Pork Belly Mac & Cheese
Don't be deterred by the name "belly." This cut of meat comes from just below the place we get the South's favorite meat, bacon. Pork belly taste similar to bacon, but it's tougher and fattier. However, it can be tamed with a little love. Unlike bacon, pork belly is usually uncured. However, in the south, we like curing everything with copious amounts of salt. The type of pork belly I use in this recipe is referred to as "salt pork" which is cured, longer in fact than bacon. That's worth keeping in mind when cooking with it. Everyone loves salt (except my mom oddly enough) but it's easy to go overboard. This dish only requires a minimal amount of salt be added or perhaps none at all. Most of the salt will come from the pork belly itself. This salt has been aged inside the piece of meat, which means it will carry a richness and flavor profile that cannot be duplicated. Adding too much additional salt would mask the unique taste of the cure salt, which is one of the highlights of this dish. This recipe is an exercise in building flavor. It takes time to coax out the depths of what these ingredients have to offer, but trust me, it's worth it.
1 lb salted pork (pork belly) diced
6-8 servings of dry pasta (about 12 oz)
32 oz low sodium chicken broth
3 sprigs of thyme
1/4 cup chopped parsley
6 leaves of fresh basil
4 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp Cajun seasoning
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups shredded Colby cheese
2 cups shredded smoked Gouda
Add the chicken stock to a large soup pot. Add enough water so the liquid is just under the handle of the pot. To the cooking liquid, add thyme, parsley, basil, garlic, and pork belly. Simmer this mixture on low (covered) for 3 hours. Add water during the cooking process if the cooking liquid gets too low. During this time, the fat and salt will be rendered from the pork, making the liquid briny, rich, and herbal. It will also tenderize the meat tremendously.
After around 3 hours, strain off the pork belly. Reserve the brine from cooking the pork belly for use later in the recipe.
In a small bowl, mix together the boiled pork belly,maple syrup, and Cajun seasoning. This adds a sweet and spicy element to the naturally salty pork belly. Saute the pork belly in the same pot you boiled it in until crispy and caramelized. Remove the pork belly once cooked. When the pork belly is out of the pot, deglaze it with a few tablespoons of the brine from the previous step.
Use the rest of the brine left over from cooking the pork belly to start cooking the pasta, per the instructions on the box. If you need additional liquid, just add water. There is no need to salt or season the liquid further.
To the deglazed pork belly pot, add milk, heavy cream, and 2 cups of cheese, 1 cup of each type. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Simmer the cheese sauce for about 10 minutes to thicken it up. Salt and pepper to taste. Be careful not to over salt the cheese sauce.
Next, coat the cooked pasta in the cheese sauce and mix in the diced pork belly.
Spread pasta evenly into a 9 x 11 baking dish. Top with the remaining 2 cups of cheese. Garnish with some basil, thyme, and parsley. Bake uncovered on 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until cheese on top is gooey and beginning to brown.