Grilled Liempo

Grilled Liempo

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  1. This succulent, mouthwatering delicacy is popular all over the Philippines, and if I have my way it will be equally popular in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe… all over the world. Yes, my goal is world domination through liempo. Once you taste it, you’ll surrender; take my word for it.



     Some of the Caucasian persuasion have probably never heard of banana catsup. You will find it in any Filipino store, and it may be available in other Asian or Caribbean markets as well. And no, it isn’t banana yellow, but red like tomato catsup and even tastes similar, only sweeter (those familiar with Pinoy foods understand that Filipinos like their meat anywhere from slightly- to sickeningly-sweet; this recipe produces only a slight sweetness that is savory and delicious).



     To do this right, you will need a barbecue grill. To save time, trouble and mess, I usually cook my liempo over our Farberware tabletop grill. This electric grill is a very handy thing to have at home, takes up little space, can be used indoors safely and is reasonably easy to clean (provided you have a large basin in your kitchen sink; you may have to soak the whole thing for an hour or two, as grilling liempo produces a lot of sticky juices that cook onto the grill and don’t come off easily, unless you happen to have a sand-blaster at home. And really, what home is complete without one?).



     However, for the best flavor you need a wood or charcoal grill. Even one of those mostly useless little hibachis works well with liempo if you aren’t cooking too much, though you do have to turn the meat often to keep it from burning.



     But when cooking for more than a few people, you will need a real barbecue. I always use a Weber kettle-style grill, because that is what I have access to these days, but I prefer a barrel-style grill because A) the meat is often higher above the coals, reducing the chance of burning, and B) it’s easy to use indirect cooking methods with this type of grill. Also, it’s easier to cook over a wood fire on a barrel-style grill, and using wood to cook always results in the best flavor.



     Chances are you have a Weber grill like the one I use, so go with charcoal, but at least buy some hickory chips, soak them for an hour in warm water and place them on the coals around the edges before cooking.



    For the best smoky results, find a place that sells quality seasoned gourmet woods and buy a few chunks of hickory, mesquite or oak.  Oak is usually the cheapest and produces a smoky flavor considerably lighter than hickory or mesquite. And if you want the flavor of your meat to be really smoky, find some alder wood. But beware, because alder is a soft wood that burns quickly, so you’ll probably have to replenish what’s on the coals from time to time.

    Some prefer to soak the wood chunks before placing them on the coals, but I never bother to. For one, the water leeches or steams out of the wood and onto some of the coals, extinguishing them. Furthermore, even when soaked the chunks will catch and smolder, and even burn when the lid is off the grill. Liempo cooks quickly, so a single chunk of wood will last long enough, even if dry.



    The one essential ingredient for liempo is the pork belly. Many of you have probably never seen a pork belly, but you’ve eaten it thousands of times in your life, because bacon is pork belly. By now, it’s clear that this is NOT diet food. This is an incredibly delicious dish and you should not deprive yourself, but don’t overdo it, and try not to eat it every day (or every week, or even every month). Pork bellies are used widely in a lot of East Asian dishes, especially in the Philippines—yet you rarely see fat people in the Philippines or anywhere else on that part of the continent. Why? Because they don’t eat it all the time, or to excess. So please my fellow Westerners, use some restraint. Also, be sure you remove the skin before cooking. Many Filipinos leave the skin on, but then you either have to eat it—and it’s rather hard to chew if it isn’t cooked thoroughly until it’s crispy (and to do this you would have to place the meat rather high above the coals, like four feet up, and cook it for at least an hour)—or cut it off of every single piece. Use a long, sharp knife to skin the belly and try not to remove too much of the fat in the process.


    For this you will need (Serves 2-4):

    • 1 pork belly, skin removed, sliced crosswise into inch and a half-wide pieces about 8 inches long


    • 1 cup soy sauce
    • 1/2 cup lemon juice (adjust to taste)
    • 2 tsp ground black pepper
    • 1 head of garlic, crushed (unpeeled, smashed with knife blade)

    For Basting

    • 1/2 bottle banana catsup
    • 2 tsp. sesame oil


    Cooking Procedure:

    1. Mix marinade ingredients in large bowl.  Sample; adjust lemon juice and add salt if needed.  Add pork bellies and marinade overnight.
    2. Start grill with enough coals to cover the entire bottom of the barbecue.
    3. Remove pork bellies from marinade.  Strain remaining marinade into medium bowl, removing garlic pieces, and add banana catsup and sesame oil.  Stir with whisk.
    4. Add a chunk of hickory or other fine smoke wood to the fire (soaked in water or not) if you prefer a smoky flavor in the meat.
    5. Arrange the pork belly strips on the grill with some space between each and, using a long-handled basting brush, coat each strip of pork with marinade.  Flip all strips immediately and baste again.
    6. Cover grill and cook for 2-3 minutes with all vents open wide.  Flip each strip and baste again.  Cover grill and repeat this step once.  Flip the strips one more time and grill for a minute or until thoroughly cooked. 
    7. Remove to a cutting board and cut into bite-sized pieces, slicing across the shorter lengths so that each piece has an equal portion of meat and fat. (You may trim the fat from the pork belly if you must, but do so before marinating and grilling, and don’t trim all of the fat or you will spoil the flavor. Just put your diet on hold for one stinking day, and don’t overindulge.)



     Serve with Filipino Garlic Fried Rice (Easy: press a head of garlic, fry it for about 30 seconds in a large skillet in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, add a couple cups cooked rice and stir fry.  Season with salt and pepper.)

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