to a gentle boil.
Don’t worry, we’re not gonna go through another extended boiling process, here. At the very moment the liquid starts boiling, pour, say, a couple solid glugs of alcohol into the pot, and bring the heat all the way down to low. I used beer. Feel free to use sherry or cooking wine if that’s what you’ve got. The finished product will benefit from the hit of complexity it gets from braising in alcohol, but the alcohol won’t be so present that your mother-in-law will taste Dos Equis in her pork and roll her eyes at your unsophisticated ways.
Over low heat the liquid should settle into an almost-undetectable simmer, which is what we’re looking for. Set a timer for 90 minutes and walk away. We’ve got some more prep-work to attend to, my dude.
Open your can of chipotle peppers. Chipotle peppers are smoke-dried jalapeños, and they are usually stored in adobo, which is a smoky red ketchup-like sauce containing tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, paprika, aromatics, and water. For our purposes, you want all the little peppers in the can, and all the adobo. Dump all the contents of the can of chipotle peppers into a food processor or blender, and blend those fuckers until mostly smooth. This is going to be the base of our adovada, which, I should have mentioned at some point prior to now, will be quite spicy. Add to the puréed peppers a small pour of molasses, stir it around, and taste. The mixture should be very spicy. The molasses—honey or brown sugar also works—is there to cut the spice and darken the flavor, so if it’s too spicy for your little baby tongue and you can’t detect much sweetness, go ahead and add a little more. I would resist the urge to walk back the spiciness all the way until it’s only as spicy as you want the finished product to be—we’re not done cooking, and there are stages coming that will dilute the spiciness after the sauce is added to the pork, you big wimp. Keep it spicy, is what I’m saying.
Now, using a microplane or paring knife or cheese grater or your terrifying Hell-Cat Maggie-esque fingernails, zest a lime and add some lime zest to the sauce. Also, squeeze some lime juice in there. We want to be able to smell and taste some citrus in our sauce. If you don’t have a lime, feel free to use an orange or a lemon (although lime or orange will be best). And drop a splash or two of white or cider vinegar in there, to tang up the sauce’s spicy kick, and add salt and pepper to taste. Do all this adding, from molasses to zest to juice to vinegar, as you would with soup: add a little, taste, add a little more, taste, and so on. Once you’re done adding and tasting, set the sauce aside.
After a period of time that is just way, way longer than 90 goddamn minutes, 90 minutes will have passed, and your timer will sound, and you will be ready to move this thing into the final stages. Prod around in the braising liquid with a fork and check on the pork. Ideally, it would be getting tender, but would not yet be fall-apart tender. If it’s neither tender nor fall-apart tender, you can let it keep going for another half-hour or more, if you’re up for it (or, you can say fuck it, acknowledge that it’s goddamn pork belly and it’ll be delicious even if you completely fucked up everything you spent the last two hours doing, and proceed as is). If it is no longer pork and is now the gross white alien baby from Prometheus, probably you’ve got a few hours before it grows large enough to impregnate your face. Also, you are a terrible cook.
When you are ready, set a deep bowl under your colander in your sink and strain the pork such that the pork and onion and garlic go into the colander and the liquid goes into the bowl. We’re going to reuse the liquid in a few minutes, which is cool, because it’s DELICIOUS. Also, now would be a good time to separate the pork from the grey and dead and useless onion and garlic. I did this with chopsticks, because I didn’t want to go stabbing the pork with a fork when it’s full of delicious pork juice. You could always leave the dead aromatics in there—probably no one will notice—but they’ve got no flavor left and are mostly just sad jelly.
Things are going to move fast over the next few minutes, so have all of the following at hand: your pork, your cooking vessel, a stirring implement, some alcohol, and your sauce concoction. Ready? OK. Get that cooking vessel back onto the stove, and drop a couple glugs of oil into it over high heat. Use a high-heat oil, like canola or vegetable or peanut, because we want the heat to be high enough to throw a decent sear onto the pork in a short period of time, without your kitchen turning into a smoky hellhole and asphyxiating you to death before you’ve had a chance to eat. Once the oil is shimmering and lightly smoking, carefully slide the pork chunks into the oil and quickly move them around so that they get some attractive brown color on them. After maybe a minute of this, pour another cup or so of your alcohol into the vessel and let it cook down and reduce. This will take another minute or so. Keep stirring.
When the strong alcohol scent has mostly cooked away, bring the heat down to medium-low and stir the sauce mixture in with the pork. The texture will be pretty thick, like ketchup, so we’re going to dilute it a little when we add a couple splashes of the leftover braising liquid. Just enough to loosen the sauce, but not enough that the pork is swimming in it. You are now on the home stretch. The sauce is warming and coating the pork. The fat of the pork is melting into the sauce, and the smell is wafting into the air, and you are gyrating grotesquely in the middle of your kitchen. Stop that immediately.
We’re going to give the mixture half an hour or so to blub happily over medium-low heat and reduce, until the pork is fully coated and it once again has a ketchup-like texture. You’ll want to stir it occasionally, so that the top pieces are rotated down into the goo and given a chance to soak it up and get sticky. Now would also be a good time to heat up some corn tortillas, crumble or shred some cotija or queso blanco, and put a rough chop into some cilantro. The Great Taco-ing approaches.
Hopefully, after 30 minutes or so, you’ve got some tender chunks of fatty pork belly coated in a clinging dark red mud. If the sauce is still thin, or you’re too worried about the shiny lake of pork fat settled on the surface of everything, you could mix together a quick slurry out of a tablespoon each of water and cornstarch and stir it in there to emulsify and thicken the whole thing. That would be fine. An alternative would be to crank the heat up and stir the shit until it has rapidly reduced to about where you want it. Or you could be a fuckin’ grownup and quit beating around the bush and just tear into the goddamn shit. Aren’t you hungry, dammit?
Pile a few sauce-coated chunks of fatty pork on a lightly charred corn tortilla. Sprinkle some crumbly mild cheese over it, and drop a pinch or two of chopped cilantro on there. Now fire it home. OH GOD. Spicy and bold and red-tasting from the chipotle peppers, with nice little diverting tangy and tart undertones; the cooling creaminess of good cheese and a refreshing green zing of fresh cilantro; tender from the braising, and absolutely drenched and draped and in all other ways saturated in velvety melted pork fat. This is the best goddamn taco anyone ever ate.
Scratch that. I added guacamole to mine. That was the best goddamn taco anyone ever ate. What the fuck does Guy Fieri know about Flavortown? I’m sacking that garbage burg and burning it to the ground. Such is my right as its conquerer.