Roasted Pork Belly by Convection Oven: Home cooked Dinner Party in London, England
On our last night in London, our friends cooked up the most amazing meal. We arrived at his flat famished from a two hour Eurostar train ride from Paris and were ready to feast. I even started nibbling as he was setting up the antipasto platter, I was that hungry. Like any traditional Italian feast (one of our dinner hosts is Italian), an antipasto platter, also known as the antipasto misto is the first dish served. The platter consists of cheeses and cold cuts.
Our antipasto platter was a spread of two of my favourite foods and two new items I hadn’t tried before. Our friends are big on presentation so their dishes were as gorgeous as they were scrumptious. In the center of the antipasto platter were little cups spilling full of fontina cheese (one of my faves) cut into strips, the longer strips softly draped over the rims of the cups. It was both a creative and practical way to serve the cheese, making it easy to grab and nibble. I’ve always loved the creamy texture of fontina and the mild flavour makes it a great appetizer.
The meats on the platter included one of my all-time favourites, prosciutto di Parma. I had been craving it ever since we left Canada so I was thrilled to see endless ribbons of prosciutto lining more than half the antipasto platter. The prosciutto was delicious, silky in texture and not as salty as it is back home but it was still a great match with the mild and creamy fontina cheese.
Also on the platter was some sliced Salchichon iberico, a Spanish sausage, made from Iberian pork jowl and pancetta with salt and spices. The Salchichon iberico was much stronger in taste than the prosciutto, it was salty and nutty in flavour and the texture was rougher and more course than that of the delicate prosciutto. Boy, were these little slices addictive though. I almost ate them all before the other dinner guests arrived.
Perched on the edge of the antipasto platter was a luscious block of Taleggio cheese, still encased in its washed rine, the flesh of the cheese was not as brilliantly yellow as the fontina strips but my, was the smell ever pungent. You know what they say about cheeses, the smellier they are, the tastier, and it’s true. Firmer in texture than the soft fontina, the Taleggio had a sharp flavour and a tangy aftertaste. It really stood up to the salty Salchichon iberico but also went wonderfully with the homey, rustic whole wheat bread that was served before the salad course. There’s just something about European bread, it’s sturdy and substantial, it pairs perfectly with strong cheeses and plays pivotal roles in fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel.
As the homemade croutons were being stylistically arranged in a martini glass (told you our friend has a flair for presentation!), we dimmed the lights and put on some Adele, the dinner party was getting underway!
The salad course was inspired by our visit to Gordon Ramsey’s Chelsea restaurant, Foxtrot Oscar. The dramatically colourful salad consisted of roasted sweet potato, butternut squash, beetroot, crumbled goat’s cheese and endive with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. The colours were absolutely gorgeous, the blood red beetroot glistening beside the bright orange cubes of butternut squash and the pale yellow and white of the endive spear finished off the dish. The flavours more than lived up to the appearance, the butternut squash were soft and perfectly caramelized, sweet, rich and nutty, drawing out the deep sweetness in the beetroot. The soft textures in the butternut squash and beetroot contrasted with the fresh crunch of the endive and the creaminess of the moist goat’s cheese. The extra virgin olive oil tied all the flavours together.
I topped off my salad with a ribbon of prosciutto and a fontina cheese strip. I told you I love prosciutto!
Next up was the apple parsnip soup which was equally gorgeous and amazingly fragrant. The soup was sprinkled with fresh parsley, the homemade croutons and drizzled with Italian homegrown extra virgin olive oil. The olive oil was made from olives grown by one of our friends’ father in Italy and just a drizzle of it gave the soup an incredible flavour dimension. The soup was lighter than it looked, I was expecting a heavy, creamy texture but the subtle fruity sweetness of the apples and mild parsnip flavours gave the soup a certain fresh lightless. It was the perfect segue into the main course, enough to leave my taste buds wanting more, but not enough to fill me up.
The first entree was grilled fresh herring with grilled zucchini, marinated tomatoes and tartar sauce. I loved that the skin was crispy but the herring meat inside was moist and succulent. The sweet, juicy tomatoes were a great compliment and the grilled zucchini added a delicious crunchy texture to the dish.
The next entree was my absolute favourite course of the whole meal, the roasted pork belly with sauteed savoy cabbage, cumin spiced carrots, celeriac remoulad and champs. Nobody loves pork belly more than I do. I had spent the entire meal up to this point, anticipating this dish since we had spent the entire time smelling the rich aroma of pork belly roasting away in the convection oven beside the dinner table. Yes, you read that right, this pork belly was roasted inside a convection oven. I didn’t even think that was possible.
One of our dinner hosts left the table every so often to faithfully baste the pork belly. Yes, I was drooling every time he opened the oven door. The smells wafting out were incredible. And the careful execution and plating of this dish just made it taste that much better, not that it needed much help, I was won over upon my first bite.
The test of any good roasted pork belly is that crispy, crunchy skin, and the skin on this pork belly was amazingly crispy. In contrast, the pork belly meat was so moist and tender, I barely needed my knife to cut through it. It was a great cut of meat too, good ratio of fat to lean meat. The flavours were delicious, salty and rich.
The sides were great compliments to the pork belly, adding some greenery to the plate, the cabbage was mild in flavour. The carrots added a crunchy texture, as did the celeriac. And what are champs? We learned that night that champs are what Brits call mashed potatoes, its origins are in Ireland and it’s just mashed potatoes with spring onions. The name, ‘champs,’ refers to the resilience of the Irish people.
Dessert was just as interesting as the main courses. First up was vanilla ice cream with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and cracked sea salt with a side of marinated bananas and strawberries. The sea salt and sweet ice cream were great flavour contrasts. The salt really enhanced the cool sweetness of the ice cream, which was only kicked up a notch by the sweetness in the bright red and ripe strawberries.
For dessert, we also whipped out a cider that we brought back from our trip to Le Havre. Well, we thought this bottle was cider. Admittedly, we don’t speak very good French and when we visited our family in Le Havre, we spent most of the trip speaking Chinese as they don’t speak English. So something must have gotten lost in the translation when we purchased this bottle because what we thought was cider (and really Le Pere Jules translates to pear cider) turned out to be apple brandy with a very high alcohol content. Needless to say that we were pretty giddy for the rest of the evening.
At the end of the meal, our hosts left us alone for 10 minutes only to return with a magnificent homemade lemon cheesecake: a surprise birthday cake for one of the dinner guests! It was a sweet gesture and our dinner guest was surprised and touched.
The lemon cheesecake was delicious! The sweet, tart and tangy zing of lemon flavour was exactly what we needed after a big meal. And the texture of the cheesecake was seductively dense, just the way I like it, it beats Gordon Ramsey’s no-bake cheesecake at Foxtrot Oscar any day. Paired with a scoop of homemade coffee gelato, which was thick, rich and wonderfully heavy on the coffee flavour, this dessert was the perfect sweet ending to a very memorable dinner.