Although we did have one day of warmer weather, it appears that snow is settling into our vicinity here in the next couple days. When better to eat some nice, slowly braised meat? Here's a couple that we did this weekend, unfortunately I don't have many pictures, but I'll work on some for you.
Beer braised pork and sweet potatoes, adapted from Boulud's Braise
3-4 pound pork shoulder
three red onions
two large sweet potatoes, peeled, rough dice
two bottles of Guinness or equivalent dark beer
one third cup of balsamic vinegar
1 cup of dried cherries, or one can of whole berry cranberry sauce
four cloves of garlic, minced
5 crushed allspice berries
2 bay leaves
Like everything, start with good meat, season with salt and pepper, and brown well in your 5-6 quart Dutch oven. Drain out all but a couple of tablespoons of the fat, and cook the onions. Granted, this is a bunch of onions, but you'll see later on how they contribute. While you're doing all this, in a medium saucepan, add the two bottles of beer, balsamic vinegar, and a cup of dried cherries. Actually, I didn't have dried cherries, so I used a can of whole berry cranberry sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce by half. Ever made gumbo? Stay tuned, that's next. It's a similar concept to setting up your braising liquid. Add the minced garlic, being careful that you don't burn it. Once this concoction has reduced down to about a third of its original volume, and the onions are translucent, returns a unique to the pot. Add the allspice berries, bay leaves, reduced beer/vinegar/berry, and just enough water to cover the meat. Throw in about half a cup of brown sugar, sealed the Dutch oven with foil and cover. Put in the oven at 300, 275 convection, or slow simmer on the stovetop. Your choice. After an hour, and the sweet potatoes, and let it go another 2-3 hours. Turn the pork a couple of times while you're cooking. Serve with fresh baguette if you have it. I don't really know the inspiration of this dish, but it sounds almost Irish if you asked me. Be prepared, it is a little bit sweet so cut it with a dry wine.
Alton Brown's Shrimp Gumbo
Where do you begin? I hesitated even trying to learn how to make Cajun food, but it seems a natural transition from some French style vittles to nice hearty stews that you might make during the winter season to Gumbo and Etouffee. I also became intrigued after watching one of his shows and seeing how he made things. I think the key to this whole dish is the Roux, and this is not a step to skimp on.
As I see it, the basics of gumbo are reducing a seafood stock with sherry while you work on the roux. I've seen a lot of different ways to make the roux, and I'll give you a couple of different ways I've seen it work.
equal parts fat and flour. Sounds simple doesn't it? Not so fast. Equal parts by volume? Or equal parts by weight? Depends on who you believe. Alton says to do it by weight, other people say to do it by volume. Next question: Olive oil or butter? Big Kevin in New Orleans says butter, many other people say olive oil. Take your pick. I think the easiest way to do this is to start with 1 cup of flour and add oil until the consistency is that of sour cream or just a little bit thinner. The other thing you can do is add 1 cup of flour to one half cup of oil, and whisk together over medium heat. The other alternative is to bake the roux over 90 minutes. This turns into a nice blonde roux, but doesn't really make it that dark. I say go for the consistency model on the stovetop, and increase the heat so you have little bubbles throughout the whole thing. If it starts to brown too quickly, drop the heat. I prefer to do this (as I do just about everything else) in my oval Dutch oven, but it might work better in a round one, as that might distribute heat from a round eye better. Keep browning the roux until it starts to turn a little to brown. This really does take some practice to get it right because it can easily burn and if you burn it, it ruins the whole dish.
Besides the roux, the other reason that gumbo tastes different in New Orleans is because they have fresher seafood to make stock with. Keep in mind, you're making a basic shrimp stock or crab stock by using shells (you know this, right? It's skeletal structure, cartilage, and connective tissue that make good stock. Not meat). If you're going to use shrimp, then you want a pound and a half or two of shrimp in the shells with the heads on. Peel the shrimp, save the heads, throw that into your stockpot. Add 1 cup of sherry (not cooking sherry, real sherry. It's not that much more, and the other stuff is undrinkable), boil, and reduce by half (sound familiar?).
Magically make your roux and stock finish at the same time. Dunno how to tell you to do that. Good luck.
Trinity: 2 parts onion, 1 part green bell pepper, 1 part celery
Minced garlic 2-3 cloves
Throw this into the mix, soak up that roux. Be careful, though, turn the heat down so you don't burn the roux while you're doing it. Slowly add the stock in a little bit at a time. Add 2 bay leaves, some thyme, a little bit of cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper and bring it a hot simmer. Add 1/2 pound of browned Andouille (or equivalent) sausage. Let it go for about 15 minutes or so. Add the shrimp, 1.5 pounds peeled give or take. Wait until the shrimp are cooked.
Finish the dish with either okra (which you might have added around the time you added the sausage) or gumbo file' (sassafrass powder) for thickening. For file' powder, it's somewhere around 1-2 tbsp that you put in at the end as you're taking it off heat.
The pitfalls for me were several. The first batch added too much sausage, and was a little too meaty that way. It's shrimp gumbo, not sausage gumbo. Also, the sausage can be a little hard to deal with if the lining is touch. Ideally, you want to dice the sausage in quarters. Don't cut it in rounds, or the skin will shrink on it, making it unsightly.
Notice that a lot of the measurements are estimates. I think that's an essential part of making a good stew like this. It may not ever come out the same way twice, and that's part of the mystique. You can use different meats if you want, different stocks will make it different, different liqueurs or fortified wines. I will say that it's a lot different from braising meats, because the meat in this is fast cook stuff, or thrown in to poach in the brew after being browned. You have to babysit this one a little bit more, particularly the roux. Oh, and serve over white rice with baguette on the side. I defer to anyone else's expertise in this, but I thought it was interesting to talk about it. Of course, the Mardi Gras season has passed, but crawfish season is coming.