Monday, February 26, 2007

Cooking With Pig: Act I

No, this is not a picture of an earthenware bong, but rather a daubieres, which is French for a strange, pot-bellied cooking vessel with a narrow top primarily used for cooking certain stews known in the Provencal lingo as daubes. That would make this one of several items that I did not possess for this particular pork stew recipe. Nonetheless, I had been saving this recipe from the February 2007 issue of Food & Wine because it was written by Paula Wolfert and because it celebrates one of our favorite animals. In fact, this recipe, which came to Wolfert via food writer Barbara Wilde, who lives in Provence, sat next to my computer keyboard for the longest time, occasionally migrating down to the kitchen table and back with the stack of other paperwork that needs sorting through from time to time, just waiting for that moment when I had nothing better to do for a couple of days and the weather called for a nice, comfy stew.

Yes, you heard right: a couple of days. Or maybe even three or four. If you know anything about Paula Wolfort, you know that she is all about authenticity. There are no shortcuts in Paula Wolfort's vocabulary. So if it is possible to consume the better part of three or four days making a stew, you can bet Paula Wolfort is all over it. That is why we reserve an honored place on our bookshelves here at The Slow Cook for titles such as The Cooking of Southwest France and The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. These are books that transport you to kitchens where people truly care about methods and ingredients and flavors. To hell with the time involved. Paula Wolfert's idea of a weight loss plan is the 30 million steps it takes to get from the butcher's to the finished stew. So be prepared to stumble over ingredients, cooking utensils, methods with which you are completely unfamiliar. Be prepared to adjust, make substitutions, use your own judgment. For instance, do not spend half a day driving to every gourmet shop in town looking for lavender flowers in February.

Lavender flowers would be just one of the ingredients that put my inadequacies as a gardener/cook on full display. Just down the street from our house is a huge lavender bush--it must be five feet around--that we pass every day on our walk to school. If memory serves, it was in bloom around November, and we were constantly running our hands through the blossoms as we passed by to pick up some of the aroma. We smelled like we'd been mugged by a bar of lavender soap. If I had been thinking at all, I would have gathered a peck of those blossoms, dried them out and stored them in the freezer. They were free for the taking. But of course I didn't, and now for the second time in as many week's I've run across a recipe calling for lavender flowers.

Another trouble item would be winter savory. I'll be damned if there is any winter savory in any of the spice racks I've searched, or among the fresh herbs for sale at Whole Foods. I tried growing summer savory in my garden this past year without much success. If I were anywhere near the gardener I claim to be, I now realize I would have some winter savory growing somewhere, or I would have grown it and stashed it away for just such an occasion. Again, out of luck. My solution to the lavender blossom/winter savory dilemma was to tie some herbes de provence in the spice bundle that Wolfert calls for.

A daubiere: Again, I plead guilty. I do not own a daubiere. I wonder if Wolfert does. She owns just about every other piece of exotic cookware, but she did not linger long on the daubiere. Fortunately, you are allowed to substitute a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, of which I have plenty.

Wild boar: The orginal recipe that Wolfert describes calls for wild boar. And according to the piece in Food & Wine, she did try boar from a couple of sources. If your local grocery doesn't carry boar, and you can't wait for FedEx to bring you some, by all means use the best pork shoulder you can find, such as the Niman Ranch pork from Whole Foods.

Pork skin: The original recipe calls for sheets of pork skin, with not too much fat on it, cut into strips. These are used to layer the ingredients inside the stew pot. Sorry, I did not have any pork skin handy.

And that brings me to a few nits I'd like to pick with this recipe, which falls in the "Master Cook" column. I don't know if the fault lies with Wolfert, or if her editor's eyes simply glazed over around Step 359, but I did find these irritating, especially considering the many hours I've spent answering silly questions from editors and recipe testers over the years.

For instance, whatever is supposed to happen to all that pork skin? The instructions clearly call for strips of skin to be placed inside the stew pot to create layers of ingredients. But the subject of skins never comes up again. Do we eat them? Pull them out and admire them? Turn them into a lamp shade?

Why reduce? You are supposed to mix a leftover marinade liquid and the liquid leftover from soaking some dried mushrooms in a pot on the stove and reduce it "to about 2 cups." Then you drain this into the stew pot, and add water to cover the meat. Why bother reducing the original liquid only to add water?

Why "garnish"? After the stew has cooked the first time, you are instructed to sautee a large quantity of mushrooms, garlic and parsley as a "garnish." But then the cooked mushrooms are stirred into the pot, and the pot returned to the oven. So how does this constitute a "garnish?"

Which wine? In the introduction to the recipe, Wolfert states very clearly that she marinates the pork in white wine. Two days later, and after you've followed all 3,000 steps, you arrive at this startling paragraph, the very last paragraph in the article:

"Although this Provencal stew is made with white wine, it's so hearty that a red will make a better match. Conveniently, the rustic and substantial wines of Provence, where Barbara Wilde lives, have a rich fruit bolstered by a firm tannic structure, making them an ideal choice."

Serves me right for not listening to my wife, who never tires of reminding me that I should always--always!--read recipes through to the end (and maybe back again) before I start cooking. But really, don't you think this kind of information should go near the top, when you're making your shopping list?

I am calling this Pig in Three Acts because the recipe conveniently breaks down into three stages, performed over three days. The first, or Act I, consists of marinating your beast.

3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2 1/2-inch pieces

1 bottle red or white Provencal wine

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 medium carrot, cut into thick slices

Bouquet garni: 6 sprigs each of parsley, thyme and winter savory, plus 2 bay leaves and 1 leafy celery top, tied together with twine.

Spice bundle: 1/2 teaspoon lavender flowers, 12 crushed peppercons and 10 crushed juniper berries, tied in cheesecloth (this is where I placed 1 teaspoon herbes de Provence to substitute for my lack of winter savory and lavender flowers).

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Put the pork into a large, non-reactive bowl or pot. Add wine, onion carrot, bouquet garni, spice bundle and olive oil. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Continued tomorrow...

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