As anyone can see from my blog, I am an avid meat eater (click here for the first edition of my Love Affair with Meat). It’s fitting as my husband calls himself a “meat-a-tarian”. It also makes sense if you are familiar with Vietnamese cuisine (seeing I grew up eating it). You don’t exactly come across many vegetarian Vietnamese restaurants.. And if there’s one type of meat Vietnamese people love, it’s pork. Whether it’s roasting an entire pig, grilling it, braising it or drying it, we love pork. So despite being Vietnamese, my parents exposed my siblings and I to many different types of cuisine. We’ve had pork several ways, and I thought I knew a lot about pork.. But for some reason, I don’t have a single memory of eating pork the way the Brits do. And if you’ve ever been to a British food festival, horse race, air(plane) show, German holiday market, concert or any other outdoor event with food trucks in the UK, it’s highly likely you’ve had roasted pork with crackling in a bun with apple sauce and/or stuffing. My American readers might now be saying, “What on earth is crackling?!” Well my friends, let me show you…
Pork crackling is the result of roasting pork belly or pork loin with skin on at high heat. The skin bubbles up and, if done properly, crisps up to the most sinful and comforting crunch. The Guardian did a fantastic article on the Ultimate Search for Pork Crackling, check it out. The author addresses several different methods and her results are rather interesting. Needless to say, there are several ways to do it. But so much is dependent on how hot your oven gets and how much time you have to prep your pork. While I did a bit of research into different methods, the recipe I was using as inspiration was Andy Bates’s Slow Roasted Pulled Pork.
As discussed in the Guardian article, Andy suggests the boiling water method. This is when you hold up your pork, scored skin side up, and pour boiling water over it (being sure to let the water run off). I then thoroughly dried it with kitchen/paper towel. When cooking this recipe, I didn’t have the time to let it dry overnight. So, as per Andy’s recipe, I made a rub of fennel seeds, rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper. Using this marinade, I massaged my pork with affection, hope and in anticipation of blowing Chris away with my ridiculously good (I’m the best wife ever) crackling. To make it extra crispy (and knowing salt draws out moisture), I added a bit of extra rock salt into the cracks of the scored skin. I also used Andy’s helpful tip of putting onions as the base, so the pork doesn’t burn. You cut the onions in half and lay them flat side down. But I found my pork to be sliding off the rounded tops of the onions, so I sliced a bit off the ‘top’ and it worked. That piggy wasn’t going anywhere. Then I made sure my oven was on high heat using my trusty and inexpensive oven thermometer, and I tossed that bad boy in.
One of the reasons I’m really into cooking with my oven recently is that the smells you create in your house are so much deeper than when you’re cooking on the stove. It starts slow and sneaks up on you as this rich, lingering, can almost taste it smell. And this is exactly what happened with the pork. I think I was a bit impatient and should’ve let it cook on high heat for a bit longer.. I did about 60 minutes at 220C. I found the stock didn’t burn at all, but I kept adding it anyways. I think another 15 minutes would’ve been good to get that skin really blistered. I have learned though that my oven isn’t even (i.e. the back is hotter than the front). So be sure to rotate if you have to. When it was time to turn the oven down, I pulled the pork out and let it sit on the stove top while I let the oven temp come down. I kept the door open and just checked my thermometer until it dropped to 135C. For the cooking time at the lower temp, I followed the 2.5 hours but my pork would have probably been good with 2 hours and 10 minutes or so.
At this point, Chris had come home and I had him do the “tap test” on the crackling. It was looking really good but some of the middle sections weren’t quite ‘tapping’ properly. So we took the handy blow torch my brother and sister in law gave me for my birthday last year and we let the piggy have it! I have to admit it was pretty fun.. And low and behold, it worked! The remaining bits blistered up really well. There were a couple slightly burnt sections that we just kind of brushed off as we got used to using the blow torch. But here were the final results!
So after our beautiful pork was done cooking, I put it aside and worked on the gravy. The classic method is to put the roasting tray on the stove and to deglaze directly in the tray. Since I had been adding all the chicken stock during the cooking process, there weren’t many ‘brown bits’. But as soon as the pork was out, I used my wooden spoon to scrape up what I could. There was a LOT of fat, so I spooned it out into a small bowl and set aside. I then strained the stock/juices into a small saucepan. I tasted it and as expected it was quite salty so I added a bit of water and put it on low heat to simmer and reduce (and hopefully thicken up a bit). I then used a trick that one of my chef instructors taught me at Cordon Bleu..
Remember the fat I skimmed and set aside? Well after it had cooled down a bit but was still liquid, I added some flour to it to create a ‘roux‘ which doesn’t always have to be made with butter. Really, it can be made with any type of fat. The chef originally showed us this trick when making rack of lamb. After trimming the fat off the lamb, he had us render this fat in a pan on low heat. We then mixed this liquid fat with flour and made a paste/roux. You then add this roux to your gravy (or drippings) to thicken it up and add a huge boost of flavor! Plus you’re just taking the fat that was on it and adding it back in. It’s also a more natural way to thicken it instead of corn flour/starch. I did just that and added my roux to the stock that was simmering and it turned into this luscious gravy.
You’ll see in Andy’s recipe that he served his pork with creamed cannelini beans. I had some parsnip that I needed to use up, so I opted for a parsnip and potato puree instead. There are plenty of recipes out there (here’s one and another), but basically
- Boil peeled parsnips and potato chunks in milk and water. Reserve the liquid.
- Mash with butter and slowly add the reserved cooking liquid. Season to taste.
- Puree with a hand held blender or in a food processor.
And here was our final dish! I was SO proud of myself with this one, as I really wanted to get it right. It was my first time making crackling and my husband is a serious crackling addict! He even snacks on pork scratchings (same thing basically but fried) whenever he can! And in fact it was crispy and super tasty from the rock salt, fennel seeds and rosemary that had been wedged into each cut of the skin. The pork was tender, the gravy rich and the puree creamy. All in all, a wonderful comforting autumn meal!
And in case you were curious.. These are pork scratchings..