When the avian flu broke out some years back, as a preventive measure, millions of chickens were slaughtered. It may be too early to tell whether the current swine flu outbreak will reach pandemic proportions, but fortunately for us humans eating pork doesn't seem to pose any danger of contamination.
And fortunately, I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, because frankly, I love pork. In all its incarnations - roasted, deep-fried, grilled, braised, barbecued, cured, smoked, even boiled, depending on how it's cooked. Filipino-style preferably, in a tamarind-based broth perhaps...
Lechon aside, my all-time favorite way of enjoying pork would be to have it with lots of crackling. And thanks to Gordon Ramsay and Bill Granger, I think I've cracked the code to perfect crackling.
The Filipino way of cooking chicharon, lechon kawali or crispy pata - deep-fried pork rinds, pork belly or pork leg, respectively - involves boiling the meat first, skin included, to soften it, then drying it and salting it before drowning it in hot oil until it cooks to perfection: meat tender, skin golden, crisp and crunchy.
I've discovered since that when it comes to roast pork belly with crackling, there's really no need to boil and salt and dry. The secret is not in the boiling, but in the roasting - skin side down.
Yes, I was dubious at first, but when I tried the same method advocated by my two chef crushes, Gordon Ramsay and Bill Granger, I was instantly converted. My baptism was replete with the inevitable spatter of hot oil from the oven, but the end result was well worth the application of first-aid burn cream.
"The only way to do it," he told me, his twinkling eyes and casual charm a far cry from his hot-tempered TV persona. He looked puzzled when I mentioned how in the Philippines we tend to boil the meat first. "But why? It's much simpler to do it skin side down."
His recipe involves flattening the pork belly overnight by weighing it down with cans. As I can get quite a flat cut of pork from my butcher, I skip the overnight procedure and go straight to the roasting. In this sense my version of roast belly of pork with crackling borrows more from Bill Granger.
Essentially, I score the skin, then salt the entire pork liberally with sea salt and leave it to stand at room temperature for at least half an hour. I pour some olive oil on a roasting tray, then set the pork skin side down and roast it in a hot oven (220˚C) for around 30-45 minutes, then I lower the heat to 190˚F and cook it for a further hour or so, depending on the weight of the pork. Expect the oven to be smoking. When it's done, I let the meat stand for a bit before carving it.
I usually don't need to crisp the crackling further under the grill, but when I did this a few weeks ago in Zurich, the cut of the pork was thicker than I was accustomed to cooking. The only way to get an even, crunchy layer of crackling was to put it under the grill, yet the meat remained incredibly tender and juicy. I served it with a caramel-honey vinegar reduction (again adapted from Bill Granger), but it works just as well with hoisin and ginger, traditional applesauce or Filipino-style garlic-soy sauce-and-vinegar mix.
Not everyone likes crackling though (gasp!). Or perhaps they prefer to monitor their cholesterol intake. Some months back, I served this at a small dinner at my home, with, um, Caucasian ladies as my guests. Good friends, all of them, but none willing to risk poise and teeth munching on crackling. I almost cried when I cleared the table and noted the by now rubbery and inedible slabs of crisped skin relegated to the side of the plate. What a waste of crackling, I thought.
Undaunted, I made this dish again a month later, serving it this time to an all-Asian cast. We ate pork the way it was meant to be eaten - shamelessly, and with undisguised relish! And matching sound effects.
It goes without saying that there was NOTHING left on the plates when dinner was over.