My chef muse for the last couple of months has undoubtedly been Mario Batali. I have been watching reruns of his old show Molto Mario on the Cooking Channel (NOT Food Network, mind you). His style is sophisticated yet simple and speaks to me as a cook - and admittedly I tend to mix in Jamie Oliver's flair for rustic cooking as well. A month or so ago, I made a great braised pork shoulder from one of Mario's recipes (a la "The Black Rooster"). Last night, I ran with it and did my own thing.
I had a 5 -6 pound piece of pork shoulder all ready to go. However because I was braising it and not roasting it, I cut off the skin. When I roast a pork shoulder, I leave that skin on so it gets all crispy and cracklin'! I decided I wanted a tomato-based braising liquid, and then it was just a matter of figuring out the rest of the flavor profile of the dish.
If I'm making a tomato-based sauce (specifically a marinara or pasta sauce), there is nothing sexier than pairing carrot with the tomato. I always either shred or chop up some carrot for a tomato sauce - it adds such a wonderful root vegetable sweetness. So carrot was on the menu. And then I had a moment of Mario inspiration and grabbed some fennel (widely used in regions of Italy - something I didn't know until watching those reruns of Molto Mario). I used both the entire bulb and a good portion of the fennel frond in the dish, and reserved some of the frond to sprinkle over the dish at the end.
And an homage to the dish I made a month ago, I grabbed some smoked bacon and sage. The whole thing was going to be rounded out with an onion, some garlic, and peeled, canned tomatoes. It turned out great - perfectly warm, rich and comforting for a Sunday evening.
1 4-6 pound pork shoulder, whole, skin removed
3-4 thick slices smoked bacon (pancetta would have worked perfectly!), chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
Salt & Pepper
1 bulb fennel (bulb chopped, fronds shredded by hand)
1 white onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 bunch parsley, roughly chopped
8 sage leaves, roughly torn by hand
1 can whole, peeled tomatoes in sauce/puree
2 cups basic tomato sauce
1 large pinch red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons good vinegar (I actually used Apple Cider and it was great, White Wine would work good)
Heat up 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a dutch oven (or your favorite pot with a lid) - a relatively high heat works good. Throw in the chopped bacon and let the fat render off until the bacon begins to get crispy. Toss in the garlic and stir around so that all the oil & fat gets flavored appropriately. Just as the garlic begins to brown slightly, it's time to brown the meat. Make sure you have seasoned the pork shoulder with salt & pepper on both sides, then into the fire. Sear it - don't be afraid of the heat - it should be golden brown on each side to ensure the best flavor at the end. Once browned, remove the pork and set aside.
Lower to medium-high heat, and if necessary, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and then toss in the chopped fennel bulb, onion and carrot. Sprinkle with salt to start them all breaking down, stirring off an on for about 5-6 minutes. They should begin to soften, at this point, throw in the sage, fennel frond and parsley (leave 1/4 fennel frond & parsley for garnish at the end). Make sure everything is incorporated, and then add the tomatoes - squeeze each one by hand and roughly tear it apart before dropping into the pot. Pour in the sauce from the canned tomatoes, and add the 2 cups of basic tomato sauce (always a good idea to season whenever you add tomatoes - salt is such a good friend to tomatoes!). Add the red pepper flakes and vinegar, and bring to a bubble.
Once the tomato mixture is bubbling, put the pork back into the dish. Make sure to push it down in so that the liquid is nearly covering it - if there isn't enough liquid, you can either add more tomato sauce or some water. Lower the temperature, put the lid on, and let it cook for 2 hours. I did turn my pork once at the hour mark, but that isn't absolutely necessary.
After 2 hours of cooking, pull out the meat (mine came apart wonderfully). Pile the meat into the center of the plate, and then spoon the tomato mixture with all the vegetables all around it. Sprinkle with fennel fronds and parsley, and splash a little bit of olive oil over the top and serve.