Half way through April now – sorry I haven’t been updating the blog much recently, but real life does have a habit of getting in the way – and spring, I guess is in full swing now. Although in many ways it doesn’t really feel that way, perhaps on account of all the news bulletins being full of drought stories, when, that is, they’re not full of stories of half the country being brought to grinding halt by snow (as predicted right here, people!). Although perhaps we’ve become accustomed to seeing sinister patterns and isolating freak abnormalities in our weather - and extrapolating day to day weather into climate - whereas in fact it’s perfectly ordinary, unremarkable and indeed characteristic of spring time that the weather might swing from high summer one day to midwinter the next. Not, I hasten to add, that I’m sceptical about climate change, let alone in denial. Unlike this idiot.
Whatever its causes, the current state of the climate – sorry, the weather – makes it tricky to plan ahead when it comes to deciding what’s for dinner, having no way of knowing whether tomorrow will be a porridge for breakfast or a salad on the roof terrace for lunch kind of a day. So what’s called for at this time of year are things that are versatile in the meals that we can make from them – things like fish, for instance, or the chicken I’ve covered in my last couple of posts. Or we just say, to hell with it, we don’t seem to have had pork for a long time (hard to believe for regular followers of this blog as that may be) and that’s a nice looking piece of boneless pork shoulder reduced to a bargain price, let’s have that. Which is what I did last week. That said, I did consider the weather when it came to deciding how to cook it.
I could just have roasted it, of course, and I’m quite sure that would have been both delicious, and weather appropriate – when is roast pork ever not seasonally appropriate (apart from Passover, obviously, or Ramadan…)? But I had some fruit – an orange and a couple of apples just starting to go soft in the bowl, so I decided a fruity pork stew would be just the thing – big and hearty enough should the day turn out bitter and bleak; bright and fresh flavoured enough should it be bright and sparkly.
I started by chopping my joint into big chunks, rough cubes a good couple of inches or more a side. Then I put them into a bowl and grated the zest of my orange over them, then added crushed garlic and chilli, a teaspoonful each of paprika and sumac and a generous sprinkling of fennel seeds, black peppercorns and sea salt, gently pounded with pestle and mortar, the juice of the orange and a good glug of olive oil, rubbed it all together and put the bowl in the fridge to marinate overnight. The precise ingredients and proportions for your marinade is, of course, optional, being entirely up to you and the contents of your store cupboard, as indeed is the overnight thing. If you’re cooking for tonight then just give it as long as you can, but in that case don’t refrigerate it, the action of the marinade will be speeded up at room temperature.
When you’re ready to start to cook (and precisely when that might be in relation to when you’re going to eat is again optional – from a minimum of two hours to a whole day or more before, the longer, within reason, the better. Whenever it is though, hopefully you’ll have had the opportunity to remove the marinading meat from the fridge, if that’s where it’s been, long enough ahead to come back up to room temperature) then start by gently browning the meat in a big, solid casserole. While the meat is browning roughly chop a carrot, an onion and a stick or two of celery (I cut my onion into slim wedges and my carrot into batons, but exactly how you chop is up to you), and throw them in once the pork has taken on some colour (with pork I just tend to add the veg to the meat in the pan, rather than removing the meat and adding back later on – mainly because I’m not looking to get the same kind of deep colour on pork as I would be on red meat or chicken skin, so I start at a lower temperature, rather than with the heat up high then turning it down). Throw in a bay leaf, too and maybe some sage leaves or thyme. Once the veg is starting to soften perceptibly, pour over any remaining liquid from the marinade, and enough cider to just about two thirds cover (this doesn’t need to be precise, but be careful not to drown your dish), bring to a gentle simmer and transfer to a low oven.
How low, and therefore how long for depends very much, like the marinating, on how long you’ve got, and to a certain extent on how many people your cooking for and therefore the sheer volume of stew we’re dealing with. About 170 for an hour and a half to two hours would probably do it at a pinch. 150 for two to three would be better. And in an ideal world, 130, or even lower for three, four or even five for a big pot in a good low oven. Basically as long as you’ve got at as low as you can, until the meat can be cut with a spoon and the fat’s turned to an unctuously sweet, slightly sticky jelly. And preferably, as ever with a stew, the day before you were planning on serving it.
Whichever, about half an hour before your stew’s due to serve (or when you start reheating it if you did do it the day before), gently fry up some thickly sliced (or halved if they’re small) mushrooms and a couple of apples peeled, cored and cut into lengthwise quarters, then eighths. Get a bit of golden colour into the apple wedges then add them and the mushrooms to the stew – checking the seasoning at this point, and the liquid level, you might want to top up with a little extra cider or a splash of stock at this point – for the final half hour or so of simmering.
I’d serve with mash on a more wintery kind of spring day, perhaps mash with a dessert spoon of mustard stirred through it, or with rice, perhaps, of a springier evening.
This recipe would work equally well with pork belly too.