There is something about Fall and food that goes together perfectly. As soon as the leaves begin to change colors and the air begins to crisp, I start craving all things pumpkin, apples, and other October produce. The only catch is, it’s actually 90 degrees- still- in Las Vegas. It sort of ruins the whole sweaters, boots, and pumpkins vibe that I dream about in the Fall. The good news is, hot weather be damned, the farmer’s market hasn’t let me down. Pears, apples, and brussel sprouts have begun popping up, even though our Fall still resembles a fairly hot midwest summer. So to get into the spirit of pseudo-Fall, I decided that I was craving a classic pork and apples dish. There was just a matter of buying some pork and finding a recipe to go with it.
Picnic pork is a cut of meat that is perfect for slow roasting
In an effort to try new cuts of meat while also shopping economically, I decided to buy the cut of pork that was on special for the week at WinCo. I admit the special on “picnic pork” caught my eye because it made me picture a wicker basket packed with a beautiful pork roast served outside in a park with a bottle of wine. Imagine my surprise when I learned that picnic pork is an actual cut of meat and not a recommended serving location. More specifically, it refers to the “picnic shoulder” which is similar to pork butt. I have a confession- I have always thought pork butt comes from…well, a pig’s bottom. As it turns out, the pork butt is a cut of the shoulder that is thick with a large degree of marbling. It is the preferred cut for making shredded pork. The picnic cut is the cut of the shoulder that is leaner and has more connective tissue. Both cuts require a long cooking time to achieve tenderness, and are recommended for stews and roasts. A picnic cut can be easily substituted for pork butt and vice versa in most recipes.
Once I purchased my picnic pork, I had to figure out something to do with it.
One of my favorite food blogs is the Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. This cattle rancher’s wife turned power food blogger and Food Network star always has tasty, down home style recipes, along with super helpful photos. I don’t follow her blog on a regular basis, but whenever I Google for recipe ideas, her blog always seems to come up. Thus, when I searched for “pork and apple recipes,” I found her recipe for Pork Roast with Apples.
After seasoning my pork with salt and pepper, I heated up some olive oil and browned both roasts in a pot on all sides. Ever wondered why it is important to brown meat that you are just going to cook for hours on low heat? When you sear the meat’s surface, the caramelization process occurs. The brown crust actually adds a nutty flavor, that is difficult to explain, but will leave your dish missing something if you skip the step. I used to worry about burning the meat, and would keep the heat on low because I didn’t want to mess it up. Newbie cooks don’t worry- the heat needs to be on high to get the desired result, and it is harder to burn than you think. You’ll know when the meat is properly seared once it no longer sticks to the pan. If it sticks a little bit don’t worry. You can deglaze the pan later with a little bit of liquid.
While my meat was browning, I chopped up a couple of apples. I sort of wish I had peeled them, as the peels don’t disintegrate down, and in my final dish, I had long strips of peel on my plate. If this doesn’t bother you, don’t worry about peeling them. But next time- I’ll peel my apples.
From here, I veered a little off course from Ree’s recipe. Instead of apple juice, I poured a cup or two (or three) of brandy in with the pork. Partially because I thought brandy and apples sounded like a good combination. Partially because I had a bottle of brandy left over from a different recipe and needed to use it up. Either way, it deglazed the pan nicely. I also added 3-4 cups of chicken stock (I had some homemade chicken stock in the fridge) a bay leaf, and a few tablespoons of lavender. I added lavender because I bought some from the farmer’s market a few weeks ago, and wasn’t really sure how to use it, so I have been trying it with everything. Pork and lavender? It sounded like it could work. Rosemary probably would have worked too.
While I let the whole mess of pork, apples, brandy, and chicken stock heat up to a simmer, I got to work caramelizing some onions. I used red onions because I think they are prettiest.
If you have never caramelized onions before, this is what you must know. They take a long time. Like, far longer than you think it will take to cook an onion. Onions have natural sugars in them, and when you cook them slowly in a fat (like olive oil, butter, or some combination) over relatively low heat, the natural sugars will brown and caramelize. Just like when you sear meat, that caramelized flavor adds depth to your final dish. If you plan to caramelize your onions, plan on them taking a little less than an hour.
I started my onions after I already had my pork simmering on the stove. Here is where I think I made a huge mistake. HUGE. Ree’s recipe had me dump in the onions with my pork. Which, in hindsight I realized, completely defeated the purpose of caramelizing my onions and I lost a lot of flavor. Next time, I would brown my meat, remove it, saute a yellow onion for 5 minutes, and return my meat to the pan. Then I would save my caramelized onions for the end and serve them over the pork, so I could get the most out of the hour I devoted to caramelizing onions. Sigh. Next time.
What I did instead, was dump all of those onions right into the pot with my pork, apples, and liquid.
Brown rice is a large part of my diet. When in doubt, I serve things with rice. With this, I decided to mix things up and add a little more nutrition to my meal. Instead of serving the pork with wild rice the way Ree recommended, I shredded a red cabbage and added that to my pot.
From this point, it was just a matter of waiting. Do the dishes. Pour some wine. Watch some television. Since the shoulder cut isn’t very fatty, you’ve got at least 2 to 2.5 hours to wait until your pork is done. But when it is done….oooooh, it is going to be so tender!
And there is the final product. It may look like a pile of beigeness, but the combination of sweet apples and tender pork is amazing. The red cabbage also gives it an extra influx of nutrition. All in all, it is a perfectly complete meal that is great for an October day..even if it is October in the desert. The only thing I would change would be a big pile of caramelized onions on top. But there’s always next time.