Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easy Peasy - Pork Ragu

I am digging this dish - it's so easy to make, and if you're like me, with no real sense of portion control, you can make a vat of it, freeze some and have a handy dish on hand easily - you know in case someone comes by for a visit.  To be clear it will seem time consuming and labor intensive to make this, but it's actually pretty easy and so worth it!

As always the recipe is open to interpretation, you'll need to rely on yourself to adjust the flavors the way you like them.  I'll just give you a few basic steps to get you going down the right path.

Things you'll need;

  • 3 quart stock pot 
  • Slow cooker - this is a personal preference, you could fully slow cook on the stove top or in the oven, but the slow cooker or Crock Pot allows you to walk away and the sauce will practically cook itself.
  • Pork shoulder - also called pork butt, 3-4 lbs depending on how large your pots are
  • One large onion - I prefer sweet varieties like Vidalia but most any kind would suffice
  • One or two peeled smashed garlic cloves
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Dried herbs - my favorite blend is Herbs De Provance, but use whatever you like - typically something with oregano, basil and fennel work well with tomato sauces
  • A cup or so of Parmesan cheese grated/flaked
  • Olive Oil
  • Beef stock/broth
  • Marrow/soup bones if you can get them
  • Strained tomatoes/Tomato sauce  - the one in my local market comes in a 26oz box which works well, and I look specifically for brands that don't have any additives like sugar or salt, just 100% pure strained tomatoes.  If you want to be hardcore you could also stew whole tomatoes and puree them yourself but personally I like the convenience of a nice box of strained tomatoes.
  • One small can tomato paste - the tomato paste adds a significant tang to the final sauce with little effort

Roughly chop the onion, into 1-2 inch cubes - use it to line the bottom of a slow cooker crock.
Drop in one to two cloves of garlic 
Add pork shoulder and marrow bones, loosely packed.
Pour beef stock over the contents leaving space at the top - at least an inch from the rim of the slow cooker. (the pork fat will render, if you fill it to the brim you could get some significant overflow.)

Cook at medium to high heat for 4 to 6 hours minimum until the pork falls apart with little effort using a fork

Separate the pork from the cooking liquid and set aside, don't throw away the cooking liquid, that will be part of your sauce base.  Don't worry about getting all the bits, this step is really just to make handling the whole lot a little easier.

In a 3 quart pot, mix the cooking liquid along with the strained tomatoes and tomato paste.  I don't bother to strain off the fat - it adds flavor, and once the sauce is refrigerated, it will float to the top and congeal so if I'm feeling the need to pretend to be healthy I can simply lift the cold layer of fat off and toss it.  Although I advise against it :)

Once the tomatoes are fully incorporated, add the pork back to the mix.  Add spices, salt and pepper to taste (tasting as you go along is key) and mix well.  Take it easy on the salt right now, you're going to add Parmesan which is quite salty in it's own right. Turn the heat on to medium and let the sauce simmer for a bit - you want the dried herbs and spices to impart their flavor the sauce.
Let the sauce simmer for about 20 or 30 min, and give it a taste - add the Parmesan and stir it in - give the sauce a little taste again to determine if you really need salt - remember it's easier to add salt than it is to eat a dish that tastes too salty.  
Serve the pork ragu over fat slices of crusty toast, or a home made pasta or top slices of grilled eggplant with the mix for a carb-conscious treat!


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bullia... Boulabass... Bolly... Fish Stock!

I'm kidding, I know it's Bouillabaisse - well I Googled, so what.  Anyway, there are a couple of reasons there's a pot of fish bones brewing on my stove.

  1. I have a really bad habit of letting veggies sit around till they're about to spoil - it's a spectacular waste of money. It really is.
  2. I save the bones from the food I eat - steak bones, chicken bones, the parts of the fish that don't make fillets but still have meat on them, tails and shrimp heads - all that jazz.  Honestly sometimes it's those are the best parts but not ones you necessarily serve.
  3. I want to cook but I have things to do that require me not standing by the stove.

The solution?  Stock.  In this case - fish stock.

I like to brew up stocks and freeze them - they come in handy in a number of ways, use them to enhance sauces and gravies, substitute for water as the braising liquid when cooking - all manner of uses.

The basic principal is easy - add aromatic and flavorful elements to a pot of water, and simmer slowly over low heat for a good long time until all the flavor from your ingredients has dispersed into the water creating a yummy broth.  Really - that's it.

I'm going to break this one down a little differently - I think it's more effective to understand the principals behind making the stock rather than focusing on the actual ingredients.  Ready?  Here goes;

Veggies - you'll find you get the most flavorful results from aromatic vegetables, among those to consider (first my favorites);

  • Carrots - mini or regular
  • Celery - with leaves and bases
  • Onions - I used sweet onions and scallions but any kind would do
  • Leeks - cleaned carefully to remove grit 
  • Parsley - Italian flat leaf, or curly or both

also worth considering

  • Tomatoes
  • Parsnips
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms - shiitake are my fav but you could really use what ever kind you have handy

Feel free to be creative - this is a great chance to use up veggies that are on their last leg!

Really any kind of veggies can be added - you 'll notice there are a couple bits of zucchini in the photo above, I had a bit left in a baggie and decided to toss it in, also added some frozen peas later on that were getting a bit freezer burned...

For this stock, I added about 2lbs of fish bones and trim, along with some shrimp and salmon that had been hiding in the darkest corners of my freezer - ideally shrimp with heads and shells on or even just the heads and shells adds the best flavor.

Alternately left over cuts of pork (uncooked) along with the bones and skin, the knuckles and joints that you didn't know what to do with, would make this a great pork broth.  How about the carcass from your roasted chicken/duck/turkey for a different variation?

Additional ingredients to add to the mix;

  • Salt - I use kosher salt when I cook most of the time.  Kosher salt tends to be flakier than most, and disperses a good salty flavor even in modest amounts.  Sea salt, which has a slightly different flavor is also great but tends to be a bit more expensive and depending on the variety sometimes requires more to achieve the same taste
  • A good splash of olive oil - I find it helps deal with the foam that can build up while the broth is cooking
  • Herbs - for the fish stock, I added coriander seeds - I like the fresh taste the seeds impart when cooking, a bit of my favorite herb mix - herbs de Provance with lavender, a smattering of whole white pepper corns, a pinch of saffron (from a cheap batch I purchased in Bali) and the remains (about one and a quarter) of the jar of bay leaves that was hiding in the back of my cupboard.
  • I also tossed in the remains of a batch of soffrito/mirepoix that I had floating around the fridge since I didn't have celery in the house.

Once you've picked your ingredients, the rest is easy - put everything in a pot, add enough water to cover if you can, turn the heat on to medium/low, put the lid on - a little bit askew to let some of the steam out and walk away.

Check on the pot every once in a while to ensure that it's simmering not boiling, and to make sure that the liquid isn't cooking away entirely - it's fine to let it reduce a bit, the flavor would be stronger which could be useful if you choose to use the stock as an ingredient in other recipes.

The best way to tell if your stock is done is to taste it.  I let my fish stock brew for about three and a half hours, although at the 40 min mark it was already quite tasty.  The longer you let it brew to stronger the flavor is likely to be.

Once you have the flavor where you like it, strain the broth using a strainer or cheesecloth - and depending on what you put in the broth, the color should range from pale brown to golden to orange to reddish - as long as it tastes good don't be distracted by the color of the broth.  Adding saffron to my batch resulted in a goldish yellow hued broth.

You can toss the mash you've strained out, and now your stock is ready for use!  I like to split the broth into smaller containers to freeze for later use.  I'll use the smaller containers in the next two days but the big one is going in the freezer for another day.