The food world, like everything else, has its fads & fashions. Pork Belly may not the be the darling of star chefs that it was a year or two ago, but it’s always been a mainstay of rich, hearty ethnic cuisines. Pork is particularly esteemed in Eastern European cookery, and is a cornerstone of the cuisine of Hungary.
Lard is the cooking fat of choice for everyday Hungarian cooking (when cooking “light,” Hungarians use butter). Pork fat is such a big deal that the Mangalitsa pig, which has been getting a lot of press lately, was bred in Hungary especially for its abundant and luxurious fat.
This preparation is inspired by a traditional Hungarian dish, Abált szalonna (roughly translated as “boiled bacon”). While this version is made with fresh, uncured pork belly instead of the usual bacon or smoked hog jowl, the essential flavor and aromas of pungent garlic and rich, dusky Hungarian paprika ring true to the original version. And oh – the silken, tender texture of long-simmered pork belly with its layers of soft skin and tender streaks of meat, held together with delicate pork fat!
After cooking, the garlic-laden pork belly is liberally anointed with good Hungarian paprika, carefully wrapped and refrigerated until it is firm and completely chilled. The fully cooked pork is traditionally eaten cold, draped over a thick slice of warm, fresh bread with roasted peppers, sliced onions and lots and lots of homemade pickles. This is the quintessential Hungarian convenience food, something you’d take on a trip or offer to the guest who drops by for a visit.
While many Americans might be horrified at the thought of eating what amounts to pure, unadulterated fat, at the same time, they think nothing of consuming copious amounts of fried foods and snacks, all soaked with processed, hydrogenated fats.
But is pork fat bad? Recent research suggests that it’s not. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, medical doctor and well-known naturopath, the scientific analysis of 21 studies determined that there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease.
Pork fat has only about one-fourth the saturated fat and more than twice the monounsaturated fat as butter. It’s very high in Vitamin D and is also low in omega-6 fatty acids, known to promote inflammation; and if your pork comes from free-range pigs that eat greens, not grains, it will have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
The bottom line? Relax and enjoy this, and other traditional pork delicacies, in moderation. You’ll be glad you did.
Hungarian Style Pork Belly
- 1 lb slab of fresh pork belly, with skin on (not sliced)
- 6 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 3 Tbsp salt
- 3 Tbsp Hungarian paprika, or more to taste
Using the tip of a thin-bladed knife, deeply pierce the fat side (not the skin side) of the pork belly in 10 or 12 places, making sure not to go all the way through the skin on the other side.
Poke whole cloves of garlic (or halved cloves, if they’re especially large) into the slits.
Place the pork belly, bay leaves, peppercorns, salt and 2 – 3 sliced garlic cloves in a large, heavy pot filled with cold water. Over medium heat, bring to a low simmer. Reduce the heat to just barely simmering, cover and cook about 3 hours, or until the skin is very soft and tender.
Remove from the heat and take the pork out of the pot and drain, reserving the broth for other uses. Using paper towels, pat the pork completely dry and place on a large piece of wax paper, skin side down. Sprinkle the top of the pork belly very generously with the paprika. Wrap tightly with the wax paper and a layer of aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight or until thoroughly chilled.
Place thin, almost transparent slices of the pork belly on warm slices of rustic bread with a sprinkle of coarse salt – and maybe a little extra pinch of paprika. Serve with roasted peppers, sliced onions and homemade pickles.
A thin slice of Hungarian-style pork belly pressed against a backlit translucent salt block. Note the slices of whole garlic cloves!
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