Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Days Cooking

Long days since I was here last. It's been snowing here and I am overwhelmed by the thought of writing about parenting my two year olds. I will ease my way back by writing what is easy and comes naturally, in the warmth of the kitchen.

South American Pork and Tomatillo Stew has become one of my favorites recently. It is a lovely dish when you are puttering at home, with no intense periods of prep work, just occasional check-ins of the stew/braise. You can make it without the meat and with veggie broth if you are serving vegetarian or with chicken if you do not eat pork.

Put your heaviest dutch oven over medium-high heat and add just a tiny bit of oil (depending, of course on what sort of pan you are using). I use a pork loin, a couple of pounds, though you could easily use a cheaper cut of meat like the butt/shoulder I just don't like the extra fat and connective tissue, and cut it into rough 1-inch cubes. Season with salt and pepper and toss into the pan, taking care to only fill the surface of the pan about 2/3 of the way so that the meat will brown nicely. If it is overcrowded the meat will steam and boil in liquid released, and will not get the browned slightly crusted exterior we want. Let the meat brown on all sides, then remove it to a large bowl while you brown the remaining batches.

While the meat browns (and it will brown better if you don't fuss with it. If you are the fussing type, these tasks will give you something to do so you aren't so tempted!). Chop an onion, I prefer sweet Vidalia onions, but a plain brown onion is fine. Take a dozen or so tomatillos and husk them. I like to rinse them under hot water to remove the husks, as there is a sticky-waxy coating on the skin that cna be a pain. Chop them into chunks once they are husked. Press some garlic, a clove or two or four, depending on your tastes. You can chop some tomatoes or used canned diced (make sure they have no added spices). If you like spicy, seed and mince a jalepeno or other hot pepper. All of these are the for the next round of browning.

Transfer the browned meat to a bowl, add a swirl of oil to the pan and add the vegetables. You can build a slightly tastier version by adding the tomatillos first, letting them brown slightly, adding the onions and letting them brown slightly, then adding the garlic and pepper for 30-60 seconds before adding the tomatoes, but if you are rushed or there are children hollering or deadlines to be made or you just can't be bothered for multiple steps you can just add them all together. Let them cook for a while till the onions are soft and the flavors have melded- this is forgiving, 5 minutes will be fine, but 15 minutes won't hurt.

Next pour about 1/2 to 3/4 of a beer in - I've tried all sorts, use what you have and experiment! Then add a cup of orange juice and a cup or so of chicken broth. It's very easy to make and freeze homemade chicken stock, but Swanson's Low Sodium Chicken Broth in aseptic packaging is good too. Then add the pork back in and some salt and pepper- not too much salt, because the beans will add salt at the end, but you want a bit to flavor the meat as it stews.

Cover and cook on low for about 1.5 hours. Longer is okay. Forgiving.

While the stew is working its magic, you can start preparing the rest of the stuff to go along with it. I usually serve this with basmati rice (not authentic, but the nutty taste of basmati is just delicious with these flavors); a bunch of add-ins the eat along with the stew: sliced avocado, roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and fried plantains or bananas. On the side I like to make an orange and red onion salad. I find that basmati is best when sauteed in a bit of butter and pressed garlic, then add water and salt and cover first with a clean kitchen towel and then with the pot cover (to soak up the steam so that it doesn't condense on the bottom of the kid and drop back down, which will encourage stickiness). For the add-ins just slice the avocado and drizzle with lime juice and salt, and buy your pepitas already roasted and salted. For the salad, slice the oranges and red onions into thin rounds and dress with a bit of olive oil, lime juice and salt and pepper. Chop some cilantro to add to any of it for those who like it- I love it, but some people think it tastes soapy and they won't like the dish if even a bit is added. Slice the plantains or bananas the long way about 1/4- 1/2 inch thick, pop a mixture of butter and oil into a pan and add the slices when the butter is done foaming, cook till you get a nice deep caramel brown color. You can dust with a bit of sugar and salt for an extra bang if you like. Do the avocado at the last minute, right before serving since it will go brown. But let's get back to the last part of the stew before I get any farther ahead of myself.

Check the meat. When you poke a fork into it does it almost fall apart into separate pieces? If not let it cook some more, with the lid off now to evaporate some of the water and concentrate the flavors. If it is tender, give the broth a taste. Is it intense and delicious or is it a bit watery? Cook with the lid off for a bit. Add a can of black beans with their liquid and try again. Adjust your seasonings: for flat tastes try adding salt, for muddy tastes you can add a bit of lemon juice, for watery tastes you can let it get more concentrated with longer cooking.

Serve the stew over the rice and encourage your eaters to try the add-ins. A perfect bit is one that combines the tender pork, a nutty crunch of pepita, the rich smooth avocado, and the intense broth soaked rice and maybe a little burst of orange from the salad. Yum.