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Sunday, February 13, 2011

(Last Night's) Menu : braised pork, polenta, beets

Wine-braised pork with juniper, sage, lavender
Mushroom sage leek polenta
Orange-scented roast beets

So, first of all, there aren't pictures of the process or the finished / plated product - it's only in retrospect that I thought to write this one down.  Retrospect, I say because my wife, mid-dinner, looks up and says "This one's a winner.  You should write it down."  Fair enough, intertubes.  Here goes my simple recipe.  These three are all stupid-easy dishes.

For the beets, I got two golden and two red beets.  These I diced about a quarter-inch cubed, spread out in a single layer in a roasting pan, drizzled with olive oil and salt and baked at 400 until they were fork tender.  At the very end, I drizzled a little Gran Marnier on for a little orange flavor.

For the polenta, I bought some good stone-ground yellow grits and started out by (basically) following the directions : one cup of grits in a pan, covered with water and then drained (to get rid of pieces of bran, I'm told,) then brought to a boil with three cups of water and simmered until thick.  I then added most of a tablespoon of chicken Better-Than-Bouillon (far easier than keeping cans of chicken stock around) and a fair shake of garlic powder - not enough to taste garlicky, but enough to have that flavor hanging around.  Then, I minced and sauteed in light olive oil one leek and about two-thirds of a package of mushrooms.  These were stirred them into the polenta.  By this time, it was starting to pull away from the sides of the pan, so I hit it with some of the wine we were drinking and a little cream, which gave it a nice creaminess and texture.  The cream probably isn't necessary, all things considered, but hey, this was a peri-Valentine's day meal.  Live a little.

Those two were hits.  But the pork was what's up.

I started with the braising liquid - way ahead of schedule to let the herbs and spices open up.  In the bottom of my baking pan (in which the pork would eventually be braised,) I poured just a little of the wine.  The pan I used is a high-sided cylindrical number, in which my pork tenderloins would just barely fit curled up, so that I wouldn't have to pour an entire bottle of wine out just to get a good braise.

The wine in particular was a sauvignon blanc from Chile, which boasted (among others) grapefruit flavor.  Perfect.  Juniper, lavender and citrus is one of my favorite combinations to lay down on pork : to the wine were added sixteen lightly crushed juniper berries and a generous sprinkling of lavender.  Joining these were a couple bay leaves, a couple sage leaves, some black pepper and a couple flakes of crushed red pepper.  Then, they sat - through the making polenta, through the chopping of the beets and the initial preparation of the pork.  The flavors really came open - I kept taking a whiff of the braising liquid as they marinated, just for the aroma.

For the pork, I took two tenderloins, washed and dried them, salted them, and seared them on all sides.  Then, they were curled together in the baking dish on top of the aforementioned juniper, sage, lavender and bay, after which I poured enough sauvignon blanc to come half-to-two-thirds up the meat.  Into the oven they went at 350.  I cooked the meat until it hit 165 degrees (about fifty minutes or so) after which it rested for about fifteen. And then we ate.

Let me tell you - a bowl of savory polenta and tender pork scattered with ethereal beets really hit the spot.

As I mentioned, the combination of juniper, lavender and citrus is one of my absolute favorites on pork of any kind.  Juniper is supposedly able to lend the suggestion of game to any meat, and lavender and sage are herbs that I somehow associate with wild meadows, or the open west.  Something about this pork was just right for February, which in Carolina is ever leaning into the spring.  Moreover, this pork came out of its braise meltingly tender with just a hint of pink and the right balance of flavors.

The polenta could have been a meal unto itself, loaded as it was with sage and tender mushrooms and mild leeks.  (In fact, I plan on making a big batch of polenta and freezing it for breakfasts.)  With the weather still cold and overcast, you need something that sticks right to the ribs, and there's nothing better than rich, creamy polenta.  You could say that this is the rather obvious portion of the meal - not much creativity involved in riffing on mushroom, sage and leek, is there? - but hell.  Why complicate that?

And the beets were the perfect addition.  I hadn't even tasted a cooked beet until about a year and a half ago, when my mother-in-law paired roast beet with roast butternut squash.  As much as an unassuming tuber could be, the beets were a revelation, with their slight sweetness, firm texture and cuttingly earthy flavor.  A meal like this needs some flavor to leaven the richness of the polenta and tender pork, and I usually go for something cruciferous like greens or broccolini.  But in mid-winter, the humble beet is more appropriate, and does a graceful trick with earthiness, a hint of sweetness and a light flavor of orange.

All in all, it was the perfect meal to sit heartily in the winter with an eye open for the coming of the spring.

Roast Beets

four good-sized beets (two golden and two red)
olive oil
(optionally, orange liqueur)

Preheat your oven to 400.  Peel and dice your beets into quarter-inch cubes.  Spread in a single layer on a baking pan (my beets filled a 9x13 comfortably.)  Drizzle with olive oil and salt.  Bake until fork-tender, which should take a good forty five minutes.  At this point, you can also drizzle them with orange liqueur and allow that to evaporate, which lends a nice orange flavor.  Extra credit : some hours before you cook them, dice your beets and put them in a plastic bag, then cover them with olive oil.  Let them marinate for a while before you roast them.

Mushroom, Sage and Leek Polenta

one cup of quality stone-ground grits
water or chicken stock
chicken bouillon, or chicken Better-Than-Bouillon, if you used water

one large leek, split and rinsed of soil
a double handful of whole mushrooms
olive oil
garlic powder or garlic
heavy cream and white wine (optional)

 Put your grits in the saucepan in which you wish to cook them, and cover them with water, then drain them.  Add three cups of water with bouillon or chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the grits thicken up.  After a while you can turn your heat down to low just to keep them warm, but keep an eye on them - they'll eventually firm up to the point that they pull away from the sides of the pan, which is about as dry as you'll like them.  Add some liquid to get them back to creaminess.  Chop your leeks and mushrooms coarsely.  Saute the leeks in a little olive oil until soft and translucent, then add the mushrooms and cook until soft.  Stir these into the polenta.  Add some garlic powder - or, saute some minced garlic until soft and fragrant, and stir into the polenta.  Taste.  Season as needed.

Wine-Braised Pork with Juniper, Lavender, Sage

two pork tenderloins, rinsed and dried
kosher salt
olive oil
sixteen juniper berries, lightly crushed
two bay leaves
some lavender
three leaves of sage
black pepper
crushed red pepper flakes
a bottle of white wine - half to drink, half to braise with
a high-walled baking dish that you can just barely get your pork into

In your baking dish, put the juniper, sage, bay leaves, a generous sprinkle of lavender, a pinch of red pepper and a couple grinds of black pepper, then add enough wine to cover.  Let this sit awhile, so that the flavors will open up and so that you can adjust the balance.  Meanwhile, salt your pork and sear it in hot olive oil on all sides.  When both the pork and the herbs / spices are ready, put your pork in the baking dish and add enough wine to come half-to-two-thirds of the way up the meat.  Bake at 350 degrees until the internal temperature of the meat is 165 degrees.  Remove from the oven, remove the pork from the liquid to a plate, and let rest for fifteen minutes before slicing.

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