05 January 2008

24 hours of excess, and finally foodblog 3: cider-braised pork and leeks, or "new year's braise"

new year's eve turned out fun. i went with my boyfriend and our friend melissa to an acquaintance's party, which was very civilized (we played set!), then metroed over to the fancy bar where our roommate jake works, just in time to grab more champagne, count down, and toast the new year. no, really: hustling down the block from the station we passed one bar whose door guy was shouting "three minutes til midnight! come on in!", and indeed, it was 11:58 when we made it to our bar stools.

we spent a good few hours at the bar post-midnight. the drinks were high-end and free, and they definitely caught up to me after i'd finished downing them. eventually we tried to go home but this involved a long wait in the cold, waving at cabs as they zipped past us. so we ducked in next door at a 24 hour wings-n-other-food place and got our new year's black eyed peas. then started walking home, and a few blocks in finally caught a cab. before bed we stayed up a while with jake's new lady-friend. i like her a lot, and she likes cheese a lot which makes me like her even more -- but she tried to share her fancy cheeses with us and i had to give mine back. i felt like a fraud but it just wasn't settling right after the booze. funny that the peas went down fine, though.

so yes, all in all a decent evening, complete with a pre-midnight voicemail from a friend in india, which was really nice. but i'm finally getting to the important part of this post: new year's day dinner. after christmas jake showed up with two pieces of cast iron cookware, a dutch oven and a skillet. you need two hands to pick these things up. we were both excited. so on the 30th we decided to try out his dutch oven with a technique neither of us is that familiar with: braising.

braising involves simmering something in a small amount of liquid until it's tender and fragrant. you can do it with lots of things, including fish or vegetables, on the stove or in the oven or both. dutch ovens are heavy, relatively wide pots, good for braising large pieces of meat because they hold in heat evenly and have fitted lids that prevent the steam from escaping and drying out the meat, while cast iron is good for oven use because no amount of kitchen-level heat is going to damage that shit. and a fatty, tough piece of meat is best: hours of low heat melt the fat into the meat and will break down the connective tissues. jake likes pork, and i like leeks, and we thought apple cider would go well with pork; and that's how you start building a recipe. so we decided on pork shoulder, which was cheap, too -- we went to the store on the 31st and got 8 pounds for 8 dollars, albeit bone-in. anyway, it turned out delicious and very pat-on-the-back-worthy. in case anyone's interested, here's my free-form "recipe" for how we made it:

prep: buy a large cut of pork, like pork shoulder or butt -- ours was 8 pounds of shoulder with a big bone in the middle. discard the gross packaging, rinse that pig in cold water, put it on a cutting board or big tray, pat it dry with a paper towel, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. note how one side of your pork shoulder is covered in skin and you can make out the pig's wrinkled armpit; contemplate tickling it. say a prayer for the late julia child, who on pbs once heaved a whole pig upside-down onto her counter and declared "i believe we ought to know where our food comes from". ahem. also turn two carrots into small dice, two leeks into half-rounds (rinse well after chopping!), 3 cloves of garlic into a rough mince, and one stalk from a fennel bulb into small bits too. set all these veggies aside.

macabre: with a sharp knife and a fair bit of pressure, score the skin and fat in a cross-hatch pattern. then cut slits in the muscle, slice 2-4 more cloves of garlic, and push a piece of garlic into each slit.

brown: now over medium-high heat, warm up a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil, like canola or safflower, in the dutch oven -- don't use olive oil, it'll burn, even our "extra light" olive oil specially for cooking made a lot of smoke. ease the meat into the pot and brown it for about 15 minutes, turning it every few minutes so each side gets a turn in contact with the bottom of the pot. then move the meat to a plate.

sautee: turn the burner down to medium-low. toss in the aromatics -- the carrot and fennel and leeks and garlic -- that you chopped up earlier. stir and cook down for maybe 10 minutes; everything should get soft and/or translucent, golden is ok, but avoid crispy.

liquids: pour a couple bottles of hard cider (we used woodchuck "dark & dry", it was fine, i bet granny smith would've been good too) over the softened veggies -- it'll sizzle for a minute -- then raise the heat to bring everything to a boil. once that happens you can turn it back down to a simmer until you have half the liquid you started out with. then add some chicken stock (ours was homemade and frozen by yours truly several months ago) and two bay leaves. bay leaves add a nice warm flavor AND reduce the scummy stuff that floats up when you cook meat in liquid. season to taste -- we favored fresh-ground white pepper and i'm not sure what else.

oven: when the broth tastes right, put the pork back into the pot. the liquid only needs to go halfway up the meat, so if you have too much, remove some and save it for later. move the whole thing to the oven with the lid on. cook for an hour at 350. then take the lid off, baste the meat by spooning the juices over the top, and put the lid back on. turn the heat down to 275 and leave it to cook another 2-3 hours. over this time the meat will get soft and falling-apart.

more veggies: 30 minutes before you're ready to pull it out of the oven, slice the bulb of the fennel into big pieces, brown them a little in butter on medium-low, and throw them into the pot with 6 whole peeled carrots. now prepare 2-3 whole leeks: cut off all but two inches of the green leaves, slice down the middle til you're an inch from the base, fan out the layers and rinse all the grit out from between them, then push it all back together and slice off the bottom quarter-inch, including the root. throw those in with maybe 15 minutes to go (we put ours in at the same time as the carrots and fennel and they got mushy).

finish line: check to make sure everything is tender enough, and if so pull it out and turn off the oven. have your awesome roommate roast potatoes with herbs, sautee brussels sprouts with shallots and bacon, and pot together a bbq-style sauce out of pureed cooking juices and molasses and brown sugar. put out the two potholders he sets on fire. sit down to dinner with several friends. be proud of yourself.



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