HARRISBURG – David Mills bellied up to the 106th Pennsylvania Farm Show Culinary Connection Stage last weekend to demonstrate what to do with the boneless, fatty cut of meat from the belly of a pig.
Within minutes, the Mechanicsburg man and Maureen Sutton-Fowler of Philadelphia were competing stovetop to stovetop in the Best Pork Belly Competition sponsored by the Pennsylvania Pork Producers Council.
Pork literally took center stage last Friday, Pork Day at the Culinary Connection. Chefs made everything from pork schnitzel with parsley spaetzle to pork and sauerkraut to Philly roast pork sausage sandwiches – and gave out samples of their creations.
The day called attention to Pennsylvania’s pork industry, which ranks 12th nationally. Lancaster County is Pennsylvania’s biggest pork producing county.
“The last couple years have been a time of transition for pork producers,” said Chris Herr, Penn Ag Industries executive vice president. “In 2020, many restaurants shut down. Schools closed. Hatfield went from 70% wholesale and 30% retail to the other way around. Hatfield had to pivot quickly.”
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Meanwhile, he said, grain prices increased significantly and created tighter profit margins.
On the stage, the competing chefs had 30 minutes to create a pork belly dinner for the four judges. They were given sealed bags containing pork belly and mystery ingredients. As they opened the bags, the contest began.
Mills, executive chef, butcher and owner of Smoke and Pickles Artisan Butcher Shop in Mechanicsburg, made a maple and bourbon braised pork belly, served with Brussel sprouts, carrots and other vegetables. Sutton-Fowler served her pork belly with seasoned sweet potatoes and a fresh coleslaw.
As they cooked, the audience learned about pork bellies.
Pork belly, the boneless cut of meat that remains after the loins and spareribs are removed, has become a popular menu item in restaurants. A whole pork belly weighs about 13 pounds, is 28 inches long and looks like a flat slab of meat marbled with fat. Basically, it’s uncured, unsmoked and unsliced bacon.
This richly flavored meat is most tender when braised and cooked slowly. It can be roasted, smoked or seared. It can be the entrée or can enhance other dishes.
Chefs say it has a meaty, hearty and somewhat salty flavor thanks to the thick layer of fat running along the top. While it has high quality protein, it also is about 30% fat.
“I didn’t know much about pork belly except that it looks like bacon,” said Donna Eisenhart of East Berlin, looking fascinated as she watched the competition. “This contest is exciting and fast-paced.”
As the 30 minutes drew to a close, the chefs arranged their pork bellies and side dishes on plates attractively, then served them to the judges. After tasting and deliberating, the judges declared Mills the winner.
The chefs and volunteers then served samples to the public.
Sutton-Fowler’s Pennsylvania Pork Belly and Cole Slaw recipe from the Culinary Connection 2022 cookbook follow:
Pennsylvania Pork Belly
3 pounds of Pennsylvania pork belly
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons chili flakes
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
Mix all ingredients together and pour over pork belly. Marinate for eight hours or overnight if time allows. Once belly is marinated, remove and pat dry.
Reduce the marinade by simmering over medium heat until it is a maple syrup consistency.
Place pork belly on roasting rack and roast at 300 degrees for three hours until cooked through. Baste the belly every 20 minutes with the marinade while it is cooking to give the belly a sticky, sweet, tangy glaze. Once finished, remove belly from oven. Let cool for a few minutes. Slice and serve with fresh slaw.
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon freshly-grated ginger
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon unsweetened peanut butter
1 red cabbage, finely shaved
1 green cabbage, finely shaved
1 bunch green onions, cut on a bias
3 carrots, fine julienne
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts
Whisk together the vinegar, honey, ginger, peanut butter and sesame oil. Toss together the cabbages, onions and carrots.
Combine the vegetables with the dressing, then mix in the sesame seeds. Garnish with chopped peanuts.