Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pork stewed with Quince: Delightful Autumn Specialty

In the old days, even during my lifetime, pork was an autumn specialty. With limited refrigeration, pigs were slaughtered when cold weather arrived. Most of the carcass was preserved for later use, made into hams, picnics, bacon, sausage, salted fatback, lard, and smoked hocks and jowls. Fresh meat was briefly plentiful, and cheap, for stewing, frying chops, and roasting. At the same time of year apples and quinces were harvested and stored for up to several months. Seasonality of both the meat and the tree fruits is virtually meaningless now with refrigeration and with trucked-in and flown-in produce from California, Chile, and Australia.

Nonetheless I'm still intrigued by old-fashion seasonal specialties. The dish below is a French as well as central European combination of fresh pork stewed with quince. Neither ingredient is common in contemporary stews in the US. That attracts me.

Quinces are relatives of apples, and relatively unfamiliar to Americans except perhaps to great-grandmothers who might recall quince jelly. Quinces have a unique, fruity, and to me very pleasant, fragrance. They are, I believe, not really eaten fresh, but in their heyday in Europe were made into preserves, cooked into stews, and made into cider along with apples and pears -- 'cider' in Europe means 'hard' cider, a sort of wine. Fortunately, our wonderful Dekalb Farmers Market carries quinces for a couple of months in the late fall. They've come in recently. I bought one.

Here's the sort of old-fashion country dish that would have been made in France and further east. I find it a surprizing and delightful concoction. Pork stews are uncommon in Western cooking (though common in Chinese-influenced cooking in Asia, but with quite different seasonings). To have a pork stew seasoned with quinces is even less common, although fruit of many kinds is traditionally cooked with pork. In French this would be a Ragoût de Porc aux Coings [ra-'goo d' porh oh kwainh]. If you can locate a quince, give this one a try. A passable substitute can be made with apple plus a quarter cup of orange juice replacing part of the water.

The recipe will serve 6 people generously. Accompany with buttered egg noodles, potato dumplings if you can, or buttery mashed Yukon gold potatoes (the closest I can find to French potatoes). A chilled hard cider will go with this dish, or a dry rosé or light-bodied red wine, such as a Pinot Noir or Chianti.

Pork stewed with Quince Tim

2 pounds (trimmed) pork butt or stewing pork
Rendered pork fat or olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, diced
1/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup water or unsalted broth
1 bay leaf
2 very large or 3 medium-large carrots
1 small potato
1 medium quince
1 tablespoon soy sauce (my touch, not original)
Salt to taste
Minced parsley for garnish

Trim off excess fat from pork, and cut meat into 1-1/2-inch chunks. Render pork fat by frying the trimmings slowly in the stewing pot, and remove the cracklings. Or if preferred, use olive oil. Use about 3 tablespoons pork fat or oil for frying half of the pork, turning the pieces frequently. When pork starts to fry, sprinkle generously all over with salt and black pepper. When pork has changed color on all sides, remove it to a bowl. Add a little grease or oil if needed, and fry remaining half of the pork, salting and peppering as before. Remove pork from pot.

Fry minced onions in the drippings (or add a little oil if needed) scraping bottom of pot frequently. When onions are limp and turning color, add pre-fried pork, and heat thoroughly. Deglaze with wine, scraping bottom of pot well. Add water and bay leaf. Simmer until pork is becoming tender, 40-50 minutes. Add a little water if needed to keep everything moist.

While pork is cooking, peel carrots and cut in 1-inch lengths. Peel potato and cut in small pieces (to cook into the gravy). Peel, quarter, and cut core out of quince. Cut quince into small pieces. When pork is tender, add carrots and potatoes plus a little water if needed. Simmer until carrots are tender, stirring occasionally, 10-15 minutes. Potatoes should have started to disintegrate.

Add quince, a little water if needed, soy sauce, and salt to taste. Simmer until quince is tender, 5-10 minutes. Taste sauce again, and add salt if needed to make it very slightly salty (the meat and vegetables will soak up more).

The stew can be served now, or cooled, refrigerated up to several days, and reheated to serve. Check for salt just before serving, and stir in a little if needed. Accompany with buttered egg noodles or buttery mashed Yukon gold potatoes, or, ideally, with potato dumplings. Dust with minced parsley.

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