Planning for this dinner started two or three weeks ago during a visit at Side Hill Farmers in Manlius. (SIDE NOTE: If you haven’t visited this place yet, you really are missing something special. Yes, it’s in Manlius, but they are about 200 feet from Lune Chocolat and right behind Sno-Top, so you really have no excuse.) I had asked Kevin — the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef/butcher who patrols the joint with a holster of very sharp knives at the ready — if Side Hill stocked pork bellies. He said that they typically get thrown on salt for bacon since that moved quicker than a belly. But, he said, if I wanted one he would set it aside.
And I did.
So he did.
And that’s where this story begins.
When that hunk of fatty meat emerged from the cooler — the pork belly, not Kevin — one could have cried. I didn’t, but one could have if one was capable of genuine emotion. Anyhow, weighing in at just under 4 lbs., this beauty had a thin ribbon-like skin, about a quarter-inch thick fat cap, and absolutely beautiful marbling throughout. I could have hugged it.
Okay, so I did hug it. Don’t judge me.
Anyhow, words cannot express how excited I was at the prospect of tackling Donald Link’s recipe for Pork Belly and Smoked Sausage Cassoulet from his recently published Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything. It’s not the first thing I cooked from this book, but it’s the one recipe I’ve been mentally drooling over since skimming the book’s pages.
Pork belly used to be one of those throwaway or single-use pieces of an animal. Pork belly meant bacon. But then it got sexy like chicken thighs, short ribs, oxtail, shrimp heads and tongue. You remember chicken thighs, right? They used to be 99 cents a pound when I was in college in the late ’90s. Now, they cost as much as a boneless, skinless breast. Blame the new school of Italian cooking that made porchetta the hot way to roast pork. Instead of taking that belly to make a batch of bacon, Kevin was sending it home with me for about six hours of cooking.
I wish that I could bottle the smell that enveloped the house while this cooked and share with you, dear reader. It was like bacon, but without the smoke or maple. It was pure pork snapping and cracking in the pan before a quick hourlong saute, and marathon four-hour braise in the oven.
Don’t get me wrong; the sausage added a nice flavor, as did the veggies. The beans brought a starchy thickness to the gravy.
But the star was the pork belly.
And she shined.
WHAT WORKED: Take a guess.
WHAT DIDN’T: I like to burn myself occasionally to remind myself that I am human and mortal. I whacked my hand on the oven rack three fking times.
WHAT DID THE WIFE SAY: She thought it was really fatty and greasy, but good. And it was. My friend Mike, who along with his wife had joined us for dinner, called it the best thing I ever served him.
WILL IT MAKE ANOTHER APPEARANCE: I have a pound of pork belly that was carefully wrapped before entering the freezer. But, I have to agree with Mike’s wife, Allison, who said that this was a once-a-year treat because no one over the age of 25 can eat this way on a regular basis. At least not without a heart transplant.
NOTE: Typically, I adapt recipes so that I don’t violate anyone’s copyrights, and because I rarely follow a recipe to the letter. My reverence for Chef Link and his work meant that I would follow his process and ingredients to the letter, but for a couple of modifications. I used two drained and rinsed cans of cannellini beans instead of dry, skipping step 1. I also couldn’t find smoked sausage (Side Hill was out) so I opted for Johnsonville-brand smoked andouille-style sausage instead. Seemed like going on the cheap, but Johnsonville is decent quality and, well, it was Wegmans’ only option for smoked not labeled Hillshire Farms. It worked out fine.
Pork Belly and Smoked Sausage Cassoulet
Adapted lightly from Donald Link’s Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything (Clarkson Potter, 2014)
- 1 lb. Great Northern or cannellini beans, dried or canned
- 2 1/2 lbs. fresh pork belly, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 12 oz. smoked sausage, cut into 2-inch segments
- 4 cups onions, diced
- 2 cups each celery and carrots, diced
- 8 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 bay leaves, whole
- 1 tsp. crushed red pepper
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 tbsp. whole-grain mustard
- 64 oz. chicken broth
DEAL WITH YOUR BEANS: If using dry, pour the beans in a large pot and submerge in cold water. Leave about six inches of water on top of the beans. Cover, soak overnight and drain. If using canned, drain and rinse the beans thoroughly.
MOVE TO THE STOVETOP: Heat a large cast-iron pot or braiser over medium-high heat. Hold your hand about 6 inches above the bottom of the pan. When it becomes too hot to keep your hand there, take your hand out of the pan then add as many pork belly cubes to the pan as possible without crowding them. Season with salt and pepper, and brown the pieces on all sides. This should take about 10 to 12 minutes for each batch. (I was able to do it all in one shot.) Transfer pork to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside, repeating until all of the pork is cooked.
BE CAREFUL: You are going to render A LOT of fat in your pan. That’s a good thing for this dish, but potentially a bad one for your skin and dwelling. Pay attention to your workspace, particularly fat splatter on the floor (slipping is a bitch) or near any open flames. And, while the temptation might be great, try not to burn yourself.
BACK TO THE STOVETOP: Add the sausage pieces to the pork fat, cooking 2 to 4 minutes until browned on all sides. Add your onion, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves, red pepper, and thyme, plus about 1 tbsp. salt and 1 tsp. black pepper. Saute in the pork fat about 5 to 7 minutes, or until the veggies begin to soften and the onion turns translucent and brown from soaking up the fat. Take one step back from the stove and pour in the wine (again, watch for grease splatter). Use a heavy wooden spoon to deglaze the pan and scrape up any brown or burned-on pieces from the bottom of the pan. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, reducing the liquid. Add the tomato paste and mustard, stirring to combine, and cook 2 to 3 additional minutes.
GRAB YOUR PORK BELLY: Return the pork to the pan and gently pour 32 oz. of chicken broth over the top. Bring everything to a simmer, cover, and cook for 60 to 70 minutes. Your pork will be cooked through and fork tender at this point.
WITH ABOUT 10 MINUTES TO GO ON THE STOVETOP: Preheat your oven to 250 degrees.
AFTER THE SIMMERING: Add the beans and remaining broth. Transfer to the preheated oven and cook 3 1/2 hours. Every hour or so, check the pan and stir the top crust into the stew. Add more broth if necessary.
THEN: Increase heat to 450 degrees and cook for an additional 30 minutes to form a crust on top of the cassoulet. Push the crust to the middle of the pan, then cook for 15 more minutes. The crust on top should have a deep brown color. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature before serving.