I have a few cookbooks. I haven't cooked from every one of them. Some have been disappointing. And others have been knock-outs.
Of these, there are a couple of TKOs.
Hovering around the top of that list is Molly Stevens' All About Braising. There is a reason why this book won the James Beard Book Award.
It is brilliant.
I've made a lot of Stevens' dishes. Over time, I bet that I will try them all, because I have not been disappointed once. It is a very rare cookbook that delivers so consistently.
I decided to make her Pork Pot Roast with Apricots, Cardamom & Ginger for Father's Day, because A. had previously raved about it and I felt sure that it would be a hit with my parents and sister -- it was.
The dish follows tradition by pairing pork with fruit. However instead of apples or pineapples, this recipe goes a more colorful and exciting route, using dried apricots. Happily, this makes it seasonally appropriate any time of year.
The apricots and the mirepoix appear to melt together during the long slow braise. The pork begins to fall apart, its softness marrying gorgeously with the saucy fruit.
The use of exotic spices like cardamom, turmeric, and ginger gives the dish a heady perfume, and an unusual flavor that permeates the meat. The garlic, cayenne, and orange zest add a contrasting zing to the other warm spices.
I used Cognac and Vermouth instead of Apricot Brandy and white wine, as Stevens suggests. These worked very well.
All of the recipes in All About Braising follow a detailed map. They require time and a bit of concentration.
Stevens has taken an almost scientific approach to braising, dissecting the process and presenting it in a straightforward step by step plan -- preparing the meat, browning the meat, adding the aromatics, preparing the braising liquid, the braise itself, and finally the finish.
She wants us to use an appropriately sized Dutch oven that just contains the meat and other ingredients. It should be cozy in there!
Well, looking at the pictures you'll see that I did not quite come through here. My smaller oven tends to burn on the bottom. What I really need -- okay, want might be the more accurate word -- is an oval Dutch oven.
A., are you listening?
Stevens is also fairly insistent about using a sheet of parchment under the lid of your pot, to ensure that all of the moisture stays inside, for optimal braising conditions. I have now incorporated this into my braising protocol.
I believe it was Stevens' enthusiasm for kitchen scales in All About Braising that encouraged me to finally purchase one. And what a blessing it has been. The scale takes all the unnecessary guesswork out of cooking.
You always know that you are on the same page as your cookbook's author.
What Stevens asks of us makes sense because of her thorough explanations. And in the end, the proof truly is in the pudding.
Pork Pot Roast with Apricots, Cardamom & Ginger
One 4 1/2 to 5-pound boneless pork shoulder roast, preferably Boston butt
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, white and pale green part only, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion (about 6 ounces), coarsely chopped
6 cardamom pods, husks split and discarded, seeds lightly crushed
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon minced or grated fresh ginger
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and bruised
3 strips orange zest, removed with a vegetable peeler (each about 3 inches by 3/4 inch)
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons apricot brandy or Cognac
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup dried apricots (about 6 1/2 ounces)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees
Trim any especially thick bits of fat from the pork, but do be sure to leave some. Roll and tie the pork (or have your butcher do it for you).
Pat the pork dry with paper towels. Season all over with salt and pepper. Pour the oil into a Dutch oven that will hold the pork snugly (4 to 5 quart works well), and heat over medium heat. Sear the pork on all sides, until deeply browned but not at all burnt, 15 to 20 minutes total. Transfer the pork to a plate.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the fat, and return the pot to medium heat. Add the leek, carrots, and onions, stir in the crushed cardamom, turmeric, and cayenne, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables begin to soften but do not take on much color, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, orange zest, and bay leaf and cook until the spices are quite fragrant, another 2 minutes.
Pour the brandy into the pot. Bring to a boil and boil, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to release any caramelized bits, until reduced by about half, about 1 minute. Add the wine and let it boil for 4 minutes, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Add the apricots and boil for another 2 minutes.
Place the pork on top of the vegetables and fruit. Add any accumulated juices from the plate. bring the liquid to a simmer and spoon some over the pork. Cover the meat with sheet of parchment paper, pressing down so that it almost touches the meat and the edges extend over the sides of the pot about an inch. Cover and slide the pot onto a shelf in the lower third of the oven to braise. Check that the liquid is simmering gently, every 30 minutes and give the pork a turn. If the liquid is simmering too aggressively, lower the oven heat 10 or 15 degrees. Continue to braise gently until the pork is fork-tender, about 2 hours in all.
Remove the pork from the pot and set it on a carving board or platter to catch the juices. Cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.
Return the pot to the top of the stove and skim off as much surface fat as you can with a wide spoon. If the sauce is very thin reduce it by boiling over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. It should be the consistency of a thick vinaigrette. Taste for salt and pepper. Pour any juices that have accumulated under the pork into the sauce, and stir.
Remove the strings from the pork, and carve into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Serve with sauce and apricots.