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Pork belly may not be a part of your dinner plans, but don't be intimidated

This photo provided by The Culinary Institute of America shows pork belly steamed buns in Hyde Park N.Y. This dish is from a recipe by the CIA.
This photo provided by The Culinary Institute of America shows pork belly steamed buns in Hyde Park N.Y. This dish is from a recipe by the CIA.

NEW YORK - Steamed pork buns are popping up on menus across the country, and it's no wonder. With their pillow-y softness, rich fillings, and salty-sweet sauces, they represent everything that makes Asian cuisines so craveable. 

Chinese-style steamed buns, known commonly as bao, are our most familiar representation of the dish, though you can find versions across Korean, Japanese, and southeast Asian cuisines. Sometimes the fillings, which can be sweet or savory, are fully encased in the bun. But we like this version, where the dough is folded around the filling like a sandwich.

When it comes to fillings, there are no limits. Sticky braised pork is a crowd-pleaser, and variations on the theme can be found on menus around the world. But chefs are pushing the limits now, filling their bao buns with anything from fried chicken to braised beef tongue to bold, mouth-numbing curries.

The best part of this recipe is eating it, but as a dinner host, you will most appreciate the make-ahead quality of each component. With only a few side dishes - like simple vegetables or a cold noodle salad - this dinner will come together in a flash. Because the pork is so rich, a little bit goes a long way.

While pork belly may not be a part of your typical dinner rotation, don't be intimidated. It's the cut we use to make bacon, and is characterized by layers of meat and unctuous fat. When cooked properly, the meat is soft and tender, almost melting in your mouth.

You may choose to purchase the belly with or without skin. Even after a long braise, the skin will retain some chew, so if that sounds unpleasant, skin-off might be for you.

Braised items are the ultimate make-ahead item, since they just get better over time. The key to preparing this pork belly the day ahead is in the braising liquid. You'll submerge the finished pork in some of the liquid to help keep it moist in the refrigerator. You'll reduce the rest to make a glossy sauce.

Though you may be tempted to prepare your own steamed buns, there are excellent store-bought varieties available at your local Asian market. Since you'll probably have to stop there anyway for some other ingredients, do yourself a favour and buy the buns (you'll find them in the frozen section).

You'll need to steam the buns just before serving, but they only take a few minutes. They can be a bit sticky, so cut strips of parchment paper to wrap around the outside of the buns, to keep them from sticking together in your serving dish. Then sit back and watch them disappear.

PORK BELLY STEAMED BUNS

Servings: 12

Start to finish: 4 hours (1 hour active)

1/2 cup light soy sauce

1/2 cup dark soy sauce (see note)

1/4 cup Korean soy bean paste (doenjang)

One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

1 scallion, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 whole star anise

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 cup brown sugar, divided use

2 pounds pork belly, with or without skin

12 frozen steamed buns, steamed until soft

Cucumber Salad (recipe below)

In a large Dutch oven, combine the light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, bean paste, ginger, scallion, star anise, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar. Stir to combine. Add the pork belly and enough water to cover about halfway up the side of the meat (about 1 1/2 cups).

Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to a gentle simmer and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly. Transfer the pork to a cutting pork and slice into 12 even slices, about 1/4 inch by 3 inches. Return the slices to the Dutch oven and transfer, covered, to the oven and roast until the meat is tender, but not falling apart, about 1 hour.

Transfer the pork belly to a shallow baking dish or container. Add enough of the braising liquid to cover the meat and set aside or cover and refrigerate until use. Bring the remaining braising liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar and simmer until the mixture has reduced enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 40 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, then cool slightly if using right away, or transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until needed.

Just before serving, preheat the broiler to high. Remove the pork belly from the braising liquid and discard the liquid. Dip each slice of pork belly into the reduced sauce and arrange in one layer on a foil-lined baking pan. Transfer to the oven and broil until the sauce begins to caramelize around the edges of the pork, about 4 minutes.

Fill each steamed bun with a slice of pork and a spoonful of cucumber salad. Serve with the sauce on the side.

Chef's note: There are many varieties of soy sauce, most of which can be easily purchased at your local Asian market. Light soy sauce should not be mistaken for “low sodium,” but will instead be specially labeled as “light.” Dark soy sauce might also be labeled as “thick.”

CUCUMBER SALAD

Servings: 12

1 English cucumber, halved and thinly sliced

1 carrot, julienned or shredded

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds

In a medium bowl, combine the cucumber, carrot, onion, and garlic. Stir to combine. Add the vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, and sesame seeds, and toss to coat the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to overnight.

Nutrition information per serving of pork buns: 556 calories; 378 calories from fat; 42 g fat (15 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 54 mg cholesterol; 1486 mg sodium; 29 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 14 g protein.

Nutrition information per serving of cucumber salad: 9 calories; 1 calories from fat; 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 164 mg sodium; 2 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 0 g protein.

This article was provided to The Associated Press by The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

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