It is time again to bring out The Chicken-Fried Pork Belly Salad, which I created in August 2007 in the midst of my fury at the chief icon of American restaurant food: The Chicken Caesar. Today's post was sparked by Sam Sifton's NYTimes magazine column on the Caesar salad, which addresses the fact that few dishes are truly authentic, and he uses the Caesar salad as an example.
For me putting a chicken breast on a perfectly good Caesar is an emblem of American mediocrity, a lack of imagination, and our fear of food (The Shame of the Chicken Caesar Salad). But Sifton, while he makes the unconscionable error of failing to include my Chicken Fried Pork Belly Casear in his list of famous variations, does us a service by telling us a freeing truth: authenticity doesn't matter. Cook what you love and serve it as it pleases you, with smoked herring or barbecued beef. (I do urge all Americans to avoid topping it with chicken breast, protein lite, on moral grounds.)
There are of course original dishes. The salmon chop, created by David Burke, for instance. Thomas Keller's Oysters & Pearls is an original—surely he was the first human to combine tapioca pudding with oysters and caviar.
But authenticity, the fodder of food historians, is ultimately about sentimental nostalgia, a longing for a lost and truer time. Which is why authenticity is a kind of lie.
So as America lurches into its culinary future, a future 1,000 times more hopeful now than it was a few decades ago, we should look not to an authentic past but rather a genuine present that comprises natural (unprocessed) foods, prepared with sound cooking basics, served to and eaten at a table with the people we love.
The below is my go-to Caesar dressing—garlic and lemon, anchovies and oil. The above photo shows slabs of pork belly but I think I really will change this dish. Because I believe a Caesar salad ought to have croutons, I will cut the confited pork belly into cubes the size of large croutons, and garnish the salad with this, so that it appears to be a traditional Caesar, but instead delivers savory unctuousness rather than starch.
The pork belly must be cooked low and slow, to tenderize it, then cooled before you cut it (this can be done six months before you complete the below dish). You can braise it, but I think you retain more flavor if you confit it, poach it in fat. (Here's a recipe for duck confit, poached in olive oil, an excellent confiting fat for the modern kitchen; simply replace the duck with some pork belly if you want to follow a recipe. Here are confit basics, for the basic technique. There is detailed confit information and technique in Charcuterie.)
And one last note: To make this truly "chicken-fried" you'd soak the pork belly in buttermilk and dredge in peppered flour—that is, if you wanted to make a truly ... authentic ... Chicken-Fried Pork Belly Caesar.
The Chicken-Fried Pork Belly Caesar
For the dressing
- 4 tablespoons lemon juice, or more to taste
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- 1 egg yolk
- 4 anchovies (and more for garnish if you love them whole)
- ¼ cup fat from the confit, melted but cooled
- ½ cup canola oil
For the pork belly croutons:
- ½ pound pork belly confit* cut into ¾-inch cubes
- flour for dredging
- 2 eggs, uniformly mixed (no white visible)
- panko for dredging
- canola or vegetable oil for deep frying
- 10 ounces romaine lettuce
- Parmigianno-Reggiano as needed
- For the dressing: Combine all ingredients except the oil in a blender and blend, then slowly drizzle in the oil. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
- Heat the canola oil for deep frying. Dredge pork in flour, then in egg, then in panko. Deep fry till golden brown and crisp, and piping hot inside. Remove to a rack and let them drain as you dress the salad.
- Toss whole or cut leaves of romaine with exactly the right amount of dressing. Serve the salad on plates and garnish with the pork belly croutons (and whole anchovies if you wish). Grate cheese generously over the salad.
[*For easy confited pork belly: salt a slab of belly aggressively and season it with quatre epices and smashed garlic overnight, then cover it in fat and cook at 170 degrees F for 10 hours. Allow it to cool then refrigerate till completely chilled.]
If you liked this post on pork belly caesar salad, check out these other links:
- My recipe for poached salmon lunch with asparagus & shrimp salad
- The Accidental Hedonist sheds some light on the origin of the caesar salad.
- Crispy fried pork belly on rice recipe from Jun of the Indochine Kitchen.
- Studio Kitchen's post on classic salads, but with a modern twist.
© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved