There is nothing like using totally authentic ingredients in your cooking and this one comes with a hallmark of quality. The key ingredient is Sichaun pepper. It is not actually pepper, but the dried red-brown berries of a type of ash tree that have a lemony, peppery aroma.
In their raw state look like pink flowerbuds and numb your tongue if you’re daft enough to lick them. But once they’re cooked down they become very soft and fragrant and impart a delicate background heat, though the more you use, the hotter your dish will be.
My pepper comes courtesy of Helena, who works part-time in my local pub. She recently came back from a month-long visit to see her boyfriend in China and was kind enough to remember my request to bring something authentic back with her for me to cook. She didn’t let me down. These peppercorns are a revelation.
I’ve cooked this pork belly in the slow cooker with a simple Sichuan peppercorn and miso paste rub. You don’t need salt as the miso is salty enough. To finish, make an aromatic gravy from the resulting stock and a swirl of honey and serve with spiced apples and potato and leek mash.
1kg pork belly
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
2 tbsp miso paste (I used paste from a miso soup sachet)
1 tbsp honey
For the spiced apple sauce
Knob of butter
2 Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp Chinese 5-Spice powder
1 tsp sugar
Half tsp salt
1. With a sharp knife, score the pork skin and rub the pepper and miso paste deep into the slashes. Fill a slow cooker (or casserole dish) to 2 cm deep with water, then add the pork. If using a slow cooker, cook on LOW for 5-6 hours until the pork is very tender. If using a casserole dish, cook in a 160C/Gas 2 oven for 2-3 hours. Once cooked, remove the pork and transfer to a plate.
2. Drain the stock through a sieve into a bowl or jar and put in the fridge until the fat comes to the surface, which makes it easier to skim off. Once skimmed, transfer to a small saucepan, add the honey and bring to the boil and reduce to desired consistency. If you like your sauce thicker, add 1 tsp cornflour mixed into a paste with a little water.
3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Scrape the soft peppercorns from the surface of the skin and using a sharp knife, remove the skin from the pork belly. Lay the meat and the skin side-by-side on a roasting tin and cook in the oven until the top layer of fat has rendered down and the skin turns to crackling (to be honest, I misjudged mine and left the skin in too long and it became a little, er, charred. Tasted lovely, though, and had a fantastic crunch).
4. Once cooked, carve into thick slices and drizzle with the peppery-honey gravy.
5. To make the spiced apple sauce, add the butter to a saucepan and melt over a low heat. Add the diced apples and a little water and gently cook for around 10 mins until the apples are soft and the water has boiled away. You’re after a chunky sauce. Add the 5-Spice powder and cinnamon stick and stir through. Cook for a further 5 mins. YOu can do this ahead of time and re-heat when you’re ready.
6. Serve the lot with potato and leek mash.