Pork belly kebabs
One of the most well-loved tapas throughout Spain is pincho moruno, or Moorish kebab.
Moorish influence remains as evident in Spanish cookery as the impact of the age of exploration and the conquest of the New World. The Moorish introduction of citrus, saffron, cumin and rice to Spain and the introduction from Mexico of peppers, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and corn fundamentally shaped the flavors and preparations we instinctively associate with Spanish cookery and that differentiates it from the cuisine of anywhere else.
One of the most ubiquitous and well-loved tapas menu items at tascas throughout Spain, pincho moruno, or Moorish kebab, might be the dish in which the Moorish and Mexican influences on Spanish cuisine are best demonstrated. Traditionally made with chunks of marinated pork grilled over coals it persists as an echo of the North African lamb brochette, adjusted to ignore halal and accommodate the Iberian obsession with pork. The hearty seasoning of cumin and hot or sweet pimenton, garlic and thyme pairs two of the most emblematic spices of the Moors and of Mexico.
In many parts of Castilla la Mancha and Extremadura, if you order pincho moruno in a tapas bar, you’ll be asked “sin o’ con?” (with or without), referring to the level of spiciness you’d like in your kebabs. A typical order would be “dos sin, tres con” (two mild, three spicy), the latter having been marinated in spicy paprika. In yet another example of Mexican influence on the most Spanish of things, it was in the monasteries around the Extremaduran town of La Vera where the first peppers brought from the New World were planted. Indeed, pimenton de la Vera remains the gold standard among Spanish pimentons.
Dryness is a frequent problem with grilled pork, even if it has been afforded a lengthy bath in an olive oil based marinade. Grilled lamb doesn’t usually have this problem due to its higher fat content, but the flare-ups that dripping grease provokes can give the meat an acrid, bitter taste. Seeking to mitigate both these problems, we traded the typical pork shoulder chunks for strips of luscious pork belly, and the grill for a ridged griddle pan. We also used soaked bamboo skewers instead of metal ones to add even more moisture to the equation. The result: moist, delicious meat with the crispy edges synonymous with grilled food but without the burnt flavor.
Pincho Moruno (Moorish Kebabs)
serves 2 as a main, 4 as a tapa
1-1-1/2 lbs. (about 3/4 kilo) fresh pork belly, cut into slim slices
6-10 cloves garlic, chopped
1 healthy teaspoon ground cumin
1 heaped teaspoon sweet or hot Spanish pimenton
1/2 teaspoon dry thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
a couple of good jiggers of olive oil to coat
(optional) a splash or more of Spanish sherry vinegar
Note: you’ll also need about 10 pre-soaked bamboo skewers.
Heat a griddle pan or grill to medium high, not screaming hot as pork belly will burn.
Brush off most of the garlic from the meat and load skewers so they’re tightly packed.
Cook, turning every couple of minutes, until skewers are brown and crispy on all sides, 8-10 minutes total per skewer.
Allow meat to rest for up to five minutes, as it will set and be easier to get off the skewers.
Serve with patatas bravas or other typical tapas.
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