An inexpensive pork roast, seasoned with fresh garlic and Chinese five-spice powder and braised on a bed of apples, onions and apple cider until falling-apart tender, becomes an impressive, company-worthy dinner. Recipe below.
I love pigs. If you’re going to eat meat—and I am—you should honor the animal by preparing it well and making sure nothing goes to waste. That’s the core philosophy of nose to tail eating. Can you think of a creature more completely, creatively and deliciously suited this approach? Chops, ribs, roasts, ham, bacon, a whole world of sausages and charcuterie come from pigs.
Our current infatuation with all things charcuterie led us to a recent dinner at Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. And that led to this recipe. Rootstock’s liquid-centric wine & beer handle belies an equally thoughtful focus on food. Executive Chef Remy Ayesh supports “local farmers, hormone-free meats and seasonal produce as often as possible” to deliver a small but intensely varied menu of “bar plates, greens, crusts, cheese and charcuterie.” She also offers “more plates,” which include one of the best burgers I’ve tasted in a while and braised pork shoulder on a pickled plum and carrot purée. One bite of the tender, heavenly meat and I knew I would be attempting a pork roast soon.
Oven braising is a great way to turn tough but flavorful, inexpensive cuts of meat into soul-satisfying meals. Think of chunky stews and stick-to-your-ribs pot roasts and other hearty fall and winter favorites that warm our kitchens and fill our houses with earthy aromas as they slowly cook, making us mind cold weather less.
The inexpensive cut I chose was a Boston butt roast. Despite its name, the Boston butt actually comes from the upper shoulder of the hog. So why the seeming misnomer? According to the National Pork Board [thanks, Ochef], in pre-revolutionary New England and into the Revolutionary War, some lesser pork cuts were packed into casks or barrels, also known as “butts,” for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as “Boston Butt.” The name is still used throughout the US today—except in Boston, apparently.
The Boston butt is a moderately tough cut of meat with a good deal of connective tissue that gets broken down by the slow cooking process. It is also marbled with fat and in fact usually has a thin layer of fat on one side. This fat essentially bastes the roast during cooking, making it juicy, flavorful and tender. You can also use a pork shoulder for this recipe, preferably the arm picnic cut.
Apple/Onion Compote. According to Cookthink.com, “compote comes from the French verb compoter, which means to cook something gently until it breaks down and reduces into a babyfood-like purée.” Compotes are often mostly fruits, sugar and water, made to be spooned over ice cream or other dessert dishes. There are savory compotes too, though—caramelized onion-fennel jam to smear on toasted bread is a popular one. This compote, made of apples, onions and apple cider, has a natural sweetness that complements pork beautifully.
And it did just that with this braised pork dish. The five-spice rub gave the meat a subtle, mysterious depth without any obvious Asian overtones. Forgive me an immodest moment, but this roast was good. Company good. In fact, as we were eating our first bites, Marion said that if she’d been served this dish in a restaurant, she’d be quite happy with it. To us, restaurant good is about as good as it gets.
It’s also brainlessly simple. Minimal prep time and then you just wait for it to marinate and then to roast. And yeah, it’s worth the wait.
Braised Pork Roast with Five-Spice Rub and Apple/Onion Compote
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Adapted from a Gourmet magazine recipe
1 4-pound bone-in Boston butt pork roast
1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 garlic cloves, cut into slivers [about 6 per clove]
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
3 medium apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped [see Kitchen Notes]
3/4 cup unfiltered apple cider [see Kitchen Notes]
Score fat and any skin on pork in a crosshatch pattern. Sprinkle five-spice powder liberally over all sides of the roast [I used a small strainer, tapping it with a knife to evenly coat the roast]. Rub five-spice powder into the meat. Make slits all over meat with a small sharp knife and insert a garlic sliver in each slit. Place roast in a covered dish or wrap in plastic and marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 325°F. Season pork with salt and pepper.
Heat a large, heavy nonstick skillet over moderately high heat. Add oil and brown meat on all sides, turning occasionally with the aid of tongs and a carving fork, about 10 minutes [see Kitchen Notes]. Transfer pork to a plate.
Add onions to pan and sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and starting to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add apples and 1/2 teaspoon salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes more.
Stir in cider, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer apple/onion mixture to a dutch oven or heavy lidded pot large enough to hold the roast. Add roast and any accumulated juices to the pot.
Cover pot with a tight-fitting lid and braise pork in middle of oven until very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The roast can be prepared 1 day ahead up to this point—see Kitchen Notes for details.
Transfer pork to a cutting board with the aid of tongs and carving fork and let rest for about 5 minutes. Transfer apple/onion mixture to a serving dish, using a slotted spoon to strain off excess liquid and rendered fat. By now, the onions and apples will have pretty much fallen apart, taking on the consistency of chunky applesauce. Adjust seasoning, slice pork and serve.
Apples, apple cider. Ideally, you want nice, tart cooking apples. I still had some Russet apples left over from my grilled cheese adventures, so I used those. Granny Smiths would also be good. For the cider, unfiltered is best. It’s the “cloudy” cider, the equivalent of orange juice with lots of pulp. Clear apple cider will work too. In a pinch, you can even use apple juice, but make sure there are no added sugars. The apples and onions will add plenty of sweetness to the compote.
Browning the meat. Usually when you’re braising or roasting something in a dutch oven—or in our case, our beautiful, blue, oval Staub Cocotte—you brown the meat in the pot it will braise in. But not when you’re wrestling with four pounds of meat with a carving fork and tongs. I can’t think of a better recipe for burned wrists than attempting this in the confined space of a hot, high-sided pot. Use a skillet to brown the meat. Trust me.
Make ahead. You can make this dish 1 day ahead. If you plan to do so, cook it for just 2-1/2 hours the first day. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered. I did this and was able to skim off some off the solidified fat before reheating it. Reheat roast in its apple/onion mixture, covered, at 325°F for about 45 minutes.
Oh, and one more example of pork’s nose to tail versatility. Our dessert at Rootstock was bacon toffee. Seriously good.