Pork Belly Lechon

When I was back home, I constantly reminded myself of my schedule. I may or may not leave so soon, I realized. There was really no fixed date, no pressing matter to attend to.

Then came the invitation for dinner, around a week after Jad’s funeral. We (my friends/classmates) haven’t really had a chance to talk about things out in the open. The situation was a delicate one. But the dinner had to happen. Naturally, I hosted it, and played the part of the cook. It’s a part I like to play because I think cooking for people who matter is on the list of things that feed my soul.

I didn’t want it to be complicated. My dinners have never tried to be uptight and I want it to stay that way. I love my people, and maybe that helps.

And I love pork. Strokes of brilliance on this blog have always involved pork, one way or the other. When I was thinking about what to prepare for dinner, a glorious way to feast on pork was on my mind.

And this, my friends, is glorious (if I do say so myself).
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Porchetta was on my mind when I was preparing my list. I’ve always wanted to make it, and I did get a chance to witness how it’s done when I was in school. But I also found myself craving for lechon while I was home. Mom would relent and come home with a small package of chopped up pig for me. That may have happened more than once.

I thought about taking a nice slab of pork belly and drowning it in the typical lechon aromatics (minus the calamansi because I don’t like it). Roasting it on low for a few hours makes it dastardly fork-tender, and during the last hour of baking, cranking the heat up will yield a crackling so divine.

The result blew me away. There is no breakthrough, no secret technique, no new flavor. I just made damn good lechon, and that for me, was a new notch in my belt. And if I’m being corny here, I’d like to call it “pinoychetta”. I’m also clever like that.
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All in all, I had two more attempts just to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke. The first one was a trial-run (my mom and her office mates were the lucky ones). The second was for the dinner, and the last was the big bang before I left.

The dinner itself was great. They loved the pork. Because they’re my friends, naturally they had to sing praises.
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They were fed well, we talked until we had no more stories to tell, and one of my friends, Jam, received a birthday cake a week early. It was a heavy chocolate cake with coffee buttercream, studded with shards of almond praline. I didn’t bring my piping tips so I was rubbish with the rosettes, but they liked it.

It was also passed around for posterity and the July babies went nuts. Somehow bearing the brunt of loss seemed lighter, even just for a night. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while.

So this pork is a thing of beauty. It’s not something you would whip up on a weeknight (but I’m not stopping you!). Reserve a weekend. Prepare this on Saturday, wake up early on Sunday to start roasting it. By lunchtime, you feast and the next day, you fast.
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Roasted Pork Belly “Lechon”

  • 1.5 kg pork belly slab, skin on
  • 3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and roughly chopped
  • ½ cup oregano leaves, washed then chopped
  • 3 red onions, peeled and chopped
  • around 4 – 5 lemongrass stalks, sliced
  • the zest from 1 lemon
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • a little over 1/8 cup salt, plus more for an even rub around the pork
  • 4 tablespoons crushed black pepper

Combine all the aromatics in a bowl and mix well. Lightly mash everything together with the back of a spoon. Alternatively, use a food processor to bring everything together with only around 2-3 pulses.

With the skin side down, rub the mixture all over the meat. Roll the slab, carefully invert the meat and secure it with butcher’s twine (and lemongrass leaves, like what I did). It’s okay if there are a few pieces of herbs that fall off, you can place it back later. Rub coarse salt all over the meat, including the skin. With a paring knife or fork, poke the skin of the meat. This will ensure a nice crackling. Transfer it to a roasting fitted with a rack and the bottom lined with foil. Place it in the refrigerator to chill overnight. This will dry the skin, which helps the crackling form.
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variation: this will easily feed two – three

Preheat the oven to 160 C. Just to be sure, pat the skin of the pork dry with a paper towel. Roast the pork for 5 hours. Afterwards, increase the temperature to 220 C, and allow the pork’s crackling to form. This will take another 30 minutes to an hour. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit before slicing. Enjoy!
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Life is short

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His name was Jad. We’ve been friends since high school, which means that I’ve known him for roughly 11 years. It was a friendship born from convenience – we found out that we live not too far from each other, so we made the usual daily commute to and from school together. We were a funny looking pair – I was the tall, fat and bespectacled kid while he was short, thin. Both of us had bad posture, so that’s one thing we had in common.

He was far from perfect. In fact, those who knew him all too well will say that he was rough around the edges. He had a short-temper, which is pretty funny considering his frame. He was a little fire cracker. He spoke his mind, and got into a lot of petty fights with friends and classmates. I also think he holds the class record for the most number of arguments with teachers. And apparently that string started in elementary school! But he was also gracious enough to accept defeat and apologize, even if it took weeks. A study of contrasts, he was.

We went to the same university after high school, and we found ourselves classmates once again taking up a course neither one of us felt was our calling. We belonged to the same high-strung group of friends, so that made early university life pretty good.

Both of us were far from perfect. Jad and I went through a rough patch in our third year. Looking back it was more of me being stubborn, holding onto the idea that people can be changed. Eventually we had a falling out. Honestly we’ve never been the same people since. But when all that was left was dust, we were still friends. It was a long process, and the bridge we thought was burned was still there, holding on for the both of us.

Time changes people, though. Eventually we found our respective niches. Mine was in the kitchen and his was in sales. He became a good (and persistent) pharmaceuticals salesman and a motivational coach. For someone who lacked self-esteem and was rough around the edges, he found himself in a great place. The past year we haven’t been communicating frequently, just the usual pleasantries but I thought that was fine – both of us were preoccupied with our own lives.

I thought that was fine because we had our whole lives ahead of us to keep in touch.

I was with my friends Yedy and Eugene when I got the call. Jad had been shot, and after a grueling hour of waiting for news, my mom told me what I already felt and knew: he was gone. I booked the earliest morning flight home.

Leading up to the funeral, it was a painful week.

Until now there are so many questions, so many speculations. It leaves me baffled that the odds were against him. He was a nice guy. He was loved, if the tributes people made during the days of the wake were any indication. I loved him like a brother.

It’s been two weeks since we laid him to rest. The pain has ebbed, but it’s still there. I know he’s gone, I could tell you right now to your face that he’s gone. But in the moments of silence, when the gravity of it all sinks in, and I mean really sinks in, the proverbial wave of ice-cold water still leaves me gutted.

Rational thought escapes me, and I still have to ask myself if he’s really gone because it’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s a bitter, painful pill.

Time was good to us. His job was great for him. Every now and then he would randomly send me a text message (he does this to all his friends), asking me how I’m doing. It hurts to know that’ll never happen anymore.

Right now I’m home. I never thought I’d be going home for a funeral. I thought I would leave as abruptly as I arrived, but here I am almost three weeks later enjoying its comforts. I’m home, in same city that he loved until his death

I’ve never known grief like this. I think it’s a more painful weight to carry because it’s laced with anger. And I’ve never known anger like this.

Jad read my blog every now and then, and he always supported whatever decision I made. He was a cheerleader like that, not just to me but for a lot of people. That’s why people loved and respected him. But apparently that’s not enough to warrant the reprieve of a bullet.

My friends and I will, in our own capacities, find justice for Jad. We don’t want his death to be trivialized. He’s not part of a statistic.

Life is beautifully and painfully short. Although it’s painful to know that his life was abruptly and unjustly halted, I can find comfort in the idea that he was in a good place in his life when he died. He realized what fulfilled his days, and until the last minute, he was chasing his happiness.

I’ve been quiet for more than a month now and a few days ago, The Hungry Giant celebrated its second year. I couldn’t really fabricate excitement to make a big deal of the event, so pardon me.

I’ve actually been cooking and baking while I’ve been home and that’s always given me comfort, for what it’s worth. I’ll be okay. It’s a process, but I’ll be okay. I’ll still write, and I’ll keep on writing, if it means keeping certain things alive.