Saturday, June 14, 2008

Basque Pork (or Beef) Stew: a great use for summer vegetables

In Georgia, the hot weather has arrived, as have summer vegetables. This afternoon at the Dekalb Farmers Market I bought Georgia zucchini, tomatoes, and onions, and have basil and rosemary in my garden. It's still early for bell peppers, but they won't be long. Pretty soon we'll be inundated with wonderful fresh vegetables. And after several weeks we'll be looking desperately for new things to cook with them.

The excuse for developing this dish, based on the French Basque cooking I've occasionally been exposed to, is the lunches I often prepare for the staff meetings that Christina attends at St. Bartholemews. That group happily tests both tried-and-true dishes from my repertoire, but also on occasion guinea-pigs new creations.

I was pleased with how fresh and 'clean', yet rich, this stew turned out. It has only fresh vegetables, meat, fresh herbs, and red wine. I used a little cornstarch to seal the meat, but no flour or dried herbs. I used shoulder ('butt') of pork. Stew beef would work equally well, though it would take longer to cook. This stew is being accompanied by lightly salted long-grain (Basmati) rice. Usually my recipes serve six, but this one is for eight, since that's the number of diners it's going to. Leftovers will make another meal.

For wine, a hearty dry red, such as from southern France or northern Spain, seems right. Probably a garnacha (grenache), tempranillo, or any regional Spanish red wine. As for American wines, a good red zinfandel would do, as would an Italian Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.

Basque Style Stew with Summer Vegetables Tim

2-1/2 pounds trimmed pork (or beef), in 1-1/2 to 2-inch chunks
2 teaspoon cornstarch plus 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper for dusting
Olive oil or rendered pork fat for frying
1 medium-large onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 large tomatoes, cut in dice, or 2 cups canned diced
1 large stalk celery, split lengthwise several times and sliced 1/4-inch wide
2 medium zucchini diced (1/2-inch cubes)
1 small red bell pepper, cut in 1/4-inch squares
1/2 cup red wine
1 teaspoon salt for the cooking plus more to taste
2-inch sprig fresh rosemary
4 large leaves fresh basil
(or if fresh herbs aren't available, 1/2 teaspoon herbes de provence)

Cut the meat, if not already cubed. If there is some fat to trim off, render it in the stew pan. Save 2-3 tablespoons fat, and remove the cracklins -- or use olive oil. Toss the meat with the mixture of the cornstarch, salt, and pepper. Fry the meat cubes, half at a time, over low heat, until beginning to brown, turning the meat often and scraping the pan. While the meat is searing, prepare the vegetables. Remove the meat to a bowl, and after the second half is done, add the onions to the pan (plus a little more oil, if needed), and fry gently, stirring frequently until softened. Stir in the minced garlic, and fry gently about 2 minutes. Then add the rest of the vegetables one type at a time, heating just until the mixture simmers before adding the next. Finally add the red wine, 1 teaspoon salt, the herbs, and the pre-cooked meat. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pan. Push the meat down into the sauce as it develops.

Continue to simmer, covered, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pan, for 30 minutes for the pork, 40 for beef. Add another 1/2 teaspoon salt. Continue to simmer, stirring from time to time, until the meat is tender, for a total simmering time of about 45 minutes for pork, 50 to 60 minutes for beef. Taste the gravy and add a little salt if needed.

This is better if cooked ahead and gently reheated for serving. Accompany with lightly salted rice or noodles.

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