Watermelon is not a winter fruit.
I know this to be so, yet during the coldest week we’ve had all year in my corner of the world, it’s pretty much all I can think about. Well, that and this amazing steam oven slow cooked pork I’ve been wanting to tell you about.
Back to the watermelon for a minute though. I don’t know when it happened, or how on earth they make it grow (hothouses? I guess? Showing my black thumbs here!), but I can now find watermelon in the supermarket year round. My three year old thinks this is totally normal and expects it to be in the fridge all the time, but I can remember a time pretty recently that you only ate the stuff in summer, preferably chilled and cut into giant wedges to eat outside where clean-up requirements are minimal. At any rate, I still think that’s the best use for it, and the melon I’ve been buying recently is a distant second to the proper in-season juicy good stuff of summer.
If you have some less than fabulous watermelon to get through, or (even better) if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere the melons are in season and perfect right now, you should be using some in this salad. Even the most average tasting one will come to life dressed with lime juice and fish sauce, mixed with vibrant herbs and sharing a bed with soft/crispy/salty pork belly.
Which, in a very long fashion, brings me to the real reason we’re here today: super slow cooked pork belly. It is, in effect, sous-vide done in the steam oven, but it’s far simpler than actual sous-vide. The hardest part is remembering to fill the water tank in your oven once or twice during the cooking time (if you have a plumbed oven, it’s even easier). What you’ll get at the end of your patient wait is the best textured meat I think I’ve ever cooked. Meltingly soft yet still holding shape, with a crisped brown exterior thanks to a go in a hot frypan just before serving.
It’s a good dish for entertaining because you need to cook the pork then chill overnight so you can slice it nicely. That means when it’s time to serve, you just throw together the salad and give the pork a quick sear.
Really you could use the finished pork for anything you like. It would be amazing sliced into thick pieces, pan fried and topping a dish of lentils, beetroot and toasted nuts. Or stuffed into a baguette with pate, pickled vegetables, chilli and mayo and turned into (inauthentic) banh mi. As a pizza topping. In a bowl of ramen. On toast with poached eggs and hollandaise. Or no hollandaise. You get my drift…
For this dish, I’ve done a riff on something Nigel Slater posted on Instagram quite a while ago. There was no recipe, just a list of flavours, and oh, I was so inspired by it (as I so often am by Mr Slater's food). Off I went to create something similar. It was amazing and I fully intended to write about it straightaway. Very soon afterwards, I discovered I was pregnant and the thought of pretty much anything food-wise made me ill. For months. So here we are, over a year later and I’ve finally come back to it. I think it was worth the wait, hopefully you will too.
Slow cooked steam oven pork belly with watermelon salad
Serves 4 as a light meal.
You can easily double the pork quantity if you want leftovers to use for one of the above suggestions. The cooking time remains the same.
If your watermelon isn’t particularly sweet you might find you want a teaspoon or two of sugar in the dressing. I haven’t specified it here as we’ve never needed it, but you can adjust to taste.
When it comes to bagging the meat, I suggest you double bag so it doesn’t leak. I used two ‘sandwich size’ zip-lock/resealable plastic bags for this sized piece of pork. I don’t think it would be a big deal if it did leak a bit, but I was trying to seal everything really well to approximate sous vide/bag cooking without the hassle of having to use a vacuum sealer, which most of us don’t have at home.
Lastly, I have made this dish a few times now and have tested the pork both at 70⁰C for 15 hours and 75⁰C for 12 hours. The 70⁰C version is the winner in terms of texture, but only barely – I’ve written the recipe for that but if 15 hours just seems way too long to wait for anything, by all means try the 12 hour option. Beware, if you do it overnight you might find your oven’s water tank runs out in the middle of the night, so I would be a bit careful with that. My 1 litre tank lasted a full 8 hours as long as I didn’t open the oven door during that time (there’s no need to), I’m just giving warning that yours may be different!
Ingredients for the pork belly (make this a day ahead)
1kg (2lb) piece boneless pork belly, skin on (you’ll remove the skin at the end but I found it helped keep the meat’s shape while cooking)
2 tbs fish sauce
1 tbs Sriracha (hot chilli sauce)
2 tbs brown sugar
A thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
Juice of 1 lime
Ingredients for the watermelon salad & dressing
¼ large watermelon, rind removed and cut into bite sized chunks
¼ cup (60ml) fish sauce
1 tbs rice wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime (maybe 2 if they aren’t very large)
1 large bunch watercress, large stems removed (if you can’t get any another soft leafy green will do, but it does lend a great peppery kick to the dish)
1 bunch mint, leaves picked
1 bunch coriander, leaves picked
To make the pork, mix everything except the pork together in a small dish. Place the pork into a resealable bag, add the sauce/marinade and close the bag, squeezing out as much air as you possibly can without squeezing the liquid out. If you want to, put this in another bag as well to prevent leaks if the first one splits. Massage the marinade around inside the bag so it gets onto all of the meat’s surface.
Put your bagged meat into an oven tray, put it in the oven and set your temperature to 70⁰C (steam only). Set the timer for 15 hours, and if your oven isn’t plumbed make sure you check the water level of your tank occasionally, especially if you’re planning to go out (or to sleep!).
When the cooking time is up, put the whole tray, bag and all, into the fridge to chill overnight (you can skip the overnight part but your meat will be much easier to cut into nice clean slices if it’s cold).
To make the salad, mix the fish sauce, lime juice and rice vinegar, then pour it over the watermelon and set aside to macerate while you get the rest ready.
Arrange your watercress and herbs on a serving platter.
Preheat a dry frypan over medium high heat. Remove ginger slices from pork and discard, then slice off pork skin and discard. Cut the meat into large lardons (see picture for size reference) and fry in batches on both sides to brown and heat through. The fat will render out as you do this so you don’t need to add any extra oil. Lift the pieces out when they’re done, and make sure you don’t throw away the fat that’s left behind as it’s part of your dressing!
To assemble, scatter the melon and any dressing over the leaves, then top with the hot pork and drizzle the fat from the pan over the whole platter. Serve immediately.
But I don’t have a steam/combi-steam oven! The salad part is easy, the pork not so much. If you have a sous vide machine, lucky you, use it here. Otherwise a slow oven-roasted pork belly will achieve similar flavours and texture, but I’d roast and serve it as larger pieces with the salad on the side. Trying to slice hot slow-cooked meat into neat little pieces is a huge pain.