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Tapas from Pluto: Steven Saunders on his time in Spain and recipe for crispy pork belly with Vietnamese potsticker sauce

Every fortnight celebrity chef Steven Saunders, from The Willow Tree in Bourn, shares his stories and a special recipe. This week, he creates tapas ideas that are out of this world.

Steven Saunders at The Willow Tree, Bourn. Picture: Keith Heppell
Steven Saunders at The Willow Tree, Bourn. Picture: Keith Heppell

The word tapas derives from the Spanish word tapas “to cover”.

There are many stories about how they were created, but the most believable one is that the king of Spain in the 13th century would order wine then often be rushed off to a meeting.

The barman would cover the wine glass with a slice of Iberian ham to protect it from flies. When the king returned, he ate the ham and drank the wine. From that day on any small amount of food covering a glass of wine became a tapas!

Today, tapas is one of the most popular food choices. It offers variety, sharing, multiple flavours and it’s a fantastic way of enjoying a sociable meal. I lived in Spain for seven years and owned and ran The Little Geranium in La Cala de Mijas/ Marbella.

The restaurant was an international success, winning many awards including Best Tapas in Andalucía and Best International Restaurant in the whole of Spain.

I remember celebrating the awards with my team early March 2020 and then two weeks later was forced to close due to Covid. We never recovered and while I reopened at the end of 2020 there was still no business in Spain and so I came back home to the UK.

I had a new project in the UK to focus on, but someone dismantled it. It’s a story for another day! I went home to my dad’s house in Suffolk like a lost little boy in total disbelief and confusion.

“Pull yourself together man,” said Dad (he is never very sympathetic). “There is something and someone better for you out there - you should be excited for the change.”

He was right, of course, and that’s when I became a partner at The Willow Tree with Shaina (who I had known for many years) and where I met my lovely girlfriend.

My arrival back in Cambridgeshire had an immediate effect. It is great to see clients I had known from The Little Geranium in Spain and from my previous Pink Geranium in Melbourn. Together as a team we are making The Willow Tree into something very special. I really feel as if I have been welcomed home with arms open wide and that my food has been embraced and celebrated. I feel emotionally thankful.

Steven Saunders at The Willow Tree, Bourn. Picture: Keith Heppell
Steven Saunders at The Willow Tree, Bourn. Picture: Keith Heppell

Tapas was one of the first things that I wanted to do. We now offer a comprehensive tapas menu all day Wednesday and Thursday and for Friday lunch. Friends and clients pack in to have dishes like my crispy calamari lime and chilli, chorizo with olives and honey, prawns pil pil with chipotle and tomato, beef tataki with sesame ponzu, ceviche of scallops with truffle, chicken panko skewers Katsu and my famous crispy duck served in tacos with Asian slaw.

These are difficult times economically speaking so prices range from around £8 per dish to about £12, suiting most. We also have a fantastic tapas tasting menu, offering 10 sharing dishes for £35 per person.

Looking back, I had a Spanish girlfriend who introduced me to tapas, and we ate them regularly in and around Fuengirola and Marbella. It inspired me and I used that inspiration at The Geranium. It gave my menu a structure, then I added a twist.

Having spent some time working in Asia I often lean that way for the twist, introducing flavours like satay, katsu, yuzu, mirin, wasabi and dashi.

I learned Spanish fairly quickly and often when I am pushed in the kitchen I shout out phrases like “vamos todos, rapido por favour” - meaning ‘Come on everyone, quickly please!’ Or I call out the orders in Spanish. The chefs look at me as if I am from Pluto. Many people believe I am from Pluto because of my off the wall ideas and eccentricity!

This week, I have created a special dish for you which is slow-cooked pork belly with a fantastic Vietnamese sauce, served with noodles.

It’s not a typical tapa but it might be in Pluto. Whatever it is, it is out of this world. You could eat it as a small tapa but also as a main dish.

You will never be able to buy anything as brilliant as this dish so give it a try.

In my previous article I encouraged feedback. I had many emails and I replied personally to them. I would love to hear how you got on with this recipe and what you think of the amazing flavours of my Vietnamese sauce. My email address is below.

My next article will be all about the summer barbecue, marinades, new ideas and techniques - don’t miss it!

Your chef, Steven

Crispy pork belly, Vietnamese potsticker sauce (serves 4)

Crispy pork belly with Vietnamese potsticker sauce - a dish by Steven Saunders (56361846)
Crispy pork belly with Vietnamese potsticker sauce - a dish by Steven Saunders (56361846)

Make the marinade/ cooking liquor

  • 1. 200ml of hoisin sauce
  • 2. 50ml of oyster sauce
  • 3. 50ml of light soy sauce
  • 4. 1 tablespoon maldon salt
  • 5. 40g of brown sugar
  • 6. 500g weight of pork belly in 1 piece
  • 7. Chicken stock, enough to cover

To cook the pork, preheat an oven to 160°C/gas mark 3.

Score the pork fat with a sharp knife

Mix together the hoisin, oyster sauce, light soy and sugar, then rub this all over the pork belly. Place the pork into a deep dish, then pour over enough water or chicken stock to submerge the meat. Sprinkle with the salt. Seal the dish tightly with foil, then cook for 2.5 hours.

When it is tender and soft you can remove any large pieces of fat from the belly. Then press it between two baking sheets with weights (I use a case of coconut milk!).

Ideally this needs to be done the day before you need the pork. Then you can cut out neat rectangles the next day (as shown in the picture). Reserve the cooking liquid and refrigerate.

To make the potsticker sauce

Reserved cooking liquor (when cold you can easily remove any fat from this)

  • 100ml of light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon (tbsp) rice wine ( or white wine) vinegar
  • 2 tsp of sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp soft brown sugar
  • 1 clove garlic crushed
  • 1 tsp of grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp of siracha (hot) sauce
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • 1 heaped tbsp of chopped spring onions
  • 1 tsp of dried chilli flakes
  • 2 tsp of cornflour mixed with a little cold water

Put all the sauce ingredients (except the cornflour) into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Allow the sauce to simmer for about 10 minutes and then add the cornflour/water mix and whisk in. Cook for another 10 minutes and then pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a clean container.

Blanch some simple egg noodles and cool in cold water & then drain and reserve.

To finish

Heat your oven to the highest setting and put the pork rectangles in the oven to crisp the skin. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, wok fry the noodles in a little of the potsticker sauce and serve a small amount on each plate.

Serve a piece of crispy pork belly on each pile of noodles and drizzle with the potsticker sauce (see photo).

Read more from Steven - and don't miss his column every fortnight in the Cambridge Independent

Celebrity chef Steven Saunders’ new column: Dining for Ukraine - and my recipe for Chicken Kyiv

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