Whether it's slow-roasted, seared, grilled, glazed or braised, people are pigging out on pork belly.
It gets piled into sandwiches, stuffed into crepes, topped on burgers, sprinkled over salad greens, heaped on French fries, perched on polenta and tucked into tortillas or pillowy white steamed buns.
Once used mainly as an ingredient to flavor soups and side dishes such as baked beans or black-eyed peas, pork belly has become the star of the plate. Local restaurant chefs, caterers and food truck owners are serving it up in a variety of ways to enthusiastic diners, and some home cooks are seeking it out from their butcher and other sources.
But even though they're eating it, many people probably don't know what it is.
A boneless cut of meat from the underside of a pig, pork belly is commonly processed into bacon. Unlike the crispy, salty breakfast staple, fresh pork belly isn't cured, smoked and sliced into strips. It lends itself to numerous cooking techniques and flavor combinations, and you can slice it any way you like: palm-sized squares, rectangular pieces, bite-sized cubes, etc. With its alternating layers of meat and fat, pork belly is incredibly rich, moist and tender.
“It has really grown in popularity,” said Gene Cammarota, chef-instructor in the culinary arts program at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. “People are doing all kinds of things with it. It's gone from being just a part of a dish to being a featured dish.”
Block 16 in downtown Omaha frequently has pork belly on its daily specials board, served in various ways. Among the creations: crispy pork belly benedict with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce, caramelized pork belly on a bed of parsnip-pear puree, burgers topped with barbecue braised pork belly.
Localmotive Food Truck, which serves late-night eats in the parking lot of Ted & Wally's ice cream in the Old Market, offered a pork belly banh mi (a Vietnamese sandwich) as a special a couple weeks ago. Ponzu Sushi & Grill recently featured pork belly and scallop skewers. J. Coco pairs crispy pork belly with creamy grits, and Lot 2 in Benson has a pork belly sandwich on its dinner menu.
Home cooks might have a tough time finding it, though it's easy to work with when you do. If you can't find raw, unsmoked pork belly at the grocery store, check the meat counter of Asian or Latin markets. You also can order it from some butcher shops, or even online.
In addition to supplying local restaurants with 30-pound cases of pork belly, Frank Stoysich Meats can accommodate home cooks with smaller portions.
Each week, the store processes 300 to 400 pounds of pork belly into bacon, said Frank Stoysich Jr., president of the family business near 52nd and Q Streets. If customers give him a few days' notice, he can set aside some of the store's weekly shipment of fresh, uncured pork belly for them. It sells for about $3.50 a pound.
Stoysich, who has worked in the meat business since the '80s, said he's noticed an increase in customers interested in pork belly. He thinks it's part of an overall trend of consumers wanting to experiment with different cuts of meat they may have heard about but haven't used before — pig ears, feet and jowl (cheek), for example.
Some shoppers come to his shop looking for pork belly after seeing it featured on the Food Network or in a food magazine, blog or online recipe site.
“A lot of these products that I've had calls for, people see on cooking shows,” Stoysich said.
Until recently, whenever Kim Stix saw pork belly on menus or heard someone mention it, she assumed it was just bacon. After sampling different dishes and talking to chefs and pork producers, Stix has become a big fan of the ingredient.
“I think chefs are getting more creative with doing things with belly. Everything I've ever tried has been fabulous,” said Stix, who works at Truebridge Foods in Omaha.
For the past year, Truebridge has supplied several area restaurants with antibiotic- and hormone-free pork from three Midwestern family farms, where the animals are raised in cage-free barns and fed vegetarian diets. Pork belly, which is among the products the company provides, is a big seller.
“I do think restaurants are using it more. A lot of our chefs will buy a case,” she said.
Pork belly's versatility and ease of use make it one of chef Bryce Coulton's favorite cuts of meat to work with in the kitchen.
“It's pretty flexible and forgiving,” said Coulton, co-owner of the French Bulldog in Dundee. The restaurant goes through 120 pounds of pork belly a week. It's used to make creamy, salty pork rillettes, crispy lardons for salads and a pork belly sandwich.
A rich, decadent dish with a blend of sweet, salty and savory flavors, the sandwich features pork belly that Coulton seasons, cures for two weeks, then braises for nearly four hours. Once cooked, the pork is pulled into shreds and piled on ciabatta with melted smoked Gouda, bitter greens, fruit jam, red onion and a mustard-creme fraiche spread.
Introduced six months ago as a daily sandwich special, it's become so popular with diners that it still lingers on the restaurant's specials board.
“I don't think it's going to be leaving anytime soon,” Coulton said.