Pork and Watermelon Salad
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)
This dish captures just what diners wanted in the first years of the twenty-first century: a flavorful cut of meat (pork belly), braised and then paired with a bright, vigorously flavored salad (watermelon). Rich and crisp. Succulent and sharp. Evil and good. This salad is the creation of Zak Pelaccio, an independent-minded young chef. After spending much time in Southeast Asia, he came back to New York and opened a sophisticated restaurant with slacker décor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—the restaurant industry equivalent of an indie film. The food crowd took the bait, and Pelaccio, crowned the wunderkind of Williamsburg, soon moved to Manhattan, where he opened up two more very different places: 5 Ninth, an annoyingly popular restaurant with an ambitious menu, and Fatty Crab, a casual Southeast Asian spot that feels like a great strip-mall find in Los Angeles. As you will see, Pelaccio likes his ingredients—plan a trip to an Asian market and make this with a friend who can help prep.
- 3 pounds uncured pork belly, skin on
- 2 cups ketjap manis
- 6 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
- 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
- Juice of 1 lime
- Canola or peanut oil for deep-frying
- Flour for dusting
- Salt if needed
- One 5-pound watermelon
- 2 cups rice wine vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3 shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 Thai chiles or 1 jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/2 round (1 ounce) palm sugar or 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 rounds palm sugar (3 ounces) or 6 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice (from about 4 limes)
- One 6-ounce piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 6 cilantro roots with 1 inch of stems or 12 cilantro stems, cleaned
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1 cup torn Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) or cilantro leaves
- 1 cup torn Thai or regular basil leaves
- Sesame seeds (optional)
To prepare the pork belly, using a sharp knife, cross-hatch the pork belly skin, making cuts 1/2 inch apart. Place the pork belly in a baking dish. Combine the ketjap manis, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, and lime juice and pour over the pork belly. Marinate, refrigerated, for 24 to 48 hours, turning several times.
Heat the oven to 275ºF. Place the belly skin side up in a baking pan and add 2 cups of the marinating liquid and 2 cups water. The liquid should come halfway up the pork; if necessary add more water or use a smaller pan. Cover the pan with foil and bake until a skewer penetrates the belly with little or no resistance, 3 to 4 hours. Remove the pork from the liquid and let cool.
Meanwhile to make the salad, cut the watermelon flesh into 1-inch cubes (discard the seeds). Reserve the rind. Refrigerate the flesh until ready to use. With a sharp knife, remove the outer green skin from the rind. Dice the white rind into 1/2-inch cubes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl.
Combine the rice wine vinegar, water, shallots, chiles, kaffir lime, ginger, palm sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the sugar dissolves. Strain the liquid over the white rind. Let cool, then refrigerate for 1 hour.
To make the dressing, if using palm sugar, roughly crush it with a mortar and pestle, or place it in a plastic bag and crush with a hammer or heavy can. Combine the sugar, lime juice, ginger, cilantro, garlic, and salt in a blender and blend until smooth.
Slice the pork belly into 1-inch chunks, leaving the skin on. Heat 1 inch of canola oil to 375ºF in a medium saucepan or a wok. Lightly dust the pork belly cubes with flour, shaking off the excess. Working in batches, deep-fry the pork belly until dark golden brown and crispy, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Season with salt if necessary.
Toss the watermelon flesh in a bowl with just enough dressing to coat. Divide the pork among serving plates, and top with the watermelon flesh and a few cubes each of pickled rind. Drizzle additional dressing around the plates. Garnish with the scallions, coriander, basil, and sesame seeds, if using.