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Braised Pork
By Charlie Burke

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During cold New England winters, slow cooked meals warm our homes as well
as our guests. Many of my recipes use high temperatures to roast meat and
poultry, but these require better cuts of meat, while braising results in hearty,
flavorful meals while utilizing less expensive ingredients.

We roast rack of lamb, prime rib and tenderloin of beef and the better cuts of
pork, but these lack the connective tissue and fat necessary for braising and will
lack flavor and tenderness when cooked this way. For braising, choose beef
chuck roast (never use top or bottom round), short ribs or brisket, lamb shoulder
or shanks, and pork shoulder or butt. Try to find locally grown meat; frequently
restaurants buy the roasts and steaks, and the farmer will happily sell other
parts which are perfect for braising. If you have access to farm raised venison,
the farmer will advise you which cuts are best.

Braising requires initial searing of the meat to improve its flavor and produce
the fond – the browned bits of protein on the bottom of the pan which enrich the
flavor of the sauce. Contrary to popular opinion, browning does not “seal in the
juices”.

Once the meat is seared, it is placed in a heavy pot, surrounded by vegetables
and liquid, typically a mix of wine and stock, covered and cooked slowly in the
oven until the connective tissue melts and the muscle fibers are tenderized by
the moist heat.

Initial searing and preparation are easy, and the cooking in a slow oven requires
minimal attention. Flavors improve with sitting, so preparation can be done a
day or two ahead. The fat from these cuts ends up in the sauce and can be
skimmed off, resulting in healthy meal with minimal fat but deep flavors.

This approach is easily mastered and readily adapts to different meats. With
pork, I prefer white wine and chicken stock with fennel and sage. For beef, use
beef stock, red wine, garlic and bay leaf or thyme. Lamb goes well with garlic,
tomatoes, rosemary and black olives with a full flavored red wine and chicken
stock. Feel free to add your favorite vegetables and herbs, and adding lemon or
orange zest provides subtle flavors. We are using pork in this recipe, but use
this as a master recipe and develop your own favorite preparation.

For four to six servings:

4-5 pounds pork butt or shoulder, in one piece
2 large carrots, sliced
1 large onion coarsely chopped or 3-4 leeks, sliced
1 large stalk of celery, sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced (optional)
2 teaspoons fennel seed (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves or 2 teaspoon dry
2-3 whole peeled garlic cloves (optional)
1 ½ cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock or more as needed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a heavy pot (a covered enameled cast iron pot or
well seasoned Dutch oven with tight fitting lid are ideal), heat a thin film of
olive oil over medium heat. Dry the meat with paper towels and generously salt
and pepper on all sides. Sear the meat on all sides until golden brown; avoid
charring which results in harsh flavors.

Remove the meat and pour off the fat. Film the bottom of the pot with olive oil
and add the garlic and vegetables, stirring briefly. Place the meat among the
vegetables, add herbs, white wine and sufficient stock to bring the liquid to1/3 –
½ of the height of the meat. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover and place into the
oven; if the lid is not tight, place a sheet of aluminum foil across the pot and
place cover over it. Cooking time will be approximately 2 hours, but will vary
with different meats and ovens. Check at 1 hour and turn meat over, adding
more
stock if necessary; the meat will feel firm and is not tender at this time. Check
again in 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Meat is done when it is very tender. Remove the meat and skim the fat off the
sauce. If the sauce is thin, boil it down until it starts to thicken, adding salt and
pepper to taste. If it seems to lack full flavor add a small amount of lemon juice
or wine vinegar, either of which will “brighten” the taste. Serve the meat with
the sauce, along with potatoes and your choice of vegetables and salad. If the
meat was prepared ahead, reheat by bringing the sauce to a simmer on the stove
top, then warm the covered meat with its sauce in a 300 degree oven just until it
is hot.  

This preparation is quite flexible. Timing is not critical, unless cooking
continues well beyond the time the meat is tender, in which case it can become
stringy and dry. Leftovers make a delicious pasta sauce: chop the meat, heat it in
its sauce and serve over a sturdy pasta such as Penne along with grated
Parmesan cheese. Once you are comfortable with braising, you can confidently
vary your recipe
depending on what is available, achieving great results using less expensive
and often overlooked cuts of meat.

About the Author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer’s Market Association and helps run the
Sanbornton Farmers' Market. Along with his wife, Joanne, he grows certified organic
herbs, greens and berries at Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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