So here we are at the end of the worst month of the year. Apologies if you have a birthday around now or you happen to be one of those weirdos who actually like winter, but February is truly the worst. Sure, it’s not like January is much better and March is certainly no picnic. But there is something about February that I find particularly bleak. Perhaps it’s because the glow of Christmas is now a distant memory and spring still seems painfully far away. Either way, February blows, so we all need large, comforting bowls of beans. Bowls filled with Braised Pork Belly and Beans to be exact.Jump to Recipe
I don’t know about you, but in the last week or so, I’ve noticed a shift. Winter coats are on sale, tulips are back in the grocery stores and foodies everywhere are trading in their blood oranges for rhubarb. Yes, spring is definitely on everyone’s mind and it is refreshing, lovely and completely dangerous.
When you live in Canada, spring is a big ol’ question mark. Spring could mean sunshine and milder temperatures or it could mean blizzards from here to eternity. It’s just better not to get your hopes up. And while spring is a devastatingly exciting prospect, we still have a whole lotta of winter to sift through. So, with all these tough but true facts being what they are, I’m sticking to comfort food for the time being. That’s why today’s recipe is a pot of Braised Pork Belly and Beans instead of an avocado salad. The salad’s time will come, but right now, this is bean season.
Today’s recipe is a cultural hybrid. It combines two beloved dishes from two vastly different parts of the world. The pork belly side of the family comes from China, Hunan province to be exact. A little more than half of the ingredients found in this culinary love child are also found in the Hunanese version of Red Braised Pork Belly.
Braised pork belly is enjoyed in many corners of China but the Hunanese make use of a wider variety of aromatics in their version of the dish. And seeing as I am quite fond of many of these aromatics – I’m talking cinnamon, star anise, and dried chilies – theirs was the version I chose to emulate. So, with the excellent blog Woks of Life acting as my unknowing guide, I created a bizarre riff on the classic, well-loved dish. I’m not entirely sure they’d be all that pleased with the choices I’ve made. But, oh well. I do it with the utmost respect.
The other half of this cross-cultural culinary marriage comes from my own life. A dish that holds a place of honor in my memory: beans and molasses. You may or may not know this, but people who live in the East Coast provinces of Canada, live for molasses. We put on our bread, we put in our bread and we most certainly put it in our beans.
Now, if you are reading this in the US, the dish I’m talking about is essentially Boston Baked Beans. We didn’t call them that, of course. But the recipes are essentially identical. It stands to reason, we’re all largely in the same geographical location and share many cultural similarities. Anyway, to make the beans and molasses of my youth, you need molasses, of course, dry mustard powder, whiskey (duh), Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, and navy beans soaked overnight. You also need bacon. In this case, the bacon was in its pre-bacon state, which is to say it was pork belly.
Now, as with most bean recipes and, yes, braising recipes in general, this dish takes some time. It will make your house smell insanely wonderful but it will also torture you in the same way a holiday roast drives you insane with anticipation. You will want to eat this dish before it reaches it’s prime because it smells sweet, aromatic, salty and comforting as all get-out. But you will be repaid for your patience with tender pork goodness, so, for the sake of your tastebuds, hold on.
There are a few steps in this recipe that will make you nervous. Or at least they made me nervous. Melting the sugar in the base of a wok for one. I tend to get nervous about extremely hot sugar. Mostly because I am accident-prone and I don’t trust myself a lick with anything particularly dangerous. Having said that I do handle a chef’s knife every day of my damn life and only occasionally maim myself. So, I suppose fear is relative. The more I deal with hot sugar, the less it will scare me. And I think that’s the way you should look at just about everything.
I was afraid to melt sugar in a very hot wok, but I did it anyway. And at the end of it, a few splatters aside, I was fine. Not only that, I was confident I could do it again without being a wuss about it. That’s the thing about cooking. At first blush almost everything seems difficult, but you do it once and you want to do it better and then you do. And then you do it so much you convince yourself you came out of the womb doing it. So, think of that when you’re melting sugar into magma in a hot wok. Scary today, easy tomorrow.
So, that’s everything you need to know about today’s Braised Pork Belly and Beans. The recipe takes a little time and a little nerve but it delivers comfort like no other. This dish will warm you from the top of your head to the tips of your toes in seconds flat.
Braised Pork Belly & Beans with Molasses & Star Anise
- 4 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups dried navy beans soaked overnight
- 1 shallot halved
- 2 cloves garlic crushed
- 8 slices ginger root divided
- 4 star anise pods
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 dried chilies
- 10 black peppercorns
- 8-10 whole cloves
- 1 tsp salt
- 680g (1.5lbs) pork belly cut into 1-inch pieces
- 5-6 shallots white parts only
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 3 tbsp demerara sugar
- 1/4 cup whisky
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tsp dry mustard powder
- Pour the water into a large pot. Add the beans, shallot, garlic and half of the ginger root. Set aside.
- Place the star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, bay leaves, black peppercorns and chilies on a piece of cheesecloth. Form into a bundle and fasten with butcher’s twine. Add the bundle to the pot with the beans.
- Place the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Let cook for 1 hour.
- When the beans are in the last 15 minutes of their cook time, place another large pot of water on to boil. Once the water is boiling add the pork belly, the scallions and the remaining slices of ginger. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook for 1 minute. Drain the pork belly and discard the ginger and scallions. Set aside.
- Heat the canola oil in a large wok over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the sugar and cook until melted. Add the pork belly and toss to coat in the caramel. Work quickly so the sugar doesn’t burn.
- Deglaze the wok with the whisky and add the contents of the bean pot to the wok. Fish out the garlic, shallot, and ginger but leave the spice bundle. The beans should still be fairly watery.
- In a small bowl whisk the molasses, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, dark soy sauce, and dry mustard powder together. Pour the mixture over the pork and beans and bring the everything to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover the wok and let cook for 40 minutes. Remove the cover and let cook for 20 minutes more.
- Remove the spice bundle and serve the beans immediately with a round of cold beers.