There are few things for which I will willingly stay up late. Pork belly is one of them. Of course, as I trekked through the slushy Brooklyn night I had no way of knowing that a thick and streaky slab of raw pork belly was waiting for me just past the Bedford stop.
I was on my way to a midnight cooking feast. In two weeks of schedule scouring my friend Ben and I didn’t have one overlapping free hour to cook. And all we really wanted to do was cook. So lets cook at midnight, we said, and that’s how I found myself struggling to stay awake on an empty train, kicking myself for having agreed to something as ridiculous as not being in bed at midnight.
Our plan was to let ourselves be inspired. To not plan a single recipe until we looked at what we had. During his 11 pm grocery run, Ben bought whatever looked pretty and cost less than $2 a pound. I felt like I was on Iron Chef, watching as he pulled each ingredient out of a Whole Foods shopping bag and laid it on the counter. Lemons. Eggplant. Baby potatoes. Red and yellow beets. Pork belly. Parsley and cilantro. Jicama. Tangerines and grapefruit. Fennel. And lastly, a small, brown paper-wrapped package. “Guess,” he said. “Chorizo,” I guessed. “Stranger than chorizo.” “Tripe,” I guessed. “Less strange than tripe,” he said and unwrapped a tangled mess of baby octopi.
We threw around ideas for our meal – should we do an Asian-inspired glazed belly or slice it up and cook it like bacon – should we roast vegetables or frittata them – could we do anything without vinegar? (No, was the answer, and Ben made a quick run to the corner store for two bottles of vinegar.) We settled on belly flash seared and then braised in a citrus glaze and a jicama and roasted beet slaw. I woke from my sleepiness with the rising smell of onions, garlic, and fennel sautéing in olive oil.
We improvised, we guessed. Never cooked pork belly? Don’t know whether jicama and beets taste good together? Didn’t matter! We sliced and sautéed our way into the morning. Ella and Louis crooning from the speakers as our knife blades smashed garlic and the red wine evaporated. At around two, I remembered the octopus. What should we do with it? Grill it, of course, with smoked paprika and lemon. I wanted mushrooms, so we sautéed them in olive oil with a little salt and pepper and garnished the dish with parsley. We sat down on one side of the kitchen bar and sampled our appetizer. It was good, briny and delicately chewy, smoky-sweet from the paprika, and interesting to eat as my tongue worked around tortuously curled tentacles. But we looked at each other and we knew: “It needs something” – “a bit of zing.” And Ben was back at the stove, making a quick balsamic reduction. He sprinkled the dark black, almost caramelized bits across the red-hued octopus and when we sat down to the second round, we sighed. Perfect.
I love to cook for people, but sometimes, it’s fun to cook with people who cook. If only for those moments when you look at each other and just know, that something is good, but it can be better. And without despairing, a few moments later, with a splash of lemon juice or honey, or a balsamic reduction, you can create something beautiful. Something truly perfect.
The pork belly, when it came out of the oven, was already perfect. Tender from roasting in its own fat and acidic citrus fruits, each caramelized, fatty piece, topped with a forkful of vinegary fennel and onion, just melted. And to balance the richness, there were quick bites of jicama and beet slaw, spiked with jalapeños, mustard, honey, and ginger.
We finished eating, and I slunk into a pork belly-induced food coma, sprawled on the couch still making happy-full food noises. The dishes could wait and so could the snow. For now, all that mattered was the good food and the good company and the sleep, so long delayed. And a promise extracted, to cook at midnight again.