Oh my goodness I created a simple Southern fusion salad today, tossing fresh hot cracklin’s with spicy radish-sprout kimchi and perching it atop of a bed of baby spinach leaves lightly dressed with sesame oil and rice wine vinegar. It’s a play on a spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, where instead of ketchup and bacon fat wilting the greens, it’s fresh-from-the-fat pork belly with skin and crunchy daikon sprouts given the kimchi treatment.
I often cook inspired by my travels, and this dish is part Eunice, Louisiana, where I had my first revelatory taste of cracklin, and part Louisville, Kentucky, where I learned from the master, Chef Edward Lee, about how to stay rooted in Southern traditions while mixing ingredients from other parts of the world.
Lee owns a handful of restaurants that feature Southern fusion foods, including Milkwood, where Lee’s Brooklyn-Korean roots are what’s for dinner.
When I was in Eunice, LA on a Southern Food Road Tour, I had my first taste of cracklin’s at the local Superette, a part-butcher part-grocery store. I went there on the recommendation of Dwight Landreneau, who was kind enough to tour me around Riceland Crawfish, and even took me out on a crawfish boat.
Dwight said to be sure to try the boudin (an iconic LA liver-and-rice dressing served in a sausage casing) and the cracklins, fried salty fatty niblets of pork belly with the skin attached. (They make a cracking sound in the hot fat when they’re ready to come out!)
Recipe: Cracklin’ and Radish Kimchi Salad
1 Pound of skin-on pork belly, cut into rectangles 3/4 inch by 3-4 inch that have some fat, some skin and some meat.
1/8 cup of a spice mix of your choosing. (I used 1 tsp each: garlic powder, onion powder, salt and smoked paprika and 1 TB of light brown sugar.)
1 lb of lard, (Or ‘manteca’ in Chicago’s Mexican groceries)
1/4 pound of radish-sprout kimchi (or whatever kimchi you have!)
1/2 pound of baby greens (spinach leaves is what I used)
Radish sprouts to garnish
Dressing for Salad:
2 TB each Sesame Oil and Rice wine vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste
Use a deep and heavy pot to make your cracklins. Melt your lard on low heat until around 225-degrees F and then put the pork belly cubes in to render on this lower heat, stirring frequently, for up to an hour. When you’re ready, crank the heat to 375 to 400 degrees and fry until you start hearing the “cracklin'” sound that gave these delightful nuggets of crispy pork their name. Some people take the cracklins out, drain them and then only put them back in after the oil is at the higher temperature but it’s my experience this is a waste of effort (and paper towels).
When they are the perfect dark-brown-but-not-too-dark, take them out of the oil with a spider or slotted spoon and drain them. This is the right time to sprinkle the cracklins generously with your seasoning blend.
Dress the spinach leaves with the sesame oil, rice wine vinegar salt and pepper and then mound on the plate. In a separate bowl, mix the hot cracklins and kimchi so the cracklings get smeared with that gochujang dressing. Mound on top of spinach piles — you can get six smaller salads or four larger salads that could be paired with a soup as an entree. Top with fresh radish sprouts and serve.
Let me know if you try it and what you think!