Pork and apples make for a classic combination. The pairing usually entails making applesauce and putting it next to a slice of roast pork. Delicious, of course, but let’s remember that in Johnny Appleseed’s time most apples were grown not for eating, but for drinking in the form of hard cider (or applejack). What’s more, in cider-making areas there is a tradition of cooking with cider. Basically, dry cider behaves like wine — it has plenty of acidity — yet leaves behind a different aroma.
Not long ago, it was difficult to come by hard cider in this country. There were some imports in the beer section of the supermarket, but these tended to be a little too sweet and a little too funky to be useful in the kitchen. Now, I can go to my local farmers market and buy delicious cider from three or four producers, and then buy a hunk of pork belly from my favorite pig farmers. I can easily find a few tart, crisp apples.
And that’s just what I did recently. On the morning of dinner, while peeling and dicing onions, carrots, parsnips and celery, I browned boneless, skin-on pork belly in a shallow, ovenproof braising pan. My piece weighed about 1 1/2 pounds, and by the time it had shrunk during cooking, it yielded three modest portions. This dish would work beautifully with pork shoulder/butt as well, either in a single piece or cut into big chunks, but my wife, Jackie, and I love belly.
When the pork was golden on all surfaces, I transferred it to a plate, poured off some of the fat and added the diced vegetables and a few sage leaves (pick your own herb), which I cooked over medium-low heat until the ingredients began to turn color. Then I returned the pork to the pan and added a whole 750-milliliter bottle of dry hard cider (this one). When the liquid had come up to a simmer, I covered the pan and put it into a preheated 325-degree oven for nearly two hours, turning the pork halfway through. The pork was very tender — easily pierced with a skewer — but yours may take more or less time, so start checking after 90 minutes.
I tranferred the pork to a plate to cool, then wrapped it in plastic and refrigerated it. I strained the cooking liquid, pressing hard on the vegetables to extract maximal flavor. These vegetables I then threw away. When the liquid was cool, I refrigerated it until the fat congealed (for easy removal). If I’d been in a hurry, I would have used one of those separator gizmos.
To finish the dish, I diced more carrots, parsnips and celery root — all sweet root vegetables — and sweated them with salt in a little butter for a few minutes, then added the defatted braising liquid and simmered until the vegetables were crisp-tender. Halfway through this process, I added one diced tart apple (not peeled). I cut the pork into portions and browned the pieces slowly and thoroughly in a nonstick skillet (its own fat was enough to do this), making sure the meat was heated through before nestling it into the sauce-vegetable-apple mixture.
I tasted the sauce; it was subtly redolent of apple and pleasingly tart — and the sweet flavors of the vegetables were there as well. But it needed salt. If it had tasted a trifle harsh, I could have swirled in a pat of butter, but that wasn’t necessary.
I served this with mashed potatoes, and I can’t think of a better accompaniment, because there were already so many nice vegetables in the dish. A similar approach would work nicely with chicken or veal; chicken won’t take that long to cook, so you’ll need to simmer the sauce on its own after the chicken is done. And for a real old-fashioned treat, you could finish the sauce with cream and lots of fresh herbs, perhaps tarragon and parsley.
Schneider’s Cooking Off the Cuff appears Fridays in All We Can Eat. Follow him on Twitter @TimeToCook .