Here's the recipe for Crispy Pork and Watermelon Salad, from Zakary Pelaccio's "Eat With Your Hands" (Ecco, 362 pages, $39.99), featured in today's Buffalo News.
The elements are Southeast Asian—kaffir lime leaf and Thai basil, palm sugar and lime, the incredibly gratifying combo of fruit and fat—but you’d never find anything quite like this in that part of the world. Instead, it’s a great example of American cuisine: the flavors of somewhere else converging with local ingredients to make a new, delicious reality. I thought of it while cooking one summer on Long Island, where I was surrounded by watermelon. Pickled watermelon rind, with its tart crunch, is an awesome foil for the sweet red flesh and the crisp-edged chunks of almost-molten belly. It has become a signature dish at Fatty Crab. Oh, and giving it the salad moniker is misleading—at least if you think of salads as light.
SERVES 4 TO 6
LISTEN Coltrane, Blue Train—the whole album; it never gets old. DRINK Selbach-Oster Riesling Auslese 2005.
FOR THE WATERMELON SALAD
2 cups rice vinegar
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 fresh Thai bird chilies, thinly sliced
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1½ ounces palm sugar (1 round gula jawa) or 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
One 5-pound watermelon
FOR THE DRESSING
3 ounces palm sugar (2 rounds gula jawa) or ¼ cup light brown sugar
1 cup rice vinegar
½ cup fresh lime juice
4 inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
6 fresh cilantro roots with 1 inch of stems, rinsed, scraped, and rinsed again, or 24 cilantro stems
2 garlic cloves, chopped
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
FOR THE PORK
About 3 cups rendered leaf lard (see page 196) or neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola
2 pounds Braised Pork Belly (page 198), cut into 1-inch chunks while still cold (see Note on page 204)
1 cup all-purpose flour
TO FINISH THE DISH
1 cup fresh Vietnamese mint (rou ram) leaves
1 cup fresh Thai basil leaves
3 scallions, sliced
¼ cup sesame seeds
MAKE THE WATERMELON SALAD
1. Combine everything for the salad except the watermelon in a small saucepan. Add 1 cup water, bring the liquid to a boil over medium heat, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.
2. Meanwhile, cut the rind from the watermelon flesh, reserving both the rind and the flesh. Use a sharp knife to pare away the outer, darker green skin, leaving the inner, whiter fleshy rind. Discard the darker green peel. Cut the white rind into ¼-inch cubes and put them in a bowl. Strain the seasoned rice vinegar liquid over the diced rind. Let the mixture cool, then chill for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.
3. Cut the flesh of the watermelon into 1-inch pieces (discarding whatever seeds you can). Chill it until you’re ready to use it.
MAKE THE DRESSING
Roughly crush the palm sugar using a mortar and pestle or a plastic bag and a rolling pin. Pulse the sugar with the vinegar, lime juice, ginger, cilantro roots, garlic, and salt in a food processor until smooth and well combined.
FRY THE PORK
1. In a large, straight-sided sauté pan or wok, heat 3 inches of lard to 375°F (measured on a deep-frying thermometer).
2. Toss the cubed pork belly in the flour and shake off any excess. Working in batches, fry the pork belly until very crisp and a deep golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer the pork with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined tray to drain and season with salt. Return the fat to 375°F between batches.
FINISH THE SALAD
Tear the mint and basil leaves. In a mixing bowl, toss the pickled watermelon rind and the chilled watermelon flesh with the sliced scallions, mint, and basil. Add just enough dressing to coat. Divide the pork among the plates. Top with the salad and garnish each dish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Serve immediately.