Lunatics. That’s one word to describe an office lunch for some 14 people with 8 platters piled high with some 6-7 kilos of chopped pork liempo. We had three varieties of commercially available liempo from the streets of Cebu City, along with five homemade versions of liempo. Lots of different vinegar dipping sauces/concoctions and white rice. No vegetables or other distractions. Just pork, pork, pork and rice. The word gluttons came to mind too, but nothing went to waste at all…
First, a trip to the grocery. We were close to the Ayala Mall in Cebu, so I spoke with the butcher at the Rustan’s supermarket meat counter, and he went back into the chiller/freezer and emerged with a large piece equivalent to half a pig’s belly. This piece was roughly 4-5 kilos total. The butcher trimmed some of the edges a bit, and cut it into 4 smaller pieces, at roughly 900-1100+ grams each. We also bought a 1.3 kilo piece with ribs/bones attached. Boneless pork liempo was PHP195 a kilo. The liempo with ribs/bones was PHP190 per kilo.
A photo of the cross-section shows the nice layers of fat on these grocery purchased pieces of pork belly. I like the Rustan’s meat counter in Cebu (though Metro is a good alternative) because it seems very clean compared to other meat sources. And their chiller/freezer is just behind the counters.
Next, I marinated two pieces of pork belly in a salty brine in stainless steel pans. We didn’t have much time, so I just used cool water with several tablespoons of kosher salt and whole peppercorns and bay leaves. This is definitely a shortcut brine. The pork soaked here for some 80-90 minutes only. You could go an hour or two longer, but make sure you keep the meat in the fridge.
Drain off the brine, and pat the pork with paper towels to dry the surface areas. With a sharp knife, I cut between one of the layers of fat and the meat, and pried open and widened a cavity with my fingers.
We filled the cavity with a mixture of aromatics, herbs and spices…
…or some other seemingly unusual ingredients
We crafted a makeshift “spit” using a thin bamboo pole, with long metal barbecue skewers and twine so we could approximate the “rostisserie” style cooking method of street side vendors. Five pieces were on one bamboo pole, but I was worried that slightly smaller pieces of pork would cook faster than the largest piece on the spit…
Over hot coals, in our lechon pit, the five pieces of liempo were rotated by hand by one of our lechoneros, and he kept at it for roughly 1 hour.
We pulled the bamboo pole off of the heat and plunged an instant read thermometer into a medium sized piece of pork and it registered about 158F.
We put the pole back on the flames for three more minutes, and took the temperature of the smallest piece and it was at roughly 168F so we stopped cooking at that point and the bamboo pole was taken into the kitchen and allowed to rest for a few minutes before we removed the pieces of liempo onto the chopped board.
The five pieces of liempo, from left to right (5), (4), (3), (2) and (1) are described below.
(1) Sinigang na Sampalok Liempo a la Marketman – Cut slits in two or three sections of the pork belly. Pour half a small packet of instant sinigang mix into the cavities along with some finely minced lemongrass, salt and pepper. Shocking, you’re thinking, MM uses instant mix…but stick with me or try it before you diss it. The sinigang mix will have some msg as one of the ingredients unless you know of one without it. This was the shortcut version. You can also make a paste of boiled and mashed unripe tamarind, along with chopped lemongrass, salt and pepper if you want to do it from scratch. Or try a bottled Thai tamarind paste that is tart and sweet at the same time. I stuck in a whole lemongrass “bulb” for flavor, but mostly to differentiate this from its neighbors.
Dry the external surfaces with paper towels, season liberally with kosher or rock salt (NOT iodized salt). I also put some olive oil on my palm and wiped the outer surfaces before grilling it…
This was the smallest of five pieces of liempo, and it registered the highest internal temperature of nearly 170F. Yet look closely at the photo, the meat has no trace of pink, and it is still very juicy. The instant sinigang mix has melted into the internal juices and the distinct punch of sour sampalok infuses the pork. This is such an incredibly easy shortcut recipe, and I suspect most of your guests would NEVER guess how you did it. The msg to volume of pork is very small, and does not overwhelm. Place quite a bit of chopped lemongrass as well for freshness and additional aroma. The skin of this roasted liempo was very crisp. So you get the picture — juicy pork, a hit of acidic sampalok, crisp skin… YUM. For the minimum amount of effort, I loved the results. It was like having the comfort of sinigang flavor but the sinfulness of pork and the crackling. This recipe was a keeper.
One of the possible scientific explanations for pink pork meat, despite being cooked to the right internal temperature, is a SLOW roasting over low flames. For some reason the myoglobin reacts differently when it is brought up in temperature very slowly. So in a piece like this, roasting for about an hour, a tinge of pink might even be okay, but it doesn’t have it all, and neither did ANY of the other four pieces. Pink interior meat isn’t NECESSARILY a problem, particularly in barbecued meat. But very pink meat and an internal temperature below 160F is very likely an issue for concern. Two other causes for pinkish meat are the addition of saltpeter or salitre or preservatives or nitrates, and possibly poor quality meat to begin with…
The second (2) liempo was another easy yet delicious version. I used the other brined piece of liempo, cut slits between the meat and fat, inserted chopped garlic, onions and several spoons full of bottled bagoong. Season well with salt and pepper, slather with olive oil, and stick on the spit over charcoal fire.
Jackpot! As the piece of meat cooks, the fat and oils in the bagoong mixture heat up and dissolve, and some of it escapes from the cavity, basting the piece with bagoong goodness. The onions and garlic seemed to cook sufficiently with the aid of bagoong fat. The skin was EXCELLENT. And when you bit into a piece of this there was nice flavor hit of bagoong, but again it didn’t overpower the palate. We decided to add some more bagoong to the serving platter, and as the natural juices of the meat (this was a brined piece and it was JUICY) mingled with the fat and bagoong and it made the perfect dipping sauce. This with a side dish of shredded green mango and rice… YUM! This platter was definitely wiped out. If you try this, try and make more than one cavity and add smaller amounts of bagoong all over the piece of liempo to spread the flavor better. This was like binagoongang baboy on a spit. Familiar flavors, new application. The first two versions capitalized on this concept and they worked very well.
The third (3) version was along the lines of a balamban liempo style pork belly photo above). I used one of the brined pieces of pork, to ensure maximum succulence. I also tried to pick the best cut of pork, with several layers of fat. Then into the relatively large single cavity I added chopped onions, garlic, lemongrass and lots of green onions. Salt and pepper. I had a packet of MSG but just couldn’t get myself to add any (and yes, I know it was in the sinigang mix). The pork was then patted dry with paper towels and again slathered with olive oil and seasoned with lots of salt and pepper. This was likewise on the grill for roughly 60 minutes of slow turning.
The results were pretty good. The cross-section indicates how well the piece held up to an hour of slow turning. The layers of fat and meat are distinct, the meat fully cooked with a very slight tinge of pink neat the portion that was saddled up agains the bamboo stick. It was fragrant, but yet still a little bland in some parts of the cut. The stuffing wasn’t as cooked as I would have liked, and that point to maybe having to pre-saute it for the finest results. THe skin was SUPERB, and didn’t need mc prodding to separate the entire piece of skin from the fat directly below it. This was good, but some of the other versions were better, in our opinion. It all depends on what kinds of “enhancements” or flavor points you prefer. Notice how the first three versions have no soy sauce or patis added. They were porky, enhance by salt, but not swimming under a blanket of other flavorings.
The fourth (4) piece of liempo was simple marinated in a mixture of kikkoman soy sauce, smashed garlic, onions, bay leaves, and lots of pepper for roughly 1 hour or so. I did not slit the meat anywhere to insert any aromatics or marinade. This piece turned out wonderfully juicy but a bit bland. The portions near the surface were pretty good, but all in all, this version lacked ooomph. It woudl have benefitted froma bit of marinade injected into fat, particularly between layers of fat and meat. Or maybe a longer time in the marinade. The skin looked utterly brilliant, though a bit on the tanned side, bordering on too dark. The soy adds flavor, but also brings the risk of burning the skin, which leads to a slightly bitter taste that most would find unappealing. My suggestion if if you try this, marinate the meat part, but keep the skin side above the marinade. Then slather the meat side with a bit of oil before roasting.
Finally, the largest piece of liempo, with bones, was also treated to a last minute shower in soy sauce marinade, the leftover marinade from the piece above. But before that, I made several slits into the meat, added chopped onions, lemongrass, garlic, chopped siling labuyo or chilies, and lots of salt and pepper. The last minute wash with soy added flavor and again resulted in a darker skin, but the inserted aromatics are what made this a world apart from the previous version. The hint of spice from the siling labuyo (could have been spicier still) along with the familiar garlic and onions, and the well seasoned surface made this a wonderful thign along with vinegar. The ribs of this piece were consumed FIRST, before even sitting down to lunch! And if there were more, the crew would have been even happier.
So here are some lessons learned and which you may want to apply when you cook liempo on a spit over charcoal at home…
1. Brine your meat for 2-4 hours (don’t go much longer, the meat will get too salty).
2. Make several incisions into the meat rather than just one big cavity for stuffing.
3. Make sure your stuffing will cook through, if not, pre-saute it to help it along.
4. Season with salt and pepper GENEROUSLY.
5. Think of the process of self-basting, if you keep turning, the juices will envelope the liempo, adding flavor and wow factor!
6. Make sure your meat is properly cooked, and use a meat thermometer if you are concerned.
7. Just as really undercooked meat is a turn-off, so is greatly overcooked pork that is dry and unappealing.
8. Serve your pork some 10-15 minutes after it comes off the flames.
9. Do not be afraid to experiment within reason. None of these above were disasters, but some better than others.
10. Try making your dishes at home with real ingredients and avoid preservatives or things like MSG whenever possible.
11. Make sure you start with good pieces of meat, in this case, a 1.4 kilo piece of liempo at say PHP266 would result in a 1 kilo piece of cooked liempo that would easily serve 6 people. Including aromatics, the cost of say PHP300 is some 30% less than buying it. And you get to flavor it the way YOU PREFER.
12. Eat heartily. :)
Time for some seafood or vegetables to cleanse the system… :)