Valentine’s Day Dining at Home: Chef Nina Compton’s Spice-Crusted Pork Belly

The New Orleans restaurateur shares her recipe for peppery pork, served with celery root and apples prepared two ways. Pair it with one of 10 fresh Syrahs

Valentine’s Day Dining at Home: Chef Nina Compton’s Spice-Crusted Pork Belly
Chef Nina Compton's cuisine at Compère Lapin restaurant, in New Orleans' Old No. 77 Hotel, takes cues from Caribbean and Creole cultures. (Denny Culbert)
Feb 5, 2021

St. Lucia–born chef Nina Compton spent her early career in the U.S. working for some seriously big names, landing a job at Daniel in New York City right after culinary school, followed by stints with chefs Norman Van Aken and Scott Conant in Miami.

So when she finally settled in New Orleans to open her own spot in 2015, Compère Lapin in the Warehouse District’s Old No. 77 Hotel, she was eager to showcase her distinct culinary style. “It’s really special to me,” Compton says of the restaurant. “It’s my stamp, it’s nobody else’s influence, it’s all things that I enjoy.”

Six years since its opening, Compère Lapin endures as a top destination in a city saturated with dining options. The space is laid-back and inviting, and the menu takes inspiration from Compton’s Caribbean background and her new home of New Orleans, a city she was drawn to while competing in Bravo’s Top Chef: New Orleans. “On every corner in New Orleans, there is music and there’s food and there’s energy, and I wanted to be a part of that,” she recalls.

Compton followed Compère Lapin’s success with the opening of Bywater American Bistro in 2018, just around the bend from the French Quarter. Both restaurants feature Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning wine lists, and both are open in compliance with local pandemic restrictions, including a 50 percent capacity cap. To celebrate Black History Month, Compère Lapin is in the midst of a February dinner series highlighting local Black chefs, with a different guest collaborating with Compton every Thursday on a multicourse menu, priced at $60 per person.

Interior dining room with view of the open kitchen at Bywater American Bistro
Bywater American Bistro has an Award of Excellence–winning wine list that Compton fondly describes as "quirky." (Josh Brasted)

For spots with top-notch food and wine, Compton’s restaurants are remarkably grounded. “When we go to restaurants, we want to feel comfortable,” Compton says. “That was really the intent of both restaurants: To make people feel welcome, and to develop relationships with those people.”

Compton’s sense of hospitality traces back to her childhood in St. Lucia, when she discovered just how rewarding cooking could be. For a while it was just a hobby, fostered by her mother and grandmother, but her “lightbulb moment” came during one particular dinner when she was about 16 years old. “Seeing everyone’s reaction and how much joy they had when they took each bite, for me that always stuck,” Compton says. “And I said, ‘If I can give my family joy, I can give other people joy as well.’”

A thoughtful meal prepared with love and served with a good bottle of wine is all you need for an at-home Valentine’s Day that rivals—and maybe even surpasses—a night out on the town. To help make this year’s celebration feel special, Compton shares her recipe for spice-crusted pork belly with roasted apples and a celery root–apple puree. The dish is a mainstay on the menu at Bywater (with seasonally rotating sides like brussels sprouts and squash in the winter or tomatoes and okra in the summer), but it’s reasonably simple to recreate at home.

After marinating in a brine, the pork is rubbed in a mixture that Compton was introduced to during her time at Conant’s Scarpetta. “It’s similar to a pancetta spice, so it has these deep, dark, rich spices—juniper, black pepper, a little bit of thyme—that crust the pork belly, which is a really rich and fatty cut of meat,” she says, adding that the spice mix is versatile enough to use on pretty much anything. “You can use it on chicken, you can use it on beef ... it is very juniper-heavy and black pepper–heavy, so I think any dark meat, something like venison, would [also] be really good.”

Carrots and celery root join the pork belly for the last 20 minutes of roasting until the meat is fork-tender, then later become a sweet-and-savory, vinegar-spiked side dish with roasted apples. Apples and celery root also star in a creamy puree that can be made in advance and lasts up to five days in a refrigerated, airtight container.

The spice rub can be stored even longer, up to a month in the pantry. So while Compton says the recipe can be scaled down to two servings with a smaller piece of pork belly, or a different cut like pork chops, couples might still want to go with the full yield. In addition to the bonus of having seconds and leftovers, that also means more of the pork fat that renders out during roasting, which Compton highly recommends saving for later. This will also last for a month in an airtight container in the fridge. “I use that to scramble my eggs, toast my bread for breakfast, roast my vegetables,” she says. “It’s really tasty.”

To complete the meal, Bywater’s general manager and sommelier Rosie Jean Adams pulls Les Foulards Rouges Octobre 2020, a Nouveau-style Syrah from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region that’s made with carbonic maceration and released right after harvest. “The slight tannic presence works well with the fatty nature of pork belly, but its light nature doesn't take over the subtlety of the juniper note in the dish,” Adams says. “It is a fruit-forward, fresh-drinking red that should be enjoyed with a slight chill on it.” Below, Wine Spectator suggests nine juicy Syrahs with light tannins to complement the peppery pork and spice up a romantic evening. Because as Compton says, “It’s not just about the food; it’s about the food and wine that become a happy marriage together.”


Pork Belly with Juniper, Roasted Apples and Celery Root–Apple Puree

Sliced pork belly with roasted apples on top of a puree
At Compton's restaurant, the sides for the pork belly dish change with the seasons. The variation pictured here is topped with crispy pork skins and micro greens, and served with a wild-rice blend. (Gabrielle Geiselman Photography)

Ingredients

For the brine:

  • 5 ounces (about 8 tablespoons) kosher salt
  • 1 ounce (2 1/4 tablespoons) sugar
  • 20 ounces (2 1/2 cups) hot water
  • 10 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups) ice

For the pork belly

  • 2 pounds pork belly, skin removed
  • 2 tablespoons dried juniper berries
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 2 carrots, peeled, large dice
  • 1 celery root, large dice
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1 bunch rosemary

For the celery root–and-apple puree:

  • 1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound celery root, peeled, rough chop
  • 1/2 pound Granny Smith apples, peeled, rough chop
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled, julienne
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • 4 cups heavy cream

For the roasted apples:

  • 4 Fuji apples, peeled, cored and large dice
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt
  • Fresh-cracked black pepper
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • Celery leaf, for garnish

Preparation

For the brined pork belly:

1. Add the salt and sugar to a large pot. Pour in the hot water and stir to dissolve. Add the ice and let the brine cool to room temperature. Place the pork belly in the pot, cover and transfer to the fridge to marinate for 6 to 8 hours.

2. While the pork belly is marinating, create the spice rub: Toast juniper berries and black peppercorns in a small pan over low heat for 8 minutes, stirring constantly, or on a sheet tray in the oven at 300° F for 12 minutes. Grind in a spice grinder with garlic and thyme leaves, then transfer to a container and fold in brown sugar.

3. After pork belly has marinated, transfer to a wire rack set over a tray to drain for a few minutes. Separately, season diced carrots and celery root with olive oil and salt. Put aside.

4. Rub spice mix on the fat cap of the pork belly and place the pork on a rack in a roasting pan with the thyme and rosemary bunches. Roast in the oven at 300° F until the pork is tender, about 2 1/2 hours, using a spoon to baste the pork belly and herb bunches with the rendered pork fat and juices every 30 minutes. For the last 20 minutes of cooking, add the diced carrots and celery root into the pan to finish with the pork belly. They should be firm but tender. Remove from the oven and set aside carrots and celery root.

For the celery root–and-apple puree:

1. In a large pot with olive oil over medium heat, sweat the chopped celery root, apples and onion with salt. Stir until they are translucent, 6 to 8 minutes.

2. Add cream and reduce until a thick consistency is achieved and the mixture has reduced by approximately half, about 10 minutes. Puree in a blender, then pass through a strainer.

For the roasted apples:

1. Get your favorite cast-iron pan smoking hot and add apples into the dry pan. They will begin to smoke and burn; rotate them to caramelize on all sides. After three minutes, add the butter, which should begin to brown quickly, season with salt and fresh-cracked black pepper and add the rosemary sprigs in the bottom of the pan. Make sure they are in the butter, which will allow the rosemary to perfume the butter and season the apples.

2. Add the diced carrots and celery root that roasted with the pork, toss to combine and finish with the Sherry vinegar and balsamic vinegar, then remove from the heat.

To serve:

If desired, add puree to a pot and reheat. Slice the pork into 1/4 inch–thick slices. On each plate, place a scoop of the puree and top with apple-and-vegetable mix, then place sliced pork on top of that. Garnish with celery leaf. Serves 4.


9 Fresh, Fruity and Lightly Tannic Syrahs

Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.

EMMANUEL DARNAUD

Crozes-Hermitage Mise en Bouche 2018

Score: 91 | $35

WS review: Very solid and direct, with a pretty beam of cassis and boysenberry wrapped together while light fruitcake and violet accents run along the edges. Drink now through 2025. 3,300 cases made. From France.—James Molesworth


EQUIS

Crozes-Hermitage Equinoxe 2018

Score: 91 | $23

WS review: Very fresh, with ebullient black cherry and plum purée flavors streaking through, lined with light anise and violet notes and backed by mouthwatering acidity on the finish. Drink now through 2023. 2,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.


OGIER

Crozes-Hermitage Les Paillanches 2017

Score: 91 | $34

WS review:Lovely violet, cassis and plum flavors are streaked with a light anise note on the finish. A subtle graphite edge adds support. Drink now through 2024. 3,333 cases made. From France.—J.M.


ÀNIMA NEGRA

Vi de la Terra de Mallorca ÀN/2 2017

Score: 90 | $30

WS review: This energetic red delivers a mix of fruity and savory flavors, featuring bright cherry and berry notes that mingle with black olive, tar and mineral elements. Light tannins and crisp acidity keep this focused. Supple, but shows good density. Balanced and lively. Drink now through 2027. 15,000 cases made. From Spain.—Thomas Matthews


CHÂTEAU L’ERMITAGE

Costières de Nîmes Ste.-Cécile 2017

Score: 90 | $25

WS review: Fresh and pure, featuring a beam of cassis and damson plum fruit, gilded by light mineral, sanguine and floral notes. A subtle juicy edge lets the finish linger. Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. Drink now through 2022. 2,500 cases made. From France.—J.M.


BOOMTOWN

Syrah Columbia Valley 2018

Score: 89 | $19

WS review: This bursts with fruit, featuring a potent core of lively blackberry jam, tarragon and smoked pepper flavors. Finishes with a slight grip of tannins. Drink now through 2026. 4,795 cases made. From Washington.—Tim Fish


DE MORGENZON

Syrah Stellenbosch DMZ 2017

Score: 89 | $18

WS review: This shows an attractive licorice snap note that lingers in the background of cassis, black cherry and blueberry notes. It is smooth and silky, with just a slight crunch from the ripe tannins. Drink now. 2,250 cases made. From South Africa.—Aleks Zecevic


JEAN-LUC COLOMBO

Crozes-Hermitage Les Fées Brunes 2018

Score: 89 | $29

WS review: A fresh, forward style, featuring a breezy wave of cherry and red currant fruit, lined with light white pepper and violet notes. Presents an easy feel through the silky finish. Drink now through 2021. 5,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.


CHÂTEAU GIGOGNAN

Côtes du Rhône 2018

Score: 88 | $19

WS review: Juicy and fresh, with cherry and damson plum notes leading the way, gilded with light floral and savory hints. A pure, unadorned style. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Drink now. 5,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.


Recipes Cooking Holidays / Celebrations Valentine's Day

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