Welcome to Better Than It Looks, a series in which we discuss the recipes we tried (and maybe failed) to execute, and the foods that were served to us by someone perhaps more talented than ourselves. This week: a journey into the belly of the beast.
Pork belly— that little belt of fat and meat that resides, uh, in the belly of a lil’ piggie—is my favorite thing to order on a menu. I’m the disgusting beast that eats the fatty bits; this cut of my favorite animal satisfies me greatly. However, I’ve never attempted to make it at home, because it feels like a very Restaurant Cut. But, one Monday night, feeling adventurous and full of hubris, I decided to attempt to create a restaurant-quality meal from my regular-ass kitchen.
The dish I planned to tackle was Michael Bao Hyunh’s Vietnamese caramelized pork, from the annals of the New York Times’s Cooking app. I’m not the best cook, but I am a decent cook. Imbued as I am with this confidence, I love to ignore a recipe’s general suggestions and riff on my own, as if I were Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Part of this experiment was to see if I could follow a recipe cooking an unfamiliar ingredient without fucking it up. I am pleased to say that for the most part, I did just fine.
The first mistake I made was to start this rather ambitious dish on a Monday night instead of on Sunday at, say, 6 p.m. As a woman who loves a routine, if I don’t make a giant vat of food for myself the Sunday before the week starts, I am at the mercy of takeout salads and spending money that I don’t need to spend on food outside of my home. If said meal prep doesn’t happen by Monday, it’s usually all over. With this self-imposed deadline, I began my ambitious attempt at cookery at the cool hour of 7:30 p.m. “This dish only takes 45 minutes to make!” I told myself. “I’ll be fine.”
Slicing the pork belly was stressful but only because the knives in my kitchen are very dull. The skin was also difficult to contend with, so I ended up cutting it off with kitchen scissors. The first step of this recipe involved heating sugar into a sticky brown glop, which didn’t really work out in my favor.
I was expecting a caramel situation and was instead rewarded with huge, hardened sugar chunks, which stuck to my spatula and caused me much stress. Pressing on: the fish sauce, salt, pepper, and MORE SUGAR portion of this recipe proceeded without much fuss, though I added garlic AND chile AND ginger because I was concerned that the final result would be a sweet and cloying mess that tasted like sugar and nothing else. “That’s not cooked yet, right?” my friend texted me after I sent the picture of the rock candy/pork concoction. Technically, it wasn’t, but it also sort of was. Regardless, I pressed on.
The recipe said to “lower to simmer to reduce sauce for about 20 minutes.” The amount of liquid in the bottom of the pan was, dare I say, too much. I was supposed to walk away from this pot of not-entirely-carmelized pork and let it live its life. I tried to ignore it. I made a phone call. I came back. It was still jiggly. At this point, the 45 minutes had elapsed; it was close to 9 p.m. and I was very hungry.
Eventually, after giving it more time than I thought was necessary, I added the onions, and gave myself a private deadline: if the meal wasn’t done by 9:30, I was going to go across the street, get a white slice and a fountain soda, and watch half an episode of Fixer Upper before going to bed. As I am the master of my own destiny, I determined that by 9:28, the “sauce” had reduced to an appropriate thickness and that bits of the pork looked caramelized enough. I had washed all the dishes; I was starving. Done.
A meal is not a meal if there is not some sort of starch situation. I resolved that by paying honor to my white heritage by making rice on the stovetop—a trick that I learned recently is much better than my beloved rice cooker for making coconut rice, like this Tejal Rao recipe from the Times. (For any other rice, I use a rice cooker. It is very simple to use a rice cooker. It makes perfect rice. If you like rice, get a rice cooker. Here is one that costs under $20. You’re gonna love it!)
I also made some bok choy, for roughage. I shuffled some of it into my mouth while watching the Roku menu screen and then took some of it to work the next day for lunch. Everything was good and I am no longer scared of my favorite meat. Win win.