Monday, 22 November 2010

Pork Belly 2 - pork and beans, cowboy style

As promised in my last post: pork and bean stew.  This is not fancy food, far from it, it’s essentially my take on good old basic, out of the chuck wagon cowboy pork and beans (and I don't mean Dolly Parton style), but it’s full of flavour and deeply, deeply satisfying.  Proper comfort food.  As the nights draw in, and autumn starts heading towards winter, it’s got to be one of my absolute favourite dinners.  And it’s so easy to make that expressed as a ratio of effort put in to pleasure taken out, it’s probably just about my all time favourite.  It’s easy because it consists of just five main ingredients, two of them out of a can, requires no fine chopping and no precise timings or temperature control.  It really is just bung it all in and leave it till it’s done.  Like any stew it’s best done the day before, left to cool and reheated, but because it’s so labour un-intensive and only needs one big pot, it’s a doddle to throw together while you’re cooking one night’s meal, for dinner the next, as I did while my pork belly, potatoes and celery and ratatouille were roasting away in the oven (see post below).  So it kind of feels like two meals for the effort of one.

As ever, these quantities fed two of us, but, as usual, would easily have fed three…

500g pork belly
a couple of onions (I used red onions this time, but there’d be nothing whatsoever wrong with ordinary yellow ones)
150g of chesnut mushrooms
1 x 400g tin of beans (I used borlottis but haricot or cannellini are fine too)
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
250ml of red wine
250ml of stock (chicken or beef)

First cut the belly into strips about as wide as they are thick, then dice the strips into rough cubes and get those cubes into your marinade.  Precisely what goes into your spice mix is up to you and what you have to hand in your store cupboard.  Like everything else about this dish (and, you may have noticed, my cooking style in general) it’s not a precise science.  You do definitely need a bit of sweet and sour going on in there, and a little heat.  I would also suggest paprika is essential, for both flavour and colour.  For the record, on this occasion the marinade consisted of salt and pepper, obviously; garlic and red chilli mashed together in my garlic press (the only thing I ever use it for, but it’s brilliant, as long as you put it straight into water once you’re done, and don’t leave the garlic to set hard, making it so much more effort to clean than it ever saved in the first place); sweet paprika (but smoked or hot would be good too, particularly hot if you don’t have any fresh chillies); a little pomegranate syrup for the sweet, and cider vinegar for the sour, but you could use brown sugar for the sweet, or apple juice the acidic sweetness of which does a bit of both.  Or you could take an oriental direction and use soy sauce and rice vinegar or rice wine.  And some olive oil, or if you’ve headed up the oriental route, sesame oil.  Quantities again are kind of up to you, but just a little bit of everything so that no single element dominates, until it looks, smells and tastes right to you.

You don’t need to leave the meat marinading for long, there’ll be plenty of time in the long slow cooking for all those good flavours to do their thing, but a little extra time is always better, so get the meat done first so it’s steeping away while you prep everything else.  Problem with this dish is prepping everything else takes pretty much no time at all, so you might even want to take a break and have half a glass of wine or a cheeky sherry at this point.  Prepping everything else consists of peeling the onions and cutting them into thick wedges, cutting the mushrooms in half, or even leaving them whole if they are particularly small, and opening a tin each of beans and tomatoes.  Oh, and opening a bottle of wine.

When you’re ready, heat up your big casserole on the stove and brown the meat gently, then add the onions till they’re starting to soften, then the mushrooms.  Chuck in some thyme, or savory if you have it, and a couple of bayleaves – use fresh herbs if you have them available, but if not, this is the kind of cooking for which dried herbs are ideally suited.  Add a good glass of red wine, something hearty and robust, at this point and let that simmer away till noticeably reduced then add the tomatoes and beans and 200 ml or so of beef or chicken stock.  Quantities of liquid again don’t need to be precise with such a long slow cook, you can always adjust later on.  You do want a good quantity of liquid to start with, as a lot of it – ideally most of it - will reduce away, but it should always look like a hearty stew, not a soup.

Bring it all to a gentle simmer on the stove top and then put it in the oven for as long and as low as you like.  150 for three hours will do it, but if you have the time and the oven settings, longer and lower is even better.  When, at last, you do take it out and lift the lid your first reaction should ideally be to think ‘oh bugger – I’ve cocked it up.  It’s been in too long and it’s ruined.’  It should look, frankly like an over reduced, gooey, congealed mess.  That’s perfect.  It’s amazing what another ladle or two of stock and an extra splash of wine will do by way of a miraculous transformation, and the treacly depth of flavour you get by letting it go just that bit too far and bringing it back is almost sinfully good, and I don’t believe achievable in any other way.  It’s also one of those things that either happens by happy accident, or not at all, so if your stew is proving reluctant to reach that state of divine over-reduction don’t be tempted to force it by turning up the heat or cooking it forever.  It may not reach the transcendental perfection of being brought back from the dead, but after three or four hours, it’s going to be damned good.  And if this is starting to sound like a religious experience well then that’s because eating this dish, for me, pretty much is.  Or as close as as I care to get.

As I said in my previous post, I put the casserole in when I took out the roast pork belly that was dinner for the night before, out of the oven and turned the heat way down.  That was at around eight thirty, and I left it there, while we ate, and for the rest of the evening, turning the oven off only when we were on our way to bed, some time after midnight.  I reheated it the next evening on the stove top, with just a splash of rejuvenating stock and an extra half glass of wine, served it up with mash and pickled red cabbage.  It was cowboy heaven.

And a chicory, spinach and beetroot salad on the side.

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