The past couple of weeks, South Holland experienced a welcomed streak of heat and sunshine. Almost all of the month of April was filled with sunny days and you couldn't go out the door without your sunglasses and a considerable cut down on clothing layers. No more jackets with extra padding for warmth retention, no more scarves. There was not a cloud in sight. I was honestly dumbfounded. I could actually take some decent photographs of my food with all that natural light.
The Dutch were happy with a capital H. Sunshine is an event here. They swarmed to the nearest parks and public gardens to sunbathe and play games. Many of my Dutch neighbors were exhibiting most of their body parts- some I needn't see- to the sun, taking out into their backyards and balconies their lounge chairs and calling friends over to enjoy a sun-filled afternoon and share a couple of drinks. Paired with Queen's Day last Friday, which is a national holiday here in The Netherlands, the Dutch were walking on air.
So, right when I thought that spring was here to stay, a sudden wave of heavy rain and cold weather came to prove me and everyone else wrong and to remind me that I'm now living in northern and not southern Europe. Ok, ok, I get it! Sudden weather changes are the norm around here. Since last weekend, storms are raging, winds are howling, temperature has dropped by 10 or more degrees Celsius and I had to put my flip flops back in storage and take out, once again, my sheepskin boots.
All this came just as I was starting to daydream of foreign, exotic places and just as I was starting to get cravings for spring-summery food, like avocado and grilled turkey salads or seafood linguine. It will be a while before I make these dishes. My cravings have just shifted to more weather-appropriate food. And what's more appropriate for cold weather than a stew?
I had so many recipes for meat stews to choose from. Greeks adore stews. Chicken, veal, pork, goat, lamb stews are being cooked every single week of the year, all year round. They're not confined to "winter eating". They are an integral part of the Greek diet and there is a multitude of ways to prepare them. But my choice was not a Greek stew, although many such recipes will be coming later on, I promise. I went with something slightly different; a pork stew with dried fruit and dark beer.
The first time I made this stew I was completely taken by its unique flavor and the richness of its sauce. Bite-sized pieces of pork are first nicely browned in a Dutch-oven on a stove top, in a mixture of olive oil and butter. Then the onions and woody garlic are sautéed in the meat juices until they become soft and then you simply add the rest of the ingredients, like dried fruit, dark beer and Dijon mustard in the pan and put it straight into the oven for an hour and a half or so. It's so simple, so easy, such an unassuming dish but with such an intense flavor.
The sweet dried apricots and prunes along with the apple jelly, give a sweet, fruity taste to the pork and the sharp Dijon mustard and bitter dark beer provide some delicate sour notes to render a balance of flavors. The aromatic cinnamon and pungent ground coriander add depth and a hint of spice to the dish, making it extremely fragrant. The meat is tender and succulent and the sauce is dense and glossy; impossible to resist.
There are several side dishes with which to serve this stew. Fluffy mashed potatoes is one of them and it's a delicious choice. Serve the stew with lots of sauce, mashed potatoes on the side, and make sure you have plenty of warm, crusty bread around to mop up all the lovely, tasty juices.
Slightly reminiscent of Asian recipes, this dish pairs perfectly with jasmine rice or brown rice. Jasmine rice, which is Thai rice, gives an exotic touch to the dish and its nutty aroma complements the sweetness of the pork. Serve the stew on top, not with a lot of juices though so that the rice can retain its granular texture.
Another option is to serve it with French fries or even potatoes boiled in water, a splash of olive oil and a little salt and pepper.
An assortment of fresh green leaves would make the best choice for a salad to accompany each of the aforementioned dishes.
Accompany this stew with the same beer that you used to cook the pork with or, if you prefer wine, with a chilled bottle of fruity Chardonnay. The beer I used was Grimbergen, a double beer that is brewed in Belgium for the last 882 years. It is a full-bodied beer with a dark, burgundy color and a strong malt flavor with a spicy finish that really complements the fruitiness of the stew. Brown Leffe is another excellent option. You can of course use any other kind of dark beer or ale you prefer.
Pork Stew with Dried Fruit and Dark Beer
Adapted from epicurious
As with every other recipe, I changed this one a bit also. Altered and adjusted quantities, substituted ingredients for better results, added my own little touches.
I'm very particular about my meat. I prefer lean cuts, without a whole lot of fat on them, even for stews. The original recipe calls for pork shoulder but I opted for pork fillet with a fair amount of fat on it to give it some extra taste and to keep it tender. You can use pork shoulder if you wish although it doesn't make a huge difference in my opinion.
I used apple jelly that I made about a month ago but apple jam will work as well. Jellies are made from the juice of fruit only whereas jams are made using the whole fruit, often with seeds left in them. So if you use jam, just avoid adding whole chunks of apple to the stew.
Yield: 4-5 servings
1 kg pork fillet*, cut into small cubes (3 x 3 cm)
2 medium-sized onions, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, minced
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 heaped Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
350 ml dark beer or ale
1 1/2 Tbsp apple jelly or jam
450 ml chicken stock
3/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
100 g dried apricots, chopped (plus extra for garnish optional)
100 g dried, pitted prunes, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Parsley, chopped, for sprinkling over the dish (optional)
Special equipment: a large Dutch-oven**
Preheat your oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
Put butter and olive oil in a Dutch-oven and heat over medium-high heat. When the butter melts, add enough pork pieces to cover 2/3 of the bottom of the pan (do not crowd the pan, otherwise the pork will get stewed rather than browned) and cook them, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until they brown on all sides. Remove them from the pan with the help of a slotted spoon and keep them in a bowl. Add a second batch of pork pieces to the pan and repeat the same process until all 1 kg of pork has been nicely browned. Leave bowl with browned pork pieces aside.
Add the chopped onions and garlic to the same pan and sauté them, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until they become soft and take on a light golden color.
Add the flour to the onions and garlic and stir for 3 minutes.
Pour in the chicken stock and dark beer and add the Dijon mustard, apple jelly, cinnamon, coriander, salt and pepper. Stir everything around until mustard, apple jelly and flour have dissolved and bring mixture to the boil.
Then return pork pieces back to the pan along with any cooking juices collected in the bowl.
Stir in the chopped dried apricots and prunes, cover Dutch-oven and put it on the lower rack of the oven.
Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes and then remove the lid and bake for a further 20 minutes, until pork is tender and excess liquid has evaporated, leaving you with a rich sauce.
Remove pan from the oven and check the seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if needed.
Serve stew along with your desired side dish, sprinkling some parsley on top (optional).
You can also finely chop some dried apricots and sprinkle them all over the dish to make it more colorful (optional).
The stew is delicious when served straight out of the oven but keep in mind that it has a deeper, fuller flavor the following day.
* Don't trim the fat off the fillet.
**In case you don't have a Dutch-oven (the one I have is also called a French-oven), which is a pan that can be used both on the stove top and in the oven, you will either need a pan with similar qualities or you can first use a large enough pan to brown the pork and mix all the ingredients in, and then transfer everything to a casserole/pot/stoneware-bakeware with a lid that can go in the oven.